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History of Opera at Juilliard

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Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by Nan Melville)
Mozart's Don Giovanni (Photo by Nan Melville)

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Opera didn’t always have a place at Juilliard.  In 1905, when the School was founded as the Institute of Musical Art, solo voice study comprised the entire vocal curriculum, and only opera scenes were performed.  In 1929, once a second, well-endowed ‘Juilliard Graduate School’ had merged and begun to overtake the Institute, opera was introduced; the first performance was of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

An opera department was created the following year under the auspices of John Erskine, President of both schools, and Ernest Hutcheson, Dean of the Juilliard Graduate School.  Albert Stoessel, a respected orchestral and choral conductor, was appointed head of the new department and remained director until his death in 1943.  Between 1943 and 1947, Wilfred Pelletier, Edgar Schenkman, and Alfredo Valenti guided the program through its ambitious schedule.  During those first 18 years, Juilliard staged 31 productions; 23 were from the pre-Classical, Classical, and Romantic opera repertoire, and 15 were contemporary works, including world premieres by George Antheil and Robert Russell Bennett.  Handel’s Julius Caesar and Xerxes received their New York premieres at Juilliard, and it was only the second time they had been performed in the United States.

When William Schuman became President of Juilliard in 1945, he elevated the status of the opera program, changing its name to the Juilliard Opera Theater.  He appointed Frederic Cohen, an experienced conductor and director, co-founder and artistic director of the Jooss Ballet, as its first director. Assisting Mr. Cohen were Frederic Waldman as associate director; Frederick Kiesler as scenic director; and Elsa Kahl as instructor in musical acting.  The faculty included an expanded and almost legendary staff of coaches, accompanists, and diction teachers: Catherine Aspinall, Lucia Dunham, Eva Evans, Marion Szekely-Freschl, Serguis Kagen, Florence Kimball, Edith Piper, Dolf Seing, Belle Sondant, and Bernard Taylor.

The Juilliard Opera Theater’s first six years included productions of the double bill: Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Milhaud’s Le pauvre matelot, presented as a double bill; Verdi’s Falstaff; and Stravinsky’s Mavra.  In 1952, Milhaud’s Robin and Marion was presented as Juilliard’s first commissioned opera.   Mr. Cohen remained director of the Juilliard Opera Theater for 16 years.  He retired in 1963, just prior to the appointment of Peter Mennin who, as President of Juilliard, would usher in an age of new prestige for opera at the School.

Christopher West, Mr. Cohen’s successor as Director of Juilliard’s Opera Theater, began his association with Juilliard in 1963 when he directed the American premiere of Paul Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner, conducted by the composer himself.  Other premieres staged by Mr. West during his tenure at Juilliard included the New York premiere of Janáček's Kátya Kabanová (1964) and the American premiere of Hans Werner Henze's Elegy for Young Lovers (1965). Standard works he produced were Puccini's Il tabarro and Gianni Schicchi (1964), Fidelio (1965), and Die Zauberflöte, La bohème and Madama Butterfly (1966). Mr. West remained at Juilliard until his death in October 1967. Among the singers educated in the early years of Juilliard's opera program were Simon Estes, Evelyn Lear, Leontyne Price, Risë Stevens, Thomas Stewart, Tatiana Troyanos, Shirley Verrett, and Marilyn Zschau.

In January 1965, President Mennin announced plans for a new American Opera Center for Advanced Training at Juilliard, aided by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Center would offer young artists from the United States and abroad an advanced education in operatic singing under professional conditions. The establishment of the American Opera Center took place three years later in 1968, and Tito Capobianco was named its first director. The Center's first production — Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf and directed by Mr. Capobianco — coincided with the opening of the Juilliard Theater in April 1970 (now called The Peter Jay Sharp Theater) in Juilliard’s new home at Lincoln Center.

Peter Herman Adler succeeded Tito Capobianco as the American Opera Center's director in September 1973 and remained in that capacity until 1981. Some of the notable AOC productions during Mr. Adler's tenure include the world premiere of Virgil Thomson's Lord Byron (Gerhard Samuel, conductor; John Houseman, director; and Alvin Ailey, choreographer) in April 1972; Samuel Barber's revised version of Antony and Cleopatra (James Conlon, conductor; and Gian Carlo Menotti, director) in February 1975; and the U.S. premiere of Emmanuel Chabrier's Le roi malgré lui (Manuel Rosenthal, conductor; Bliss Hebert, director; and George Balanchine, choreographer) in November 1976. Martin Smith, a head coach with the Center from 1973-81, served as acting director for the

1985-86 academic year. David Lloyd was the American Opera Center's director from 1986 until his retirement in the spring of 1988, after which Frank Corsaro was appointed the Center's artistic advisor.  These successive directors continued Juilliard’s presentations of newer works with the New York premieres of Convery’s Pyramus and Thisby, Rhim’s Jacob Lenz, and Delius’ Fenimore and Gerda;  the United States premiere of Weill’s Der Kuhhandel, in new translation by Jeremy Sams; and the world premiere of the Paulus/Corsaro commission, Heloise and Abelard.

