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, swashbuckling heroes, unrequited love, and gypsy life – a world in which all hearts beat in three-quarter time and nobody grows too old to dream. For 35 seasons, The Ohio Light Opera (OLO) has preserved, promoted, and produced the finest that these art forms have to offer. Through the dedication of its artistic and administrative staff, and the unwavering support of The College of Wooster, OLO has secured a position as America’s premier venue for the production of fully staged, fully orchestrated versions of lyric theater gems that have captivated the public during the last century and a half.

Let’s turn back the clock … The College of Wooster had a beautiful new theater, and James Stuart was searching for an additional venue for his Kent State Light Opera, which had been performing at several Northeast Ohio locations since 1968. In 1976, Professor of Speech Stanley Schutz invited Stuart’s company to perform in Freedlander Theatre, a visit that led to a return engagement the following summer as part of Wooster’s Alumni College. Administrative changes at Kent State resulted in the demise of Stuart’s company in 1978. Frank Knorr, then the College of Wooster’s director of alumni relations, drafted a proposal to establish a new company at the College, received a green light from College president Henry Copeland, and met with Stuart, who was delighted that the College would provide a permanent home and secure support. A match was fashioned and, on June 26, 1979 with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, Ohio Light Opera opened its doors on a five-week summer season. Knorr served as the Company’s producer from 1979 to 1983. John Johnston, the College’s attorney, provided invaluable advice and support, and another Wooster alumnus, Norman Wiebusch, played a major role in promotion and insisted on a name that would identify the Company as a robust and professional one. Hence … The Ohio Light Opera: Resident Professional Company of The College of Wooster.

Copeland helped to create a context at the College in which the Company could thrive. His recognition of James Stuart as “a rare talent” and the decision to offer Stuart carte blanche to pursue his vision contributed to the Company’s artistic growth and ever-expanding repertoire. Boyd Mackus, who first sang with OLO in 1983, recognizes that “there wouldn’t be a company without James Stuart. He had a terrific ability to cast well and to get people to work together.” Associate music director Steven Byess notes that Stuart laid a great initial foundation for OLO by programming shows that he knew the Company could do well. The high standards of excellence established at the outset are reflected in music director J. Lynn Thompson’s observation that the orchestra members “have a sense of pride in being able to play well in every performance in a demanding season” of rotating repertory. President R. Stanton Hales, Copeland’s successor, is proud that such a small liberal arts college can mount such a complex and “astonishingly vibrant” operation. One of OLO’s most ardent fans, he lauds its “supreme talents” and notes that elder members of the audience, in post-performance encounters with the young professionals, tend to view them proudly as sons and daughters. As current president Grant Cornwell observes: “The Ohio Light Opera is a tremendous cultural asset, not just for the College, but for the city of Wooster and Northeastern Ohio. Each year I am pleased to see more students and alumni of the College participate in a variety of roles in a theater company with this level of professionalism and production quality.”

The Ohio Light Opera began with solo piano accompaniment, a unit set that could shield the piano, and a repertoire of strictly Gilbert and Sullivan. By its third season, OLO had become one of few companies to perform all 13 surviving G&S shows. But James Stuart had bigger plans: “My object all sublime, I shall achieve in time,” he wrote (in quoting from The Mikado) in the opening-season program. Indeed, in 1981, OLO added an orchestra and its first non-G&S work: Johann Strauss’ A Night in Venice. The next season, America came on board with Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince, and, in 1983 with The Brigands, OLO began a long relationship with the zany operettas of Jacques Offenbach.

In 1999, founding artistic director James Stuart passed the baton to Steven Daigle, who had first come to OLO in 1990 as a stage manager, and had gone on to direct many of the Company’s most acclaimed productions during the 1990s. Under Daigle’s leadership, OLO’s artistic mission and vision has expanded enormously. By the end of the 2013 season, the Company will have produced 120 show titles, representing the work of 47 composers from the principal international centers of operetta: Paris, Vienna, London, New York, Berlin, Budapest, and Madrid. In 2000, Daigle programmed into the repertoire, for the first time at OLO, a mid-20th-century American musical: Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot. The success of this venture, with both OLO artists and audiences, led to subsequent programming of musical comedy gems of Rodgers and Hammerstein (Carousel, South Pacific, Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, The King and I) George Gershwin (Of Thee I Sing; Lady, Be Good!), Jerome Kern (The Cabaret Girl), Cole Porter (Jubilee, Silk Stockings), Rodgers and Hart (A Connecticut Yankee), and others. These titles have attracted new audiences to The Ohio Light Opera; their inclusion both duly recognizes the contribution of America to lyric theater and showcases these works as the natural “modern” successors to the traditional stylings of Continental operetta. Daigle emphasizes OLO’s ongoing commitment to performing shows in traditional settings, with full respect for the original musical and dramatic idioms. On rare occasions (e.g., Offenbach’s Regrets Only in 1996 and 1998) and thus far to general acclaim, the Company has staged an innovative take on a particular show, but always with music and lyrical intent completely intact.

OLO general director Julie Wright Costa, with more than 20 years experience on the OLO stage, works in conjunction with Steven Daigle in overseeing an annual nationwide audition process that attracts hundreds of vocal artists with ambitions to be part of the OLO summer festival. In making their choices, they look for truth in performance and, beyond technical accomplishment, for readiness to alternate between leading roles and service in the chorus. “There is no room for divas,” Daigle declares. Music director J. Lynn Thompson, aided by orchestra personnel manager and 30-year OLO trumpeter John Schuesselin, oversees the orchestral auditions, which draw young professional musicians from this nation’s top music schools and programs.

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. As Company manager/producer from 1983 to 1997, Bonnie Havholm contributed greatly toward laying the foundation for this structure. Laura Neill assumed the position in 1997 and currently, as OLO executive director, has overseen and spearheaded unprecedented growth in the Company, inspired enthusiasm and commitment among its patrons and benefactors, and increased its national and international visibility and recognition.

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 just 15 years, the list of recordings would have grown to 37 CD 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 Victor Herbert’s six most popular operettas; and the most complete versions available on disc of seven operettas of Emmerich Kálmán.

For the future, artistic director Daigle seeks to sustain the Company’s high standards, continue to expand and broaden the repertoire, and reach out to new audiences. With a tradition of excellence buttressed by College of Wooster support, the abundant talents of young professional singers and instrumentalists, creative artistic leadership, and the enthusiasm and generosity of its patrons, The Ohio Light Opera is positioned to ensure that this “summer jewel” will continue to sparkle.