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09.17.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Tom Sturges MAGIC TIME: Four shots from 1984's 'The Magic Flute' show Opera San JosÚ at work in its first production.

Silver Memories

Founder Irene Dalis recalls the long path that led to 25 years of vocal magic at Opera San JosÚ

By Scott MacClelland


SERENDIPITOUS pearls of good luck propelled Opera San JosÚ's founder, Irene Dalis, down a career path she never planned for: opera star in the major houses of Europe and America. "I never wanted to be an opera singer," Dalis told me in a recent interview as the company prepares for a gala concert celebrating its 25th year.

Instead, Yvonne Dalis, as she was known here at home, became an accomplished pianist and fully expected to become a public school music teacher in Santa Clara Valley, which, in those days, had an outstanding music program. Crediting an older sister as her first piano teacher, Dalis says, "I was a pianist first, but I also sang in the madrigal groups," among other school choirs.

Convinced of her singing talent, the same older sister persuaded the family to pay for Yvonne's pursuit of a master's degree in New York after she graduated from San Jose State. She had been advised to seek out the top "vocal technicians" specifically, and began a rigorous lesson schedule with the demanding Edith Walker. At the time, Dalis admits, "I had no idea how important that was."

She continues, "The real turning point was a class in vocal pedagogy." The instructor, Harry Wilson, had each person in a class of 75 sing a phrase from "Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes." "At my turn, he stopped in front of me," she says, then later told her she possessed a unique sound, "a career voice."

"But I have a job waiting for me in San Jose," she protested, which was to be assistant supervisor of music in the Santa Clara County public schools. "Not if she were my baby," Wilson announced to Dalis' mother. The Dalis family redoubled its financial commitment to her career.

The next stroke of good luck came when Dalis beat the competition vying for a Fulbright scholarship that sent her to Milan to study at the Giuseppe Verdi conservatory. There, she discovered to her dismay that famous singers are not necessarily great teachers. During a German language lesson, she broke down in tears of frustration, and the professor recommended Dr. Otto Mueller, also in Milan, for private lessons, which resulted in her next big opportunity.

"I was the first and last student every day, five days a week," she recalls, adding that after the last lesson every evening she would listen to Mueller's recordings of great singers from the past. Then, "as luck would have it," Mueller's close friend Roberto Bauer was hired as impresario for the Metropolitan Opera, headed by Rudolf Bing.

Bauer "had heard me every day," she says, then told her, "You should sing for Bing." Soon enough, Bing was in town for auditions. On the spot, he wanted to bring Dalis to the Met for A´da. But Mueller said no, not for at least four more years of training. "Bing wanted me to sing Adalgisa opposite [Maria] Callas' Norma," Dalis sighs, "and he thought Yvonne made me sound like a French ballerina," proposing Irene as a better fit with her Greek surname.

Dalis first appeared onstage as a company resident at the Oldenburg Staatsoper, where, for two years, she learned and performed 10 roles. She then became a leading mezzo-soprano at the Deutsche Oper Berlin and at last made her Met debut as Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlos on March 16, 1957. For the next two decades, she was a leading diva there—and at other major houses—and a familiar voice on countless Saturday Met broadcasts.

Her stage career ended with a Met production of Puccini's Il trittico, which includes the one-act comedy Gianni Schicchi. "I always planned to retire at 50," she explains. Returning home, she was immediately pursued by the president of her alma mater, San Jose State, and accepted an appointment, but without knowing exactly what to do. "I wouldn't teach voice," she says. "I don't have that talent," adding, "My biggest peeve is people teaching voice who ruin voices."

At SJSU, she soon found herself running the opera workshop along with David Rohrbaugh. Singers started coming out of the woodwork. "We had no money," she says, "nothing but voices." A local tenor and choral director, Larry Hancock, then joined the team, which led to the staging of Gianni Schicchi and Stanley Hollingsworth's The Mother at Independence High School, with a reprise at the Center for the Performing Arts. Though obviously making a mark, the team soon realized that the SJSU workshop approach was both unwieldy and uneconomic. "I remembered my time at Oldenburg," Dalis says, "and that was the real seed."

Opera San JosÚ was born as an independent resident company modeled on the smaller European resident companies, like Oldenburg, that give their professional singers crucially important stage experience. Over the last quarter-century, and as company music director, Rohrbaugh has conducted more than 60 OSJ productions. Hancock, who has done every job at OSJ, is now general manager. From the start, the project began to attract financial support, including an influential California Arts Council grant.

Reflecting on the company's history, Hancock recalls, "There were two grant awards that indicated our worth to the region and to the nation." They were the L.J. Skaggs and Mary C. Skaggs Foundation's Institutional Stabilization Grant awarded in 1987, and the National Endowment for the Arts' Advancement Grant awarded in 1992. While both offered serious money, "more importantly each gave us a year of advice and training by nationally recognized consultants, who worked with us in mission/artistic vision, long-range planning, marketing, and more," he says, providing the company with a stable artistic and financial foundation.

Among Hancock's most personally meaningful artistic achievements, he cites several "first-time" productions, as well as Of Mice and Men in 1997, Falstaff in 2001 and The Flying Dutchman of 2004 during the opening season at the California Theatre.

Four world premieres also get his nod: Alva Henderson's West of Washington Square, Henry Mollicone's Hotel Eden, George Rousmanis' Phaedra and Craig Bohmler's The Tale of the Nutcracker. He is especially proud of OSJ's educational projects, the Let's Make an Opera program and bringing students to free matinee performances, which now, he beams, "are date-night events for high school students."

Founder and general director Dalis believes that everything in her life led up to creating Opera San JosÚ. "I love doing this. It's my life, I eat, drink and sleep OSJ," she says with great enthusiasm. While she takes pride that the company has never carried a deficit, last year gave her a real scare, and she wrote an appeal. "The response convinced me that we are meeting a need." Even the orchestra members wrote out personal checks. "I was overwhelmed," she declares with no small sense of relief.


OPERA SAN JOS╔'s 25th anniversary dinner at the Fairmont Hotel (5pm) and concert at the California Theatre (8pm) take place Saturday (Sept. 20). See www.operasj.org for ticket details.


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