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Interview with: Mrs. Louis G. Lobit
Interviewer: Tom Krenek
Date: Thursday, July 17, 1975
Archive Number: OH 105.1
TK: (00:14) Mrs. Lobit, to begin the interview, will you tell us a bit about your early career and how you came to Houston?
L: I came to Houston in 1927 to live and I was a photographer. I was a photographer until 1943. and during those years I was what you’d call a modest singer. I loved music and studied voice lessons with different teachers. Then in 1943 I married Mr. Louis G. Lobit and he was a very, very strong advocate for opera and symphonic music. He had a wonderful musical background. Between the 2 of us, we would go to Dallas to the Met, to see the Met here, and, of course, went to all the symphony programs.
It was my desire after I left the photographic business and had more free time, it was my desire to try to have an opera association in Houston because we had an unlimited amount of wonderful musical talent, especially among the younger people. They had no outlet at all to become singers and perform in any form because at that time there was no opera company here except the Metropolitan that had been coming since 1930.
This brings me up to the point that I’d like to give just a short explanation of the opera situation in Houston from the 1880s up to the present time. In the 1880s there was a situation where the opera companies would come in from New Orleans by boat and they’d have what they’d call a concert. They’d bring in the singers and they’d have a concert and those were called operas. Then in 1901 the Metropolitan started coming to Houston. Also, during the 1920s, we had the San Carlo Opera come regularly. Then in the early 1930s Mrs. John Wesley Graham started an opera association, produced the opera Aida, and took it to Chicago. Then we had 2 or 3 operas given under the auspices of the Houston Symphony Society in the 1930s. In the early 1930s the Metropolitan resumed their programs here, coming down from Dallas when they’d make their usual tours.
TK: During this time, were operas on a regular basis or were they pretty few and far between?
L: The Metropolitan came every year from Dallas but after the Houston Grand Opera Association had been in existence for four years the Metropolitan discontinued their performances here. I forgot to mention that there was another lady, Mary Carson Kidd, who formed a short opera association, I think with one year’s duration. Then we had the Chicago Opera Company that came for several years and a rather unusual happening. The first opera they were to give here, they were to come here from New Orleans. It was very bad. It was raining. The audience was waiting for the opera to start and the opera company was not even in Houston. At 12 o’clock or maybe after, the opera company came from the station and put on the opera and the performance. The audience left the opera house, the old city auditorium, about 4 o’clock in the morning.
TK: I would like to go into some detail concerning the 1955 meeting which led to the founding of the Houston Grand Opera. First of all, who was present at the meeting?
L: It was in June, 1955, and Mr. Walter Herbert was at leisure from the New Orleans Opera Association. He had come to town and he contacted Mr. Edward Bing. Mr. Edward Bing contacted me and we hurriedly called a meeting of a few people that we thought would be interested. From that we had a meeting that was the very actual meeting of the first opera association in June. We had that with Mr. Herbert. From that meeting the organization was made and the final contract was signed with Mr. Herbert in August 1955. The ones that were at this meeting in June 1955 are the actual members that are listed as the first Board of Directors in our very first program. Some of them are deceased but basically the four people who really and truly were the most interested in getting an opera association started were Mr. Edward Bing, Mrs. Ben Calhoun, Mr. C. J. Knapp, and Mr. Thomas Fletcher. They were four of the ones who you might say were the basic ones at the meeting who kept it going.
TK: Was there a great deal of enthusiasm at the meeting? Did everyone think it was feasible?
L: (06:41) Oh, there was so much enthusiasm. We even had the news from the different papers. We had the critics from the different papers. Mr. Hugh Roussel was with us and he was very delighted to see that something was going to be done. He wrote several wonderful articles which were received by the public that we were really going—finally going to get an opera association started in Houston. And of course all of the wonderful musical talent that we had—they were so interested and we were besieged by phone calls of how they could help, besides all of the other people that were interested in opera. As you see, when the Metropolitan came it was wonderful to have them but so many people could not afford the prices—really opera lovers who wanted to hear the Metropolitan Opera—but the prices were prohibitive. So for that reason, we started out with modest prices so that everyone from all walks of life could enjoy opera.
TK: Just out of curiosity, what were the prices the Metropolitan charged back then? Do you recall?
L: I can’t say exactly but in so many instances they were too high. For instance, we had one man who was a janitor at the Memorial Hospital. When we had our first season this man bought the seat in the middle of the last aisle on the top of the balcony in the Music Hall because he loved opera so but he couldn’t afford to ever get to go to the Metropolitan. Until his death, that one seat was always left for this janitor from the Memorial Hospital. He bought the one seat. And that’s just one example of why the people of Houston have taken the entire opera—Houston Grand Opera—programs and everything to their heart.
TK: (09:09) How did the opera grow from a nucleus of the original Board of 6? Would you describe its growth as rapid?
L: Yes. We had a very, very rapid growth. Our very first opera—instead of giving something—a big opera like Aida or something like that—Mr. Herbert was such a smart man in every way, every facet of his life. He was a brilliant music director. He was a financial wizard. He knew how to pick the things that would go over big. For a young fledgling opera association to take on Salome for their opening performance was unheard of. But fortunately we had a young man stage director, Rexford Harrower, who came and he gave us a beautiful rake stage, round rake stage. Everything was the last word and perfection. The singers were beautiful. So with that very first performance Houston loved the opera association. From then on it was so easy. But of course for the first performance it wasn’t easy. And as the old expression goes, in order to fill the house we papered it. We gave tickets to medical students and to students in universities. We did everything to paper the house and, unfortunately, that night it was a blizzard. It was just terrible but after the performance was over—as you know Salome is only 1 act long. After the performance was over there was that little lull of a second or 2 in there that people were rather stunned. Then the applause was so great that the next day we were an instant success because we had put on an opera that stunned the people.