Beginning with the 1988-1989 performance season, the Center was more simply renamed the Juilliard Opera Center.  Today it is restructured as part of the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, under the leadership of Artistic Director and renowned pianist and vocal coach Brian Zeger, with expanded opera studies and song repertoire programs at several levels of study for undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate singers.

In its 80-plus year-history, Juilliard’s opera department has presented numerous premieres of new operas as well as works from the standard repertoire.  For its 2005-2006 centennial celebration, Juilliard commissioned a new opera by alumnus Lowell Liebermann, Miss Lonelyhearts, with libretto by J.D. McClatchy, based on the novella by Nathanael West. In 2008, the Ned Rorem/J. D. McClatchy production of Our Town, had its New York City premiere at Juilliard. This past season, Juilliard Opera presented the U.S. premiere of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Kommilitonen!, which was a co-commission by Juilliard and the Royal Academy of Music.  Other recent productions have included Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges; Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue; an English-language production of Smetana’s The Bartered Bride; Handel’s Oreste; Stravinsky’s Oedipus rex and Le rossignol; Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Carlise Floyd’s Susannah; Poluenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites; Rossini’s La Cenerentola, and others.  In December 1997, its second production of Humperdinck’s Hansel ünd Gretel – featuring new sets and costumes designed by Maurice Sendak – again made history as the first full-length conservatory opera production ever broadcast on PBS, as part of the Live from Lincoln Center series. 

Today, the Juilliard Opera’s Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program offers a professional education program for the finest young singers from around the world, with full tuition and living stipend provided.  Participants are given the opportunity to perform in opera productions staged each season, as well as in Juilliard’s own series of master classes presented by esteemed artists, which have included John Adams, Sir Thomas Allen, Elly Ameling, Arleen Auger, Fedora Barbieri, Régine Crespin, Joyce DiDonato, Sherrill Milnes, Luciano Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Renata Scotto, and José van Dam. Alumni of the Opera Center include John Aler, Peter Atherton, Gail Dobish, Faith Esham, Renée Fleming, Anthony Dean Griffey, Barbara Hendricks, Ben Holt, Hei-Kyung Hong, Isabel Leonard, Matthew Lord, Leona Mitchell, Marie Plette, and Veronica Villaroel, among others. 

In July 2007, Juilliard announced the appointment of Stephen Wadsworth, stage director, writer and educator, as the James S. Marcus Faculty Fellow: Director of Opera Studies, Artist Diploma. Mr. Wadsworth leads curriculum development for the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program, leads an intensive acting program together with Juilliard faculty member Eve Shapiro, and works closely with the young artists in the program.

In February 2008, the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and The Juilliard School announced a collaboration to educate and train the finest young opera singers and accompanists, preparing them for careers in the world’s great opera houses. The collaboration includes an annual, joint production at Juilliard. Recent productions have included Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and conducted by James Levine, a semi-staged concert performance of Gluck’s Armide, directed by Fabrizio Melano, and conducted by Jane Glover; Stephen Wadsworth's production of Smetana's The Bartered Bride. conducted by James Levine, Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and conducted by Alan Gilbert; and "A Concert of Comic Operas" conducted by James Levine and directed by Edward Berkeley.

In 2010, Juilliard created the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, established with a generous $10 million gift from long-time Juilliard supporters and opera lovers, Ellen and James S. Marcus. Their gift is helping to support new and expanded opportunities for all Juilliard voice students, strengthening and enhancing their educational and artistic experiences. A part of the gift supports Juilliard’s program for its most advanced singers, those working toward the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies, with the majority earmarked for Juilliard’s master – and bachelor – level programs in voice. The gift is enabling Juilliard to add a host of courses and complementary activities in acting, stagecraft, and related arts, health and nutrition, and an educational program that develops young singers with strong, healthy voices into complete artists.

Read the complete list of operas presented by The Juilliard School. History of Opera at The Juilliard School - Complete List of Operas

(April 2014)