‘I may pull some cheap tricks, but I’d do anything to shock the public into coming to opera’
There are cynics who say that what grand opera in the U.S. needs these days is not new staging or promotion but euthanasia. Glynn Ross, thankfully, is not one of them. For the past five summers his Seattle Opera Company has staged the complete four-part cycle of Richard Wagner’s Olympian Ring of the Nibelung. That makes Seattle the only place outside the 103-year-old Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany where the entire 14½-hour opera can be witnessed in a single week. But that’s the only way the composer intended it to be seen, says Ross. And though The Ring is an extravaganza which overflows with Norse myth, Nietzschean superheroes and a host of dwarves, giants and Rhine maidens, Ross confesses that “to me The Ring is like sex. It has to be contiguous and take place in proper circumstances. To stretch it over months or seasons, as some opera companies do,” he scoffs, “is like trying to have sex in the back seat of a car.”
Seattle has gotten accustomed to such earthy irreverence from its opera director. A believer in “a populist approach to an elitist art,” Ross has even rented skywriting planes to trace slogans like GET AHEAD WITH SALOME and used signs on local cement trucks to urge GET MIXED UP WITH OPERA.
But Ross is far more than a maverick and a Barnum. Since founding the company in 1964, he has presented three world premieres, including The Who’s rock opera, Tommy, in 1971, and also brought in enough staples (Fidelio, La Traviata) and stars (Beverly Sills, Luciano Pavarotti) to placate the resident conservatives.
Still, Wagner’s Ring is Seattle’s—and Ross’—greatest triumph. Using Andrew Porter’s highly praised translation, Ross has turned Seattle’s summer show into a double Ring ceremony, with the week-long performances in modern English following the archaic German version. Both productions retain all the wild Wagnerian excesses—a rainbow bridge, an anvil split in half, towering alpine landscapes, even a ferocious 35-foot dragon. Shrugs Ross: “We had to get the point across that opera isn’t a lot of fat people standing around the stage singing in an incomprehensible language. There’s no reason to be intimidated and every reason to be entertained.”
Not exactly brought up in the Family Circle at the Met, Ross was born in Omaha, the son of a Norwegian cowhand-rancher. During his father’s lingering terminal illness, Ross managed the farm and tried to cope with a mounting pile of debts and medical bills from the time he was 17. “Running a farm during the Depression was an emotional experience,” he remembers. “There were rainstorms, dust storms. You were always at the mercy of God or the elements.”
But a year after his father’s death, when Ross was 22, the farm was in the clear, and he decided to pursue his ambition to be a Shakespearean actor. He studied briefly at the Omaha Community Playhouse (Henry Fonda’s alma mater) and then, urged by a teacher, hitched a cattle car East to attend drama school in Boston. The training was limited, but Ross “worked the hayseed out of my hair and the Midwest out of my voice.” Boston also gave him his first access to opera.
But it wasn’t until World War II that Ross realized that his talents were behind the stage rather than on it. An Army Transportation Corps officer, he was wounded in North Africa and then assigned to manage R&R hotels for American GIs on the Italian island of Ischia. “I was hustling the best of everything—Scotch, lobster dinners,” he says. “But what I was really learning was the art of running an opera house.” He even directed a few operas at Naples’ San Carlo opera house by the war’s end and married Angelamaria “Gio” Solimene, the daughter of an anti-Fascist lawyer and art critic.
Unsure of himself after the war, but wanting to be “anywhere near a theater,” Ross and Gio went to San Francisco, where he began directing operas up and down the West Coast. Then in 1954 he made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth for his first Ring. “It hit me right away that this is the most powerful piece of music theater in the world,” he recalls. When he was asked to form an opera company in Seattle 10 years later, he leaped at the chance, buying a frame house by the edge of Lake Washington where he and Gio settled down with their four children. Fifteen years later Gio speaks for both of them when she says, “Where we live is paradise.”
Now 64, the hyperactive Ross is still galvanizing Seattle’s cultural life. But no one was prepared for his latest project, a 42-week-long World’s Fair of the Arts, christened “The Pacific Northwest Festival in the Forest” for its 140-acre woodland setting between Seattle and Tacoma. Ross’ bold proposal has already won a state grant of $5 million, along with charges of Wagnerian megalomania. At present the festival is still years off, as Ross struggles to raise $15 million in matching funds. Doubtless it will be forthcoming. As one opera board member says, “Glynn is so charming you never know you’ve been hustled until it’s over.” His wife puts it another way: “He can be obnoxious at times, but he puts his temperament aside for the needs of others. It’s just impossible to keep him tranquil.”