By: Christina H. Wilson

Revised by: Laurie E. Jasinski

Type: Overview Entry

Published: December 15, 2006

Updated: June 22, 2017

Although opera had been previously heard in Texas, the first opera troupe did not come to the state until 1856, when the German Opera Company visited Galveston and performed opera acts in German at the Lone Star Hall. During this time, most of the opera performance in Texas took place in the southern part of the state; Galveston, Brownsville, and Houston all saw touring opera companies perform. In 1871 the first real opera house, called the Tremont, was erected on Galveston Island, and by the end of the nineteenth century, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, and San Antonio all had established opera houses as well. These houses offered a variety of musical and theatrical venues including opera.

By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, North and Central Texas cities began to see more opera performances. The Dallas Opera House opened on October 15, 1883, on St. Paul and Main streets with a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe. Although Dallas audiences heard Martha and Il Trovatore in 1875 at Field's Theater, the Dallas Opera House served as the primary performance venue for touring opera companies, musicians, and acting troupes in the Dallas area. Fort Worth audiences heard their first real opera in 1877, when the Tagliapietra Company staged Verdi's Il Trovatore and La Favorita at Evans Hall, located on the second floor of the Evans General Store. Additionally, the Opera House in San Antonio and three opera houses in Austin began to offer opera and theater performances for local audiences on a regular basis.

Itinerant opera performance continued to flourish during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century. Helped by the railroad industry, touring opera companies, some with national reputations, began making their way to cities across Texas. Audiences in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Galveston, and Austin were hearing opera performances by reputable companies, such as the Faust Opera Company, the Carleton Opera Company, and Emma Abbott's troupe. In November 1901 the Metropolitan Opera Company debuted in Houston with a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin. Subsequently, Texas opera audiences also saw performances by the touring companies, including the Boston Opera Company, the Henry W. Savage English Opera Company, the Chicago Opera, and the NBC Opera Theatre.

Eventually, Texas opera aficionados realized that the state could support its own opera productions and opera companies. In 1945 San Antonio founded the first resident opera company in Texas. Max Reiter, who had established the San Antonio Symphony six years earlier, extended the symphony season to include a springtime opera festival. The first opera produced was La Bohème, starring Nino Martini and Grace Moore. The San Antonio Symphony continued to produce an annual opera season that included four different productions, one performance each given over two consecutive weekends. In these productions, nationally-known talent filled leading roles and local talent filled the chorus.

Victor Alessandro became San Antonio's new music director after Reiter's death in 1950, and Peter Wolf of Dallas designed most of the sets for the company. Opera in San Antonio was performed in the San Antonio Municipal Auditorium, which seated nearly 6,000 people. The annual opera festival in San Antonio continued until 1983, when the program was terminated. The San Antonio Symphony continued to present concert versions of operas.

In 1997 Mark A. Richter, tenor and local businessman, founded Lyric Opera of San Antonio. The company, originally known as the Pocket Opera of San Antonio, opened its first season (1997–98) with Mozart's The Impressario. This production was performed at the San Pedro Playhouse and starred local artists. Trouble in Tahiti concluded the first season of San Antonio Pocket Opera. In its third season, the company began seeking national and local talent for its productions. The company was renamed Lyric Opera of San Antonio to reflect these changes, and the Lyric Studio, Lyric Opera's apprentice program, began. The fourth season included Puccini's Madama Butterfly, the company's first production sung in Italian with English subtitles. Lyric Opera's budget grew to accommodate these changes, too. The $5,000 budget of the first season grew to almost $90,000 in the sixth season. By 2011 the organization, known simply as San Antonio Opera, was producing three works each year at the Lila Cockrell Theater for more than 14,000 patrons. In September 2014 a new company, OPERA San Antonio, launched its inaugural season as a founding resident of the new Tobin Center for the Performing Arts with the production of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. Three new productions took place for the 2014–15 season.

Fort Worth followed San Antonio, with its first production of resident opera in 1946. Founded by three local women, Mrs. E. L. (Eloise) Snyder, Mrs. August (Betty) Spain, and Mrs. Jeanne Axtell Walker, the Fort Worth Civic Opera Association opened on November 25 with a production of La Traviata. This company is the longest continually-operating company in the state. Local opera productions prior to the formation of the civic opera association included Gounod's Faust and Carl Venth's Fair Betty in 1917. Fort Worth audiences also attended operas performed by Texas Women's College in the 1910s and 1920s.

Rudolf Kruger directed the Fort Worth opera company from 1955 to 1982. Under his direction four operas were given each season, with two performances of each work. During Kruger's tenure the company was associated with such singers as Lily Pons, Placido Domingo, and Beverly Sills. Productions were performed in English, with the exception of Lucia with Lily Pons (1962), until the late 1960s, when more works were sung in the original languages. In 2001 Darren K. Woods became the new general director of Fort Worth Opera. In 2007 the inaugural Fort Worth Opera Festival ushered in a new direction for the opera. In this context its opera schedule was condensed into an annual spring festival over a four-week period. The company has striven to provide opportunity for local talent to perform, using professionals only in leading roles. Fort Worth Opera and the Opera Guild of Fort Worth continue this practice of community outreach with the Children's Opera Tour and the Marguerite McCammon Voice Competition respectively. In 2014 Fort Worth Opera began its Opera of the Americas initiative—“a ten-year artistic commitment to the production of works by contemporary composers from North, Central, and South America.” Fort Worth Opera, which promoted itself as the “oldest continually performing opera company in Texas,” was set to celebrate its seventieth anniversary season in 2016 with the world premiere of JFK by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek.