TK: After this great initial success did more people want to join the Board?
L: Well, for the first 2 or 3 years, you see, it had never been the ‘in’ thing. This little fledgling opera association hadn’t yet gotten to where—you had to be part of it to be in the ‘in’ group. During this time, in the first 3 years, we went out—the ladies—Mrs. William Bland, who was the Chairman of our Opera Guild from the very first year that we had it—Mrs. Bland had gathered a group of women together, something like 45 or 50 women. From that group they went out and literally, literally, hit their friends for donations to buy tickets. I can never say enough for the Opera Guild down through the years, especially the first ones under Mrs. Bland’s regime. After 3 years—our first 3 years were so successful as far as giving good operas. Then we had several wonderful friends who were wealthy people who gave us marvelous, good sound, financial help. Then after the 3 years, you asked me the question about was it hard to get on the Board. No, by that time it was the ‘in’ thing to do. It was the coming thing. Everyone wanted to jump in and do their part which was just perfectly wonderful for those of us who had worked hard because that’s what we wanted. We wanted the younger ones to come in, the older ones, and all, which they promptly did.
(13:28) I’d like to say at this point that I neglected to mention the 4 or 5 basic people that had such a terrific part in the organization. And that is Mr. and Mrs. William W. Bland.
TK: I’m curious, with all these people coming to join the suddenly fashionable opera, how the bylaws of the opera developed—how the organization itself developed? For example, how were you chosen the first president?
L: I was chosen the first president because I was the organizer. The meetings were held in my home. The whole thing fell on my shoulders to get the organization going. Of course, through that, I was elected the first president of the association.
TK: I take it today the arrangements are somewhat more formal elections?
L: Oh, yes. Very, very much so. But in those days there were so few of us and we were the dedicated ones. As far as the Constitution and Bylaws, our Constitution and Bylaws were given over to the State of Texas when we got our Charter. The Charter was granted to us on August 5, 1955—our Charter was granted. And our Constitution and Bylaws were set up at that time. There have been very few changes in the Bylaws. At that time we had an executive secretary’s job which now we do not have. But under our Charter and our Constitution and Bylaws, we were supposed—when we had the organization going—to have drama, music presented to the public and also to give our, as I said before, to give our young singers a chance and to also educate the children in the schools. This was all in our Charter, our first Charter, and in our Constitution and Bylaws. As the Constitution—as of now—the Constitution and Bylaws, it’s so much—it has expanded so much with the phenomenal growth of our association.
TK: (16:18) Since the opera became such a fashionable thing, I suppose that competition for the offices became somewhat, well, I’ll say, more fierce? Was that the case?
L: No. We’ve never had anything like that. Always we’ve had very wonderful and respected men who, when they were called upon to serve as officers, mostly I’m speaking now of the presidents. We’ve had such a wonderful array of them down through the years and never—and, of course, in the Opera Guild, we’ve had such wonderful women to head that organization. We’ve never had any, as far as you say, competition—no, nothing like that.
TK: I was wondering—I had come across the Opera Guild in my research, and I was wondering what the function of that organization was?
L: The first function under Mrs. Bland was not only for social activities but they got out and actually sold the tickets. They made it possible in all directions. Mainly they—let’s use a slang expression and say they ‘beat the bushes’ for people to buy tickets, to come to the opera, to talk about it, and also the social side of it. They’ve been invaluable down through the years—the Opera Guild. I can’t say enough nice and wonderful things for what they have done for the organization.
TK: Aside from ticket sales and private donations and fundraising drives, I believe Mr. Herbert was successful in raising a number of grants?
L: No. Mr. Herbert did not get any—not a very great number—of grants. He got a few. But during his 17 years with us his keen sight, I’ll say again, into finances—he always kept us on an even keel. We were always in the black. We were never in the red. And the grants and so forth that were brought forth were usually gotten, during his term, were usually gotten by the workers—the actual officers and the workers in the association. When Mr. Herbert’s 17 years was up we had something that we could say to the world that no other opera company, I guess in the whole world, could boast—we were absolutely in the black.
TK: So I would be correct in inferring that the government support of the opera was and is minimal and that most of the income derives from private donations and ticket sales?
L: Yes. Well, now, since Mr. Gockley came to us, Mr. Gockley has been wonderful in getting grants from large foundations and smaller grants from the city and then a grant from the National Foundation of the Arts. But up until that time we had not had enormous grants that you’d think about except from 4 or 5 families in Houston.
TK: Yes. Would you care to name the angels—give them their credit?
L: Well, there are several. Mr. and Mrs. Harris Masterson from the very first year that we were organized have really been angels of the association. And also Mr. and Mrs. Gus Wortham were other angels of the association and by that I mean they gave large amounts of money in the early days when we needed it.
TK: I see. Would someone occasionally pay for an entire opera?
L: We did not have that really on a large scale until Mr. David Gockley came to be our general director. We had had maybe 1 or 2 that I can’t recall right now but nothing on a large scale until he came to be with us.
TK: Who decided which operas would be presented in Houston? Was it strictly Mr. Herbert’s decision or did the Board have some input on this?
L: At the very beginning Mr. Herbert was given the absolute control of who sang in the operas and he had the entire authority to do all the casting and we had a repertoire committee. This repertoire committee would have meetings and pick out the operas that we thought would be good and that we wanted to hear. As you know, when the Metropolitan used to come, we only got the old war horses. We didn’t get all of the new things because that was impossible. They were not box office. But Mr. Herbert was brave enough to give the new operas. The repertoire committee would present these operas to Mr. Herbert. Then Mr. Herbert would, in his way of knowing what was what, he would discuss it with us and say, “Now, we’ll give this one. This will be a box office draw. This will make us the money. These 2 will make us the money this year. But we must give a new one.” So we would take the chance on giving a new opera that had never, never been heard in this part of the country.
