A Brief History of The Ohio Light Opera

Operetta … comic opera … musical comedy … light opera. The distinctions among them are subtle, but each conjures up a bygone era of romance, conflict, dance, swashbuckling heroes, and gypsy life—a world in which all hearts beat in three-quarter time. For 40 seasons, The Ohio Light Opera (OLO) has preserved, promoted, and produced the finest that these art forms have to offer. Through the unwavering support of The College of Wooster and the dedication of OLO’s artistic and administrative staff, the company has secured a position as America’s premier venue for the production of fully-staged and fully-orchestrated lyric theater gems—works that have captivated the public over the past century and a half.

Let’s turn back the clock to the mid-1970s. The College of Wooster had a beautiful new theater, and James Stuart—a noted Gilbert and Sullivan tenor—was searching for an additional venue for his Kent State Light Opera, which, for several years, had been performing the works of G&S at several northeast Ohio locations, including (in 1976 and 1977) The College of Wooster. When administrative changes at Kent State resulted in the demise of Stuart’s resident company in 1978, Frank Knorr, the College of Wooster’s director of alumni relations, drafted a proposal to establish a new company at the College. The plan received a green light from College president Henry Copeland: a match was fashioned and, in the summer of 1979, the Ohio Light Opera (OLO) began life with a five-week season—opening on June 26 with The Gondoliers and including eight G&S works, as well as the Sullivan/Stephenson Cox and Box. At the top of Stuart’s welcoming message in the season brochure was a quite prophetic quotation from The Mikado: “My object all sublime I shall achieve in time.”

For OLO’s first two seasons, shows were performed with a unit set and piano accompaniment. The 1981 festival marked a major step toward the realization of Stuart’s “object”: an orchestra was added, scene-specific sets were introduced, and a continental operetta—Johann Strauss’ A Night in Venice—was included in the repertoire. The following season brought an American operetta (Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince) and 1983 included, for the first time, a French work: Jacques Offenbach’s The Brigands. Throughout the decade, Copeland helped to create a context at the College in which the company could thrive. His recognition of Stuart as “a rare talent” and the decision to offer him carte blanche to pursue his artistic vision contributed to the company’s artistic growth and ever-expanding repertoire. By the end of the decade, OLO had produced an impressive 39 show titles—a mix of well-known works and rare titles that had not been seen in America for decades. During these formative years, artistic director Stuart was supported by Frank Knorr, who served as company producer from 1979 to 1983, and by Bonnie Havholm, who held the company manager/producer position from 1983 to 1997 and contributed greatly to attracting new audiences and expanding the visibility of the company beyond northeast Ohio.

In 1995, R. Stanton Hales succeeded Copeland as College president and, until his retirement in 2007, worked tirelessly in cultivating a highly rewarding synergy among OLO, the College, and the Wooster community. One of OLO’s most ardent fans, he took great pride that a private, independent liberal arts college could mount such a complex and “astonishingly vibrant” operation. His successors as College president, Grant Cornwell and Sarah Bolton, have continued to nurture that special, and unique, relationship between College and company that continues to strengthen OLO’s position as this nation’s premier lyric theater company.

In May of 1999, Stuart passed the artistic director baton to his protégé, Steven Daigle, who had come to OLO in 1990 as a stage manager and, by the time of the transition, had stage-directed many of OLO’s most acclaimed productions. One of Daigle’s first initiatives, in 2000, was to introduce mid-century American musicals—those of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, and others—to the OLO repertoire, beginning with Camelot. This step not only acknowledged these works as natural successors to those of the operetta composers of the early part of the century, but also broadened the customer base and, equally important, brought new audiences to Freedlander Theatre. More recently, in 2008, to commemorate OLO’s 100th show title, Daigle programmed, for the first time at OLO, a work by one of the five great masters—Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers—of early American musical comedy. With Kern’s The Cabaret Girl, OLO embarked on what has proved a most rewarding and historically important survey of both the recognized gems and neglected masterpieces of our American musical heritage.

In 1998, with a decade of experience as OLO box office manager and then business manager, Laura McGraw Neill assumed the position of company manager/producer. Serving since 2008 as OLO executive director, she has administrative oversight of all company operations and works year-round with Daigle in planning for and coordinating the activities of almost 150 performers, instrumentalists, technical staff, and front-of-house personnel. Her long “corporate history” has proved invaluable in locating and securing critical performance materials from music publishers, libraries, and arts organizations. Through her collaboration over the years with four College presidents and their administrative staff, she has spearheaded fundraising efforts that have solidified OLO’s financial standing and encouraged new and continued gifts to the company.

OLO associate artistic director Julie Wright Costa, with 30 years experience on the OLO stage, works in conjunction with Daigle in overseeing an annual nationwide audition process that attracts hundreds of vocal artists with ambitions to be part of the summer festival. Music director J. Lynn Thompson, who recently celebrated his 1000th OLO performance as conductor, teams with orchestra personnel manager and longtime OLO trumpeter John Schuesselin to coordinate the orchestral auditions, which draw young professional musicians from this nation’s top music schools and programs.  Associate music director and conductor Steven Byess, who began with OLO in the early 1990s, has been invaluable, over the years, in preparing and editing vocal and instrumental performance materials.

From OLO’s beginning, a fundamental goal has been to offer a professional performance environment to theater, music, and arts management students from both the College of Wooster and throughout the country. OLO’s artistic leaders—all affiliated with prominent national universities, colleges, and conservatories—spearhead a summer season that provides Wooster students (some as part of the Experiential Learning Program) and other students and young professionals invaluable opportunities to develop their skills in a vibrant lyric theater setting.

With 141 show titles currently to its credit—including works drawn from England, Austria, Germany, France, Spain, and America—the Ohio Light Opera has achieved an enviable reputation for not only its ambitious repertoire and excellent production values, but also for the efficiency and integrity of its operation. This “summer jewel,” as R. Stanton Hales labeled it, presents seven titles—fully-staged and fully-orchestrated—in an eight-week summer season that attracts almost 20,000 patrons annually. The Company’s mission, says artistic director Daigle, is “to preserve, promote, and produce the best operettas and musicals ever written, and to do them in respectful and traditional settings.” The company’s achievements and contributions to lyric theater have been duly noted in national and international music and theater periodicals, in the book literature of the field, and on radio and television. A significant step toward achieving this recognition was the introduction, in the 2014 season, of an OLO-sponsored lyric theater symposium, which, through a week-long slate of lectures and special concerts, has attracted top scholars in the operetta/musical theater world and the unanimous enthusiasm of OLO’s most devoted patrons. In 1997, the Ohio Light Opera released its first CD recording: a two-disc set of Victor Herbert’s Eileen. No one could have imagined at that time that, after two decades, the list of recordings would have grown to 41 CD and six DVD titles, including many world-premiere complete recordings. No operetta company, and few opera companies, in the world can boast of such a comprehensive recording legacy. Highlights of the series include first-ever recordings with complete dialogue of many Gilbert and Sullivan works; complete recordings of seven Victor Herbert operettas; and the most complete versions available on disc of nine operettas of Emmerich Kálmán.

For the future, Daigle and Neill seek to reinforce and honor OLO’s mission, sustain the company’s high standards, and broaden the audience base. With a tradition of excellence buttressed by the College’s support, the abundant talents of young professional singers and instrumentalists, imaginative artistic and administrative leadership, and the enthusiasm and generosity of patrons, Ohio Light Opera celebrates its continued work by guaranteeing that this “summer jewel” will continue to sparkle.