The third resident opera company in Texas, the Houston Grand Opera Association, was founded in 1955 and opened with Salome by Richard Strauss in January 1956. Walter Herbert was the company's first general director and served in that post until 1972. David Gockley took over as successor to Herbert. During his tenure, Houston Grand Opera’s repertoire took a decided turn away from the usual Eurocentric selections to focus on commissioning American operas by American composers. The company has subsequently had the “highest concentration of American repertoire of any major U. S. opera company.” Houston Grand Opera has always provided audiences with unconventional repertoire and currently is one of the premier opera houses in the world. By the early 2000s it was the only opera company in the United States to have earned two Grammy awards, a Tony, and two Emmys. After Gockley’s departure in 2005, Anthony Freud took over until 2011 when Patrick Summers took over as music director. Through 2014 Houston Grand Opera had performed an astounding fifty-four world premieres. The company celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2015.

Following Houston, Dallas had its own resident opera company, the Dallas Civic Opera, by March 1957. Lawrence Kelly, formerly with the Chicago Lyric, was asked to be the general manager; Nicola Rescigno, artistic director for the Chicago Lyric, was asked to be musical director; Franco Zeffirelli was chosen to be set designer and stage director; and Jean Rosenthal became production manager. Maria Callas opened the opera's first season with a concert on November 21, 1957. Dallas Civic Opera became known as one of the top opera houses in the country. By the early 2000s the company presented as many as six operas each season, with four performances each.

Many world and American debuts have occurred at Dallas Opera. The company has produced over 100 different operas including the world premiere of Argento's The Aspern Papers in 1988 and the American premieres of Handel's Alcina, in 1960, Vivaldi's Orlando furioso (1980), and Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea (1963). Many singers have made their American debuts in Dallas as well. These include Joan Sutherland in Alcina, Luigi Alva, Teresa Berganza, Montserrat Caballé, Denise Duval, Placido Domingo, Gwyneth Jones, Magda Olivero, and Jon Vickers. In November 2005 groundbreaking took place for a new venue for Dallas Opera. The construction of the Winspear Opera House was made possible by a $42 million donation from Margot and Bill Winspear. The facility opened for the 2009-10 season. During that season, the company initiated its first free public simulcasts. Dallas Opera continued its tradition of world premiere productions and commissioned the creation of a new opera based on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in 2010. The 2015–16 season opened with the world premiere of Great Scott by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally.

Although the Austin Civic Opera Company was in commission from 1927 to 1931, Austin's first resident opera company did not appear until 1986. The Austin Lyric Opera was founded by Walter Ducloux, musical director, and Joseph McClain, stage director, in 1986. The company's first production was Mozart's Die Zauberflöte (1987). In 1992 the company performed the American premiere of Rossini's La pietra del paragone. The company has generally performed three operas each season. The Austin Lyric uses both local and professional talent in its productions. In 2000 Austin Lyric Opera established the Armstrong Community Music School, one of the first community music schools in Texas. The school offered musical instruction and also provided outreach programs to both children and adults. By 2008 opera productions took place at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. Subsequent productions included La Bohème (2009–10), The Magic Flute (2011–12), and Tosca (2013–14). The 2015–16 season for the company, known simply as Austin Opera, opened with a gala concert.

Amarillo Opera, founded in 1988 by Mila Gibson, was the next professional opera company to be formed in the state. Gibson, along with Dr. Merrill and Catherine Winsett and H. R. and Thelma Fulton, served as the founding board of directors. The company received administrative and financial support from Amarillo College. The company utilizes both professional singers and local talent in its productions, and has staged more than ten premieres of operas by Composer-in-Residence Gene Erwin Murray. In 2006 Amarillo Opera moved from its longtime venue at the Civic Center Auditorium and into the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. David O’Dell succeeded Mila Gibson as general director in 2009. Production highlights have included Rigoletto in 2010 and La Bohème in 2011.

El Paso Opera began as Opera à la Carte in 1992. Opera à la Carte performed opera excerpts for El Paso audiences. In 1993 the name was changed to the Opera Company, and in January 1994 the company produced its first complete opera. Puccini's Tosca was well-received by El Paso audiences. In the 1997–98 season the El Paso Opera included Spanish-language supertitles in its productions of Mozart's Don Giovanni and Puccini's La Bohème. In 2014 the company had produced more than forty-three operas. Both professional and local talent performs with the company.

In the 2010s Texas opera audiences could enjoy opera performances in many cities across the state. The Abilene Opera Association, the Gilbert and Sullivan Society of Austin, and Houston's Ebony Opera Guild, Opera in the Heights, and Opera Vista were some of the other companies presenting opera productions each year. The East Texas Music and Theatre Company based in Longview offered productions to the eastern region of the state, while South Texas Lyric Opera of McAllen served the Rio Grande Valley. In addition, numerous colleges and universities across the Texas presented full-scale opera productions each year.

Austin Opera (http://www.austinopera.org), accessed August 13, 2015. The Dallas Opera (http://www.dallasopera.org/), accessed August 13, 2015. Ronald L. Davis, A History of Opera in the American West (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1965). Ronald L. Davis, La Scala West: The Dallas Opera Under Kelly and Rescigno (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2000). Ronald L. Davis, "Stars over Texas," Opera News, November 14, 1964. Fort Worth Opera (http://www.fwopera.org/), accessed August 13, 2015. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, November 12, 1964. Houston Grand Opera (www.houstongrandopera.org), accessed August 13, 2015. OPERA San Antonio (http://www.operasa.com), accessed August 13, 2015. Lota M. Spell, Music in Texas (Austin, 1936; rpt., New York: AMS, 1973).


  • Music

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Christina H. Wilson Revised by Laurie E. Jasinski, “Opera,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed December 04, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/opera.

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December 15, 2006
June 22, 2017

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