THE NINE VALKYRIES OF SAN DIEGO OPERA
In the early years of San Diego Opera, the company caught the attention of the Metropolitan Opera magazine “Opera News.” The editor Frank Merkling and the Met archivist Mary Ellis Peltz were intrigued with a startup regional company in the opera wilderness of Southern California that was up and running with young American singers performing the standard repertory in English.
It helped gaining recognition from the biggest icon of opera in America because Walter Herbert from Houston Grand Opera was the guiding hand. It also gave a face to SDO from my personal visits to the Met office when in New York for the annual gathering of the Metropolitan National Council of which I was a member while president of SDO.
This early interest from the “Opera News” staff produced some interesting feature articles and frequent reviews of productions. It also helped that Martin Bernheimer, writing for the “Los Angeles Times,” was submitting national reviews of SDO productions. He wasn’t always kind (what critic is?) but he gave SDO some thumbs up and lauded us for the effort to produce local opera. Los Angeles had none and depended on tours from San Francisco Opera and later New York City Opera.
My favorite article in “Opera News” around 1970 was about the SDO Valkyries, those ladies who worked tirelessly to bring opera to San Diego. They were determined to succeed and never took NO to a request. It helped that their husbands were prominent San Diego businessmen. Politicians and city leaders took notice.
The “Opera News” feature focused on the founding of the San Diego Opera Guild that sponsored San Francisco Opera performance here for 15 years and the ladies behind its success. I am updating the Valkyrie Cast to recognize the nine most important SDO women leaders from 1950 to 2015.
Let’s start with longest-term battle maiden taking the role of Brűnnhilde, the favorite daughter of the King God, Wotan. There is no dispute that Margaret Ridout Conrad can claim this role. An early Opera Guild volunteer lead to president of the Guild, the third president of San Diego Opera, Inc., (the new producing company,) then first president of the merged Opera Guild and Opera Inc, into San Diego Opera Association in 1974. Nearly all the important strategy sessions took place in Margaret’s living room for years. Her husband Lionel, a professor at San Diego State University, was most patient.
Assigning the remainder of the Valkyries in chronological sequence of their leadership, here is the remaining cast:
Gerhilde – Jean Cary who got the ball rolling to form the Guild and sponsor opera programs until San Francisco Opera began its San Diego tours in 1952? She chose to stay in the background due to a serious hearing problem. She wore a trumpet horn around her neck to thrust into your face. She was also infamous for calling her Guild comrades after midnight with an idea!
Ortlinde – Carma Luce was the first Guild president and always received all the credit for bringing opera to San Diego. She was a lovely, gracious lady well placed in society with a husband the head of the oldest and largest legal firm in the city. Carma’s public leadership was impeccable, but much of the strategy came from behind the scene by Jean Cary, whose husband was also a partner in the other large legal firm in town.
Waltraute – Madie Hall was never honored as an officer of opera. but, oh my, what a powerhouse. If any of those early Guild volunteers wore armor, a helmet and carried a spear, Madie was the one. Just try to say NO to her most urgent request. When SDO did its first “Aida” in 1966, the Valkyrie gang thought the stage looked too bare in the Nile scene. Led by Madie, they spread over the city borrowing tropical plants from private homes until the Nile was lush! No opera party could succeed without Madie and her side-kick LaRue Thompson and their husbands Wes and Bob leading the show with guitars and lots of mirth.
Schwertleite– Becky Wilson was the second president of SDO after the merger. An able administrator, she guided SDO through the financial jungle of a growing arts organization under the last years of the Walter Herbert regime. Her husband Ira was by her side as “house doctor.” He was ever present with his medical bag and a collection of throat sprays. Artists arriving in dry California from the eastern winter had problems that Ira helped. The generous couple funded the San Diego Opera Archive, originally at the Museum of History, now at San Diego State University Special Collections.
Helmwige – Elsie Weston was president when SDO faced a financial crisis that lead to the abrupt resignation of General Director Tito Capobianco in 1983. She had the business savvy to see the company was on the path to bankruptcy. The artistic success of Tito’s Verdi Festival could not be sustained financially. Summer opera in San Diego did not catch on. Elsie proposed cancellation of the Verdi Festival; Tito stalked out of town; the opera board split right down the middle. Having faced similar problems as president of the San Diego Symphony when it did declare bankruptcy, Elsie fought back and kept her post with considerable controversy from the Capobianco fans. She could have used that armor, helmet and spear.
Siegrune – Esther Burnham was president after the “white knight,” Ian Campbell, came to the rescue. Another business savvy lady of great charm and good connections in San Diego, Esther lead the company to new artistic and financial heights. Her principal legacy was founding Opera Stars, those opera patrons who leave a bequest to the company. Esther did her magic with grace and conviction, not as a warrior.
Grimgerde – Joan Kroc was not an opera fan, but she had been a professional musician before she married Ray Kroc. She had strong convictions that arts were important to the community and had the ability to provide major philanthropic support to the companies she believed were essential and well managed. Her lifetime bequest of a major reserve fund kept SDO in the black for many years.
Rossweisse – Carol Lazier is the latest warrior to fight to save SDO. When a misdirected board of directors was conned into dissolving the company in 2014, a few cool heads stepped forward with a solution. Carol suddenly was left standing when all the other officers, half the directors and General Director Ian Campbell stalked out of the room. The battlefield cleared while those remaining restructured the board with Carol as leader. We can now say, “The rest is history.”
For those opera fans who appreciate the masterpieces written by Richard Wagner, you can read on for the source of the famous Valkyries in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Probably the best-known music related to these woman warriors and to opera itself is The Ride of the Valkyries from “Die Walkűre.” Like much of Wagner’s operas, ancient Norse mythology is his source for these female warriors.
The Norse word Valkyrie means “chooser of the slain.” These are the female warriors that scour the battlefield to select the fallen male warriors to take to Valhalla for an afterlife as a hero. They each carry a warrior on their airborne horse to the Gods’ palace.
Creating an even more mysterious enigma, the nine Valkyries were fathered by Wotan with a strange earth God called Erda. She seems to only appear occasionally from below to give Wotan advice. Wotan’s wife Fricka is not very happy with this arrangement. However, that’s what legends are about.
Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and supports the opera archive at San Diego State University