The Dallas Opera was established in 1957 when a group of civic leaders that included William A. McKenzie, Dallas Morning News critic John Rosenfield, and Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. Miller, Jr., approached Lawrence Kelly to start and manage an opera company. Kelly brought in conductor Nicola Rescigno, whom he had formerly teamed with to help found the renowned Lyric Theatre of Chicago. The Dallas Civic Opera was chartered in March 1957 with Kelly in the role of general director and Rescigno serving as artistic director and principal conductor. Kelly’s dynamic personality matched with Rescigno’s artistic brilliance made for a potent combination that put the opera world on notice immediately out of the box.
The Dallas Civic Opera opened with a concert at State Fair Music Hall on November 21, 1957, featuring diva Maria Callas performing with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. (She had made her American debut three years earlier under Maestro Rescigno in Chicago.) The following night, the company presented its first opera, Rossini’s L’italiana in Algeri. This was also the American debut of Franco Zeffirelli as set designer and stage director. The Dallas Civic Opera launched to rave national reviews. “For a couple of nights running,” Newsweek commented, “Dallas, Texas, was the operatic capital of the United States.”
Thus Kelly and Rescigno scouted talent from all over the world and ushered in a tradition of introducing top notch artists to the United States while building and maintaining a reputation for impeccable musical standards. During the 1958 season, the Dallas Civic Opera presented a Zefferilli-staged production of La Traviata for Maria Callas. The acclaimed diva also sang in Lucia di Lammermoor that season and in Medea, which was recorded, further establishing her important and long-term association with the company.
During the Kelly/Rescigno years, Dallas audiences witnessed the United States premieres of Handel’s Alcina, Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, and Cimarosa’s Il Maestro di Cappella among others. The opera company presented the American debuts of Placido Domingo, Teresa Berganza, Joan Sutherland, Jon Vickers, Gwyneth Jones, Magda Olivero, and others and also staged the operatic directorial debuts of John Houseman and José Ferrer.
After the death of Lawrence Kelly in 1974, Rescigno also assumed the duties of general director until 1977 when Plato Karayanis was hired for the job. In 1988 the company, by now simply called the Dallas Opera, produced the world premiere of Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers, which was nationally broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances. The opera also staged the first complete cycle of Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen to be performed in Texas. In early 1990 Rescigno conducted his last performance in Dallas before leaving his longtime position as conductor and artistic director.
English conductor Graeme Jenkins became music director in 1994. In addition to the company’s productions, since 1961 the Dallas Opera has presented special school performances as part of a significant and expanding youth outreach effort. Newer developments have included the Emerging Artists and Young Artists programs as well as interactive training tools for teachers and students. The company’s supporting and promotional organization, the Dallas Opera Guild, sponsors an annual vocal competition for talented young Texas singers and also holds panel discussions, hosts visiting artists, and operates a gift shop. The Dallas Opera Women’s Board provides financial support and sponsors a lecture series.
Throughout its existence, the Dallas Opera has commissioned several important works. Most recently it commissioned composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer to write a new opera based on Moby Dick by Herman Mellville. The company performed this world premiere in April 2010.
After some five decades at Fair Park’s Music Hall, for its 2009–10 season, the opera performed in its new venue, the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, part of the complex of the AT&T Performing Arts Center. Conductor Graeme Jenkins continued as music director until the end of the 2012–13 season. Emmanuel Villaume, a native of France, took over as music director for the 2013–14 season. In 2015 the Dallas Opera Orchestra consisted of more than ninety musicians, and the 2015–16 season opened with the world premiere of Great Scott by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally.