History of Opera in Rochester

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Rochester has a rich cultural heritage with an excellent, nationally-ranked symphony orchestra, a successful professional theater, a growing professional dance company, and a world renowned music school. Rochester also has a long history of support and enthusiasm for opera. The result is that many opera performance groups and support organizations have evolved in the course of Rochester’s musical history.

Die Fledermaus

Opera Theatre of Rochester was founded in 1962 by the indomitable Ruth Rosenberg. After its inaugural season, Opera Theatre of Rochester performed three opera productions every season, all locally produced. Principal singers, directors, and conductors were primarily flown in to Rochester from New York City for a rehearsal period of about three weeks prior to the single performance of each opera. The supporting roles, chorus, backstage crew, and company staff consisted of local professional and non-professionals. Performances were in the Eastman Theatre, accompanied by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra.

Over its 30-plus years of existence, Opera Theatre of Rochester had developed a reputation for very high quality regional opera. Rosenberg, a dynamo in her own right and woman of many varied talents, kept a firm hand on all expenses, raised money to support the company, and shrewdly cast all roles, frequently hiring a singer for a performance in 2-3 years for a minimal fee, only to have that singer be “discovered” and made famous in the interim prior to their appearance here. After her death in 1988 the company struggled without consistent leadership until Glenn West was hired as Executive Director in the early 1990s. Performances of some locally produced operas resumed and were supplemented by opera touring companies, and the schedule of several operas per season returned. A support organization, the Opera Theatre Guild of Rochester, was formed in 1992 with the guidance of Haskell Rosenberg (not a relative of Ruth Rosenberg), who was the Guild’s first President.

Suor Angelica

During this time, student opera productions were also being performed first by Eastman Opera Workshop and later by Eastman Opera Theatre at the Eastman School of Music, initially under the direction of Leonard Treash who joined the faculty in 1947. With support from the Eastman School of Music, the City of Rochester and later additionally Monroe County, Treash founded and directed Opera Under the Stars in 1953, producing operas during the summer months at Highland Bowl in the City's Highland Park. The operas were presented to the public without charge, and audiences of five thousand or more were frequent. Members of the Eastman faculty and the Philharmonic and Civic Orchestras constituted the accompanying orchestra. Among the soloists were students and, more frequently, alumni of Eastman's opera department. Two performances of each opera were scheduled; if rained out one night, the opera was postponed to the next. Opera Under the Stars performed three productions every summer until an unfortunate accident and ensuing subsequent liability claims forced the end of operations in 1976. Many Rochesterians remember fondly their first opera under the night sky at Highland Bowl.

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