TK: Do you recall any examples?
L: Yes, we had the Young Lord. That was one that people didn’t think they were going to like. We gave that. And, oh, I can’t think right now. But we—I’m not speaking so much our contemporary operas as of old operas that had never been heard. Heretofore we had been hearing Aida and Traviata and Carmen and all of those; but the lesser known ones, like Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella and all of those things—it was a joy, especially to our younger generation. They had never heard opera like that.
TK: Was Mr. Herbert’s prophecy correct? Did these new operas—well, new old operas—turn out to be less of a box office draw?
L: No. As it happened, he had such an eye for picking the right singers for the right operas that it was fantastic how the new ones took over. What I mean by new—I mean the old operas that had never been heard before. In the second year we gave La Cenerentola which had never been heard here. We had never had the great production of Der Rosenkavalier, I don’t think. I’m sure that the Met had never brought it to Houston.
TK: (24:16) In 1958 you were quoted as saying, “The Houston Grand Opera Association will never price itself out of the market. We’re keeping prices down to give all the people an opportunity to see and enjoy opera.” Has the Houston Grand Opera been true to your word?
L: Well, that’s a rather difficult question because we have tried down through the years to always keep it on the low budget so that we could have everyone to see it. But with inflation and so on in the last several—4 or 5 years—we have been forced, now, to raise the prices. Yet, at the same time, there are still seats in the house that can be bought with a—they’re not the best seats, unfortunately, but they’re always sold out to those people who cannot afford more than what they’re paying for.
TK: Yes, I know. I’ve sat in them. Has the inflation that you mentioned just a moment ago influenced Mr. Gockley to go more in the direction of government grants? I believe you said he was more active in this area. Is that one of the reasons why he’s done this?
L: Well, we’ve expanded so under his leadership. We’ve branched out. We’re giving more performances than we formerly did. And of course the expenses are greater and all of the demands made on us by the unions have really been to our detriment and, for that reason, we’ve had to raise prices.
TK: Demands made by the unions?
L: Well, in our early days we didn’t have too many problems with the union until we began to grow. When they saw we were getting along and doing well and all that sort of thing, well, then of course there were more demands made on us. In fact, we had difficulty with what I’d call outright featherbedding and I’m sure everyone that has had any contact with the unions knows what I’m referring to on different blocks of the different union organizations. But I am happy to say that we have one of the finest choruses in all of the nation which is all a volunteer chorus. They get very, very little for their services. They do it for the love of singing. And, fortunately, I mean—some of the members that were in the very first chorus are still singing in our chorus today. We’re very fortunate and delighted to have this wonderful chorus.
TK: (27:22) These labor difficulties you mentioned? Are they pretty well ironed out today?
L: Well, they’re ironed out because we are a going concern and if we mean to be a going concern we have to iron out all our difficulties with the unions that participate in the arts.
TK: Which years were the most difficult? Which years had the most acute labor problems?
L: I would say it was along about 1959, 1960, and 1961.
TK: I believe there was a musician’s strike involving the symphony in 1973? Did that in any way affect the opera?
L: It could have, but that was between the symphony society and the actual players. Down through the years we have always—the players and the symphony as a—as you might say, take them on an individual basis. They have always been our friends. And in the beginning we dealt only with the musicians themselves. We did not deal through the Houston Symphony Society in the first year or so.
TK: Has the new general director, Mr. David Gockley, introduced any changes concerning labor policies? Has he cut out the featherbedding?
L: I wouldn’t say—no, he hasn’t. But, anyway, he has been able to surmount anything that came along and I have to give him credit for being able to handle all of the union difficulties that come along. He has handled it very, very ably.
TK: But to an extent his hands are tied?
L: I guess you’d say—no, I don’t think so. I think because we are an organization now and we mean a great deal to these particular unions. We mean a great deal. But he—there comes difficulties—but Mr. Gockley has a way of being able to overcome.
TK: We’ve mentioned a couple of policy changes introduced by Mr. Gockley. Has he also made an attempt to bring more contemporary operas to Houston?
L: Oh, yes. Under his leadership since he’s been here we’ve done several very contemporary—I’d say very contemporary operas. And some of them have been good. At least they were unusual.
TK: Which ones in particular did you think were good?
L: I liked Of Mice and Men. Some people did not like it but I went to hear it 3 times and I liked it very much. It was an opera that was done in English. I do not care for translations, but operas are done in English. I thought it was a brave attempt on our part to do this opera. After you saw it several times the music was appealing and it was good to have something that was entirely different on the stage.
TK: This is a point I was very interested in myself. It is often remarked that translations do not sing well. That the singers have difficulty with their diction. So, other things being equal, the original is to be preferred. But do Houston audiences prefer a translation?
L: (31:26) Houston audiences do not like English—operas in English—unless they are written, absolutely written first, in English. I would safely say that 95% of our opera-goers do not like translations. To begin with, the artist has to be first-class in diction. So many of them are not so the result is you don’t get that resonance that you get from the romantic languages. And besides that you can’t tell what they’re singing anyway because their diction is so bad that it’s not nice, I mean, you don’t enjoy listening to them.
TK: Do you count this as a mark of sophistication in the Houston audience that they prefer their operas in the original?
L: Well, there’s some operas that just do not lend themselves to a translation. As you know, we have one evening, the Saturday night performances, are done exclusively in English. It has—I think the reason of its popularity has been that because the people could not get tickets to hear the other performances, in desperation they’ll take that. There are lots of people—I won’t say lots—there are a certain amount—I’d say 5% or 10% of our regular opera-goers who would like to see everything done in English. As for myself, I’m speaking for myself; I do not like to hear the old great operas translated into English.
