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Interview with: Mrs. William W. Bland
Interviewed by: Tom Krenek
Date: August 25, 1975
Archive Number: OH 012_01
TK: (00:13) Mrs. Bland, before we begin to talk about the Houston Opera Guild and the Grand Opera, per se, I’d like to ask one or two background questions, if I might. Are you a native Houstonian?
B: No, I am not a native Houstonian. I came here just after graduating from college, and I was in my ‘20s when I arrived.
TK: So how long have you lived in Houston then?
B: I’ve lived in Houston for almost 40 years.
TK: When you first arrived, what did the opera-goer do to satisfy his or her passion for the opera, since there was none?
B: Well, there was none, actually. We went to Dallas to hear the Metropolitan Opera when it was brought there. Of course, we had had the Metropolitan here in Houston. And Mrs. Saunders, Mrs. Edna Saunders, brought the Metropolitan here. And, later, we had not, but we had to go to Dallas, unless the Metropolitan came in our area.
TK: (01:19) When was this, that the Metropolitan was in Houston?
B: This was back in the ‘30s, I believe.
TK: Did it come every season?
B: Every season, for a while, yes.
TK: And then do you recall the reason they quit coming to Houston?
B: No. It was just that in this area they performed only in one spot, and Dallas was closer to other cities. We were near the Gulf, and it was very easy for us to travel to Dallas to hear the opera.
TK: So when the Met was in Dallas there was a kind of grand caravan up north?
B: Oh, yes. Yes. Quite a bit.
TK: When did you first conceive your love for the opera?
B: Well, before I married my husband [laughs]. My husband probably would not want me to say this, but he sang in the Chicago Civic Opera in the chorus and also in his college, The University of Illinois, glee club. And he was acquainted with several of the opera people, who were having a very difficult time making a living in Opera. I mean, it was so much easier to go the night club route instead of performing in the Opera.
TK: This is what time, now?
B: This was back in 1930, in the early ‘30s.
TK: Was this due to the Depression, largely?
B: (02:43) Yes, due to the Depression. And several of his friends were performing in night clubs because there was no outlet for them in the Opera. And the day before we married, he had his last voice lesson. [laughs] So after that, it was the early ‘30s, and the banks had closed in ’33 and it was very difficult to be married and to have extra money for extra activities.
TK: Are you, yourself, a singer?
B: No, I am not. But I’ve loved music all my life.
TK: Well, all right, let’s move in time a little bit, to the 1950s. And of course we have the founding of the Houston Grand Opera in 1955. I was wondering if the Opera Guild was founded simultaneously with the Houston Grand Opera?
B: (03:38) Yes. Yes, indeed it was. As a matter of fact, before we completed our Board of Directors for the Opera, Mrs. Louis Lobit came to me in March of 1955, and asked me to head a Guild for the Opera. And I was worried, because at that time, I was on eight boards, and I had loved my work with the museum, and I had done some symphony work, I had been the vice president of the museum, had done two museum jobs, and an all day festival. And I had done the church bazaar, and I had done a job for the indigent school children. So Mrs. Lobit, I suppose, felt that I was the proper one to help form this guild.