TK: The reason I asked the question about sophistication was I had read [tape inaudible] Cunningham, music editor for the Houston Post, made in 1971, to the effect that, and I’m quoting, “Houston still does not have much of a discerning audience such as one might expect in one of the world’s genuine musical capitals.” Would you care to make a rebuttal to this allegation?
L: Well, yes, I’d like to say that I’m very, very fond of Mr. Cunningham, but I don’t always agree with his viewpoints and I think he’s wrong on that. I think he’s absolutely wrong because, after all, we wouldn’t have this great association except for people who loved the great operas sung in their original languages.
TK: And one sign of maturation might be the coming of these contemporary operas.
L: Well, I don’t think this association would ever completely give everything in English. It would die on the vine because those who want to hear it in English get a chance to hear it in English. I think it would be very wrong for this association to ever try to do everything they did in English. It would be, in my opinion, its downfall.
TK: (34:54) There was one in particular that caused quite a controversy, and I’m referring to the recent performance of Lulu, which I happened in on one matinee and I was rather surprised. There ensued in the newspapers quite a controversy in the editorial columns as to the worth of this opera. Do you have any opinion on this?
L: Yes, I have a very definite opinion. I think it was absolutely out of place for a great organization as we are to offend the people who have given their money and their time and their cooperation—to put on an opera like that. Many, many people were offended. Of course you say, well you didn’t have to go. But that is not the reason. You went because—you see, everybody buys the opera tickets on a season basis. So many of the patrons were unhappy because they had paid a nice sum of money for a season, so they felt like they were done out of one opera because when they went they left at the first act. And so many people wouldn’t even give their tickets away. I think there’s so many fine, fine contemporary operas that can be given and I don’t think from the experience that the association had, what would I say, the kickbacks that they had from this—that they would ever do an opera of that kind again. I don’t think it would be—well, I’m sure that they wouldn’t.
TK: I see what you mean. People don’t spend hours of work and contribute hundreds of dollars to an organization so they can choose not to go to an opera.
L: That’s right. They felt like they were—they had bought the season ticket—so now then, they had—one of them they just completely lost it.
TK: How extensive was the damage? Did someone just up and resign as a result of this?
L: Oh, no. Not that. But it did—fortunately, we had just finished our maintenance drive, which was one of the best things that had ever happened to us because I know of many instances that people would call and say they were sorry that they had given a donation this year. But, you know, things pass and I don’t think we’ll ever do that again. There were a lot of wounded feelings and letters going back and forth to the opera office—many, many hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them—protesting. We had a few that wrote in the newspaper and said they liked it. But as a whole—no, it was not for a great organization like us to do that.
TK: (38:00) One other opera that was somewhat controversial was Jesus Christ Super Star in 1971. I believe you were on record as opposing the presentation of that opera?
L: Yes. That was the—Mr. Gockley had come to us. He hadn’t been with us but a little while and in his zeal he wanted to have us do this and make a great deal of money. But there were some of the conservatives that decided, thought, that this was not something for the Houston Grand Opera to do. If this were brought here under the auspices of some other organization, that was perfectly all right. Everyone could go see it. But for the Houston Grand Opera to do that it was not in line, and a lot of people, the Church groups, were offended. They were very much offended that we would even contemplate putting it on.
TK: The conservative church groups?
L: Yes. Fortunately, they were—it was not given. There was so much protest and so much against it that it was never put on.
TK: Well, Gockley’s point was to make money, basically?
L: Yes. To make some quick money for the association.
TK: The genre of Jesus Christ Super Star is, I suppose you would say, a rock opera. Do you think that phrase is a contradiction in terms>?
L: Well, I don’t think it was the rock opera that people—that wasn’t so much it. It was the, what you’d call—it was the kind of—so many people thought it was—the language and everything was not suitable for us to do it.
TK: (40:02) There is another rock opera kin to Jesus Christ Super Star called Godspell. Was an attempt ever made to bring that to Houston?
L: No, that’s never been attempted—never heard that.
TK: All right. So to shift ground a little bit here—nowadays the Houston Grand Opera boasts performances by superstars of the caliber of Beverly Sills. Was there ever a time when it was difficult to obtain stars of the first rank—in the early days?
L: Oh, no. Mr. Herbert knew them all and he was so good at picking out the ones that were young and new but were going to become famous. He had that knack of knowing who to pick out. One of the ones that he brought to us as a young artist was Norman Treigle and I think, in my opinion, he was one of the greatest Basses of all time. We could just pick out so many numerous ones, like Sherrill Milnes and so many of them who became famous. But even in those days we could get the great artists because we paid so much more for them to come down and do an opera here. I imagine some of them would think, “Well, we’ll go down and we’ll do this in the sticks.” [laughs] But then after they came and saw how dedicated we were and everything, then it was not difficult to get them. And Mr. Herbert was always so well-liked and so well-loved by the artists all over the United States and, in fact, from Europe—we had several great artists come from Europe—that it was not at all difficult to get the great artists to come here.
TK: Mr. Herbert, I believe, was also involved in municipal opera in other cities, I think San Diego and for a while in Denver, because he traveled around trying to bring opera to other places. Is there a connection with his ability to bring in the stars? He had his roots in many places.
L: When he was with us—he came to us from the New Orleans Opera Association. And then he conducted several operas in Denver and Tulsa and then, 3 years before he left us, he took over the resident position as the General Director at San Diego. But he was still our director also. But Mr. Herbert was an old-timer knowing the ways and all of the artists that he brought here. He was familiar with all of them. He knew exactly who was good for this part that would be a box office draw for the least expense for our association to pay them.
TK: Why did Mr. Herbert leave the Houston Grand Opera?
L: (43:15) Mr. Herbert had been general director for the San Diego Opera for, I think, it was 2 or 3 years while he was still with us because he had ample time to do this and it was, as far as the majority of us were concerned, we were delighted for him to also have this wonderful position with the San Diego Opera. A new regime came in and there were some personality difficulties unfortunately. These different ones thought that probably it would be best to have visiting conductors start off and for that reason there were some hard feelings and so forth. Due to that, Mr. Herbert’s contract—he was not offered a contract to be renewed. It was a bad situation in that Mr. Herbert had had built this whole organization, you might say whole-heartedly, on every facet of this organization. But, as some people would think, it was time for him to move on, in other words.
Unfortunately, at this point, I would like to make an opinion of a lot of people at this—right now—in our great organization. Mr. Herbert has not been invited back to conduct an opera which I think is a very unhappy situation for a great organization like us. Because Mr. Herbert, due to what he has meant to us, should have been invited back to at least conduct one opera which, unfortunately, has not been done. As of right of this moment when I’m making this, it looks as if there’s no place for him. There’s been no place made for him to come back in the next season or so. I’m very adamant in my feeling that it is only the respectful thing to do to invite this great man back to conduct an opera.
TK: I must say I hope that situation is rectified. Let’s pursue Mr. Herbert a little further. I believe one of his goals, one of the things he sought to do in building the organization, was to broaden the base of the audience.
L: Oh, yes. That was one of his main objects.
TK: How has this been done?
L: I think it was 1957 that we got the operas into the schools. We began first having matinees for the children. They were an instant success. I believe I’m correct in saying that the children paid 50 cents bus fare. I may not be just exactly correct on this, but 50 cents bus fare. The matinees were given free of charge. Different people would give the money. A matinee for the children in those days could be given for, say, something like $1,500. Different people would underwrite it. The matinees were free. Every seat was taken. And each—the schools were designated—how many could come from different schools. We had them for the elementary and then we had them for the high schools. Through that, then, through those free matinees, then became under Mrs. Demy, a wonderful, wonderful part of this organization. I can’t say enough wonderful things about her. She started taking opera into the schools, little short operas, or maybe one act from an opera. It was actually taken into the schools. The opera, I mean, in the high school and in the elementary schools. And that also was an instant success. Now out of that has come, I would say, basically has become our TOT, which is our Texas Opera Theater. But going back to the matinees, the matinees have become so popular that now then they’re charged. There’s a charge for the matinee because there’s such a clamor for them. You just don’t have any—there’s not enough performances for everybody to get to see them.
TK: Now, 50 cents is not bad to go see an opera, but I believe the ones in Miller Park were absolutely free.
L: Oh, yes. And we instituted the free operas in the park. That, to my knowledge, is one of the biggest things that the association has ever done for the man in the streets, for everybody. When you stop to think that if you have an opera out there that shows for one week, at that place for one week, and you have maybe anywhere from 150,000 to 200,000 people that will go to see that opera, and to see that there are people from all walks of life and they love it. They love it.
TK: And one of those operas, Scott Choplin’s Treemonisha, was tremendously successful elsewhere.
L: Oh, yes. That was one of the finest operas that I think that’s ever been done in the park. It was so different. It was so unusual. You always think, now this is not going to be a success. A lot of times when we do something new, I kind of go down and I’m not prepared to like it. But Treemonisha was absolutely fabulous. It was everything, and it was, of course, done in English. It was done in the dialect. It was such a success that I believe they’re taking it to Broadway.
TK: Okay, now the $64,000 question. Have these programs such as the children’s operas and the operas in the park—have they truly broadened the base of the opera? Have you, over the years,observed a wider variety of people coming to, say, Jones Hall?
L: Oh, yes. We are doing things in this organization that are not done by any other organization—would not only say in the nation, but also in the world. Nowhere else can you get everything that we’re doing. That’s not boasting. That is statistics. In the beginning we had people, as I said before, that loved opera. They couldn’t afford it. But now as we put on these free ones and then our Texas Opera Theater, more of those people can—have learned to love opera. And especially our younger people that are growing up—they love it.
TK: (51:38) Have the good people of Dallas and especially the Dallas Civic Opera—have they adopted any of your innovations?
L: No. No. I’m sure not that. You see, one of the things that I forgot to mention that Mr. Herbert wanted to do and was rather—was beginning to be very successful with it—we would have a production in Houston. Then that same production would be given in San Diego. Or it would be given—and then given in Seattle, and given in Fort Worth and given to the different civic operas in the country. In that way, you could use the same scenery, the same singers, and it worked out very, very beautifully.
TK: Is there a kind of friendly rivalry between the Dallas and the Houston opera societies?
L: Oh, there’s never been any rivalry—never been any rivalry. See, the 2 opera associations up there—one which is the civic opera which was founded by Kelly, Lawrence Kelly, who is a great, great man, is the same principal as ours except all the artists and everything were imported, except the orchestra and the chorus. Then of course the other opera company in Dallas is the one that sponsors the Metropolitan. No, there’s never been any rivalry ever. Most people that are here, I mean, a lot of people here who love opera, they go to the civic opera there and they go to the one for the Met. It’s never been any rivalry, you could say, between them. They’re entirely different. [telephone rings]
TK: The only reason I asked that was, of course, operas are, as you are aware, very much a matter of civic pride. And one would like to think that one’s opera is the finest.
L: I do think that ours is one of the finest in the fact that, unfortunately, the Dallas Civic Opera, they were always so in debt until they never knew from one year till the next, there at the last few years, whether they were going to be able to open the doors. So we have nothing to fear from them because we were never that way. We always knew we were going to open our doors and have a season.
TK: That’s quite an interesting contrast. Here we have 2 prosperous Texas oil cities, basically. One that supports its opera admirably and the other that doesn’t. To what do you attribute that difference?
L: I think one reason is that Dallas had 2 opera associations. There was the old guard that you might say, the one that leaned toward the Metropolitan coming. And then this new one that was Mr. Kelly, and he had to import everything. He had a great, great organization, I think—his opera association there. I’ve seen some very, very fine productions that were much, well, they were just superb. Through all of that, he was an artist and he knew how to do those things, but he got into debt. And that’s the whole thing. But the 2 there—now here we’re not faced with that. And we’re faced with a group that—the people of Houston love the opera. They’re going to support us. We have people who are willing to donate and get out and raise the money. And I think with the 2 in Dallas—that may be the reason that they always had a little bit of a hard time.
TK: (55:43) Has there ever been an effort made to bring the Met to Houston?
L: Oh, the Met came here during the 1930s—they came most every year.
TK: Well, a recent effort?
L: No. No, the Metropolitan discontinued their visits to Houston about 3 or 4 years after we were organized.
TK: Has that been something of a disappointment to you?
L: Well, not particularly.
TK: You can always go to Dallas.
L: I can always go to Dallas. But, you see, the problem was that we never got anything from the Met except the operas that we had seen over and over and over. We never got to see anything new.
TK: Speaking of, well, operas themselves, which have been some of your favorite performances of the Houston Grand Opera?
L: Oh, that’s rather an unfair question because I love opera, per se. I love it. It’s part of me. And, of course, I loved the—I loved the Verdi operas more than any other ones, if I could say I’m partial, because Verdi wrote so many beautiful operas. He didn’t write any that weren’t good and he was so prolific in them. So I’d say those are my favorite operas, but we’ve done so many beautiful ones. If I had to say, of all the operas, if I had to pick out one, I would say my favorite one is La traviata.
TK: Let me ask the question in a slightly more objective way now. As an observer of the opera, of course everyone observes everyone else, which operas have been the best received over the years?
L: (57:49) Well, always, there are certain operas—let me say this—there are certain operas that are box office. They’re going to be box office year after year—year after year. And so we’ve tried to do those. For instance, every 3 years we would repeat an opera that was box office. Madame Butterfly is always a box office attraction. Carmen is always a box office attraction. And Faust, Rigoletta, and of course Aida without the elephants is always an attraction. [laughs] All of the good old sound ones are box office attractions. Unfortunately, we gave one opera that is considered one of the greatest operas of all time, but Houston was not ready for it and, if you’ll pardon my slang expression, I would say that it’s the only opera that we ever laid an egg with.
TK: What was that?
L: That was Die Meistersinger.
L: But Houston was just not ready for it. I don’t know whether Houston really would be ready for the Ring; I don’t think that. Outside of that one particular opera, we had another one, the Valkyrie that was not a success. But every other opera has been met with such wonderful approval by the public. So I’m just bringing that in because I don’t know whether Houston yet is ready for the big German operas or not.
TK: If it’s any consolation to you, the Ring Cycle at Covent Garden in 1973, I believe, was something of a bomb. When the old war horses, as you say, are brought, is there any effort made to spice them up a little bit with elaborate scenery or even changes in the music?
L: You see, what we have done that’s been so wonderful is that—of course, you’re not old enough to remember, but I’ll be 75 next month, so I can remember back when the Sopranos were—they were big. If they didn’t have a big chest and all that, we thought they couldn’t sing. But now then, in the last 20 or 25 years, you see, opera has changed. It’s been proven that singers do not have to be big and fat. They can sing and have beautiful figures to look at. But the most important thing is acting. In this association that has meant so much. We have singers that can act. There wasn’t a greater actor in the world than Norman Treigle. He not only could sing but he could act. And look at Beverly Sills. One of the greatest, I think, of all the singers we’ve had. She not only is a great singer, but she can act. And in years gone by they didn’t have to do that. In the old operas they came out of the stage and they sang their aria and it didn’t make much difference whether the Tenor was 5 or 6 inches shorter than the fat Soprano. It didn’t make any difference. But times have changed in the last 20 and 25 years and the audiences would laugh at anything like that now. So we’ve overcome all of that difficulty.
TK: Aside from the increased emphasis on acting, have there been any other innovations? Or is the music sacrosanct? Will a conductor refuse to tamper with the music?
L: We have several operas that Mr. Herbert would cut. You had to cut them because, if we didn’t, the audience wouldn’t stand to sit 4 hours. It doesn’t make any difference how good they are. I don’t think the American operas, and especially in this part of the country, could take an opera that was 4 hours. But, fortunately, Mr. Herbert was so smart that he knew where to cut and keep the opera. Most all of the productions that we do are kept under 2-1/2 hours, which I think—that’s one of the things that we’ve done.
TK: Which operas has the Houston Grand Opera not staged that you would like to see brought to Houston?
L: Oh, there’s so many lovely—but one of my favorite ones is Norma. I’d like to see Norma done. We’re hoping that it will be in the near future but, you know, it’s very difficult for the lead to sing that. So they have to get the proper—it has to be the proper one. I believe, too, if I’m—I better not quote because I’m not quite sure—but I think Beverly Sills has done it, I believe, and I think Joan Sutherland—are the 2 that do that opera. Of course, before we’re able to do it, I’m sure we’ll have to see if we can get the correct artist to do it.
TK: That was kind of the point of the question I asked earlier about the input from people on the Board, because I believe that everybody harbors an opera that they would like to see done. Have you made your wishes known to Mr. Gockley?
L: Yes. We still have a repertoire committee. But I think, in my opinion, it’s more or less just a—I don’t think we get very far with it now because in a lot of respects the repertoire committee will give what they’d like to hear, make up their minds what they’d like to hear; but then in the long run Mr. Gockley has the last say and you can always—well, maybe we can’t get them. If we do this one, we can’t get so and so. We can’t get the right Baritone. We can’t the right Soprano. So in the final analysis you might say that the repertoire committee does not have the authority it used to have.
TK: To borrow a phrase from political science, there aren’t many checks and balances—
L: That’s right.
TK: —built into the Houston Grand Opera?
L: But I will say this—that Mr. Gockley has so far given us a wide selection of operas. He’s given us the old-timers, he’s given us the contemporary, he’s given us 1 or 2 of those that we call shockers, and from it all we have learned, I think, the ones that are the box office attractions and bring in the most people which, after all, is the life blood of any organization.
TK: We’ve been discussing the opera for some time but I know that, even though the opera is very important to you, it’s not the only thing you do. So I’d like to turn now to some of your other activities. You have always had quite a reputation as a socializer. Some of the gala parties you’ve thrown at your house are quite famous. Would you care to recount some of those parties?
L: Oh, no. They’ve been too numerous. Mr. Lobit and I have always enjoyed having our friends and entertaining. We had this home over on Kirby Drive, and we enjoyed giving our parties. We always had a party once a year that I’m sure what you’re referring to is that one particular party. We would have it during the holidays and it grew. It just really grew and grew, and the last one we gave, which was about 4 years ago, we had invited 2,200 people, and the estimate that we counted the next day when we looked at our list, 1,900 people had come out of the ones invited. So we thought that, well that was the biggest we’d ever done. [laughs]
TK: Most of these people are opera people? Or a sizable number?
L: No, no. Those parties that you were referring to, that you asked me about, were just of our friends and just a social. But over the years we always, in the early years, we gave affairs for the artists after the operas. And those proved to be so wonderful and through those and my association with the actual performances—I lived and breathed the first 3 years. The artists, as I’ve said before, stayed in my home. I learned to know them and made some of the greatest friendships that I’ll always treasure. One of those wonderful friendships was Richard Tucker. He and his wife were close friends of ours. And Norman Treigle and Beverly Sills, and so many that we learned to love and we would entertain for them. But then as the association grew there were committees for that, which was rightly so, and they are entertained royally when they come here. There’s always—the wonderful people open their homes each time for these lovely, lovely parties for these artists.
TK: I know there’s sometimes a kind of volatile chemistry at work among opera singers. Were there ever any incidents in your home between 2 opera singers who weren’t too pleased to be in one another’s presence?
L: (1:09:16) Yes, we had several instances of that kind. Especially at one time when I had 2 Sopranos. They were doing an opera; I’ve forgotten right now what it was. But they had bedrooms together and they wouldn’t speak to each other. But we laughed it off—Mr. Lobit and I laughed it off and we tried our best. We didn’t interfere with having them eat at the same time. As you know, opera singers eat at 4 o’clock. They eat a steak at 4 o’clock in the afternoon. So we would try to arrange it so that one of them could have her steak in her room and the other one could go downstairs and eat. It worked itself out. So many funny things have happened over the years. We have a member, a former member of our Board of Directors, who was stage manager for many, many years. Mrs. Hilton Hearn, and she gives a 30-minute talk on funny things that have happened in the opera association that it just—it takes the house down when she gives this 30-minute talk on funny things that have happened during the years of the association.
TK: These 2 Sopranos—did they sing in the same performance?
L: Yes, they sang in the same performance and I’m just so sorry that I can’t remember the opera they were in. But, if I could take a moment, I’d like to tell you something that happened. The first opera in Salome that we gave—our Soprano that night was Brenda Lewis and, as I said before, it was a round rake stage elevated up in the air, you might say, at an angle. Brenda Lewis wore contact lenses. Of course, 20 years ago contact lenses were not as popular as they are today. When she was singing her big aria, she was singing around—she had her 7 veils and so forth—and as she sang and passed the Nazarenes that were standing on the rear of the stage, under her breath she said, “I dropped my contact lens at your feet.” She danced on around. She came back around and went up by the Nazarenes and, believe it or not, one of them had found her contact lens. She was very blind without them. She stuck it in her eye, came on around, and danced and when she was down right over the orchestra pit but also by the pit where John the Baptist was, as she finished her dance and her song, the contact lens popped out and went into the orchestra pit and into the lap of the first violinist in the orchestra. That seems unbelievable, but it really happened. And so many things of that kind that Mrs. Hearn should write a book on it.
TK: Or an article, at least. I understand you had a bit of a confrontation with a Baritone, Mr. Bardelli one night. Would you care to recount that incident?
L: Well, it was so humorous, it’s really—I shouldn’t discuss it—but it was so funny at the time and caused so much laughter all over the association. At that time we were doing Aida and there was so much going on for me. I normally was there—backstage—every minute of the time doing something. But this time I had not gotten acquainted with Mr. Bardelli. After the opening performance, someone was giving a party that night, so I went backstage to gather Mr. Bardelli and take him to the party. When I walked up to him—he didn’t [telephone rings] speak any English—very, very little English. So I walked up and told him that I was ready—what a wonderful performance he had given and the production and how much I enjoyed it—and told him I was now ready to take him with us to the party. He immediately, in his broken English, he was angry—he said, “I get no publicity. I get no publicity.” I didn’t know what he was talking about because I didn’t know anything about it. I was trying to say something to him and he took both hands and shoved me and I fell down to the stage. The stagehands started over to help me up, but I got up. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to do so—I just had my evening bag with me and Bardelli was a very small man, very frail and small. And I hit him with my evening bag and did the same thing to him that he had done to me. He fell to the stage. And I walked away. The last I saw of Mr. Bardelli he was going—walking down the street with his little music case under his arm. I immediately asked Mr. Herbert, when I got to the party, what was the big idea of this Baritone that acted like that. Mr. Herbert, in his way of talking, he said, “Well, Mrs. Lobit, you always—“ All the years that we were friends, he always called me Mrs. Lobit. He said, “Mrs. Lobit, he is crazy,” but he said, “You know, I thought maybe this one time he would behave himself.”
TK: (1:15:32) I take it Mr. Bardelli never returned to Houston?
L: Yes. Believe it or not, Mr. Herbert engaged him again and he gave a beautiful performance in another opera and had learned to speak English.
TK: And did he attend your party afterwards?
L: I don’t think so. I don’t remember that.
TK: He was a little bit apprehensive? [Mrs. Lobit laughs] Well, have you been active in bringing other forms of music to Houston, such as Chamber music?
L: I was—there was a chamber organization that was a year old and they came to me. It was not getting off the ground, you might say. They came to me and asked if I would take it over. And I told them I would take it over on one condition—that I would be allowed to choose the players. And the man who was asking me to do this was the first violinist in this organization. He very graciously consented and said that’s what they wanted—it was all right. So I took it over. From that became our wonderful Music Guild—the first chamber group that ever really got off the ground and is still in existence and is going strong. And in the organization we took—I chose the first chair players in each section of the Houston Symphony and then Mr. Albert Herst, the pianist, and that was the Music Guild. Down through the years, of course, in recent years it’s changed and the players have changed, and so forth.
Then I used to have quite a large part in the Tuesday Musical Club. We have brought very, very famous singers here when they were young. It’s, oh, I guess, I’m sure, 50 years old—the Tuesday Musical Club. And out of that, from bringing these young artists, we would always bring young artists—we have brought some of the very greatest singers—they have become great singers.
TK: This is an interesting thing, it seems to me—the parallel development of the cultural organizations in Houston. You’ve had—of course, the opera has grown. And you’ve had the Houston Ballet and the Society for the Performing Arts and the Symphony. Do you think that sometimes this brings a kind of distraction of the intention?
L: Oh, no. I don’t think so at all. I was in on—one of the charter members in helping to organize the Society for the Performing Arts. They’ve done such a magnificent, oh, magnificent job of bringing attractions here that are unbelievable. They’ve done such a marvelous, marvelous job.
TK: (1:18:46) Let me put it in a somewhat more concrete fashion. There are terrible scheduling conflicts in Jones Hall.
L: Oh, yes.
TK: Culture has grown to such an extent in Houston. I occasionally hear talk of a new theater going up in Houston. Do you know anything about this?
L: No, I don’t, but we are desperately in need of a new opera house. The Jones Hall is not an opera house. It’s a symphonic hall. The acoustics are fabulous. You couldn’t ask for better. But the way the hall is arranged—it’s disastrous as far as the people that are sitting in the balcony.
L: And what we need in Houston is a new opera house. I personally, and a lot of the patrons of the opera association, would welcome seeing the Music Hall done over and have the opera associations there—have the entire stage done over—the orchestra pit. And have the operas there. I think it would be marvelous because it is bad on those people who have to sit in the balconies in the Jones Hall. And for that reason, the Opera Association, Mr. Gockley, has put on another night so that people can get better seats.
TK: (1:20:20) Was there ever a time in the history of the organization that there was a serious proposal for a new opera house? Before you answer that question, I’m going to flip this tape over.
(end of tape 1)
(beginning of tape 2)
TK: (00:07) Side 2 of the Lobit interview. I was asking if there had been any serious attempts to build another opera house in Houston.
L: I don’t think so. Now, at this present time, we are—Mr. Gockley and several others—we are attempting to have another opera house—a real opera house, which we definitely need.
TK: At this point in the interview, I would just like to ask you if there are any other areas that we haven’t touched on that you think would be relevant and useful to a future scholar? If there are any people we’ve forgotten to credit?
L: Yes. I’m so remiss at not mentioning the Houston Endowment that has been our friend from the beginning. They gave us large sums of money and down through the, all through the years, they have been our ardent supporters. And, of course, it was through them that Mr. Jesse Jones—Mr. Jesse Jones had always wanted an opera house. That was his lifelong wish—to have an opera house. And of course it was through that endowment that we have our wonderful Jones Hall. So I would certainly like to go back and give credit to this wonderful Houston Endowment that’s been such a friend of the Opera Association.
TK: If Houston, some time in the near future, should get a proper opera house, do you have any thoughts on the design of that house?
L: Oh, yes. I think that one of the most fabulous opera houses that I’ve ever seen or been in, in my life, is the one in Vienna. I don’t think it could ever be improved on. I liked the way they have redone the opera house in Dallas. I think the official name is the Music Hall. It is just perfect as far as arrangements of the opera house. I really think that a new one that would be built like the one at the fairgrounds in Dallas would just be almost perfect.
TK: (02:38) Perhaps it would be appropriate to conclude the interview by asking you, “Are you optimistic about the future of opera in Houston?”
L: Oh, yes. Definitely. I think that we have—in David Gockley—I think we have a young man that has a vision and he has the youthfulness and the desire to grow. I’d like to—in all my talk here, I have forgotten to mention a young man who came to us right after we’d been in existence about 3 years. Mr. Charles Rosekrans—he’s a very, very dedicated musician. He’s a very, very fine musician. He came to us when we sorely needed somebody. We could give him a very small salary. He is the grandson of Mrs. Adolph Spreckels from San Francisco, as everyone knows, who is a great patron of the arts. He had everything at his fingertips and he worked very closely with Mr. Herbert. He guided our chorus, and I think that’s one reason we have such a great chorus today—it was under his leadership. I’m so sorry that he is not going to be with us in the future because he’s done so much, so much, I cannot say, to help this organization get where it is today. As you know, we are fifth in the nation. In my own opinion, I think we are about second. But we are officially known as the fifth.
TK: Official by whom?
L: By the consensus of opinion of all the other opera companies.
TK: I see. Well, as a casual opera-goer myself, I must say I hope the organization retains its vigor. And on behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives, I’d like to thank you very much for the interview.
L: Well, thank you for letting me talk to you.
TK: (04:54) Okay.
(end of tape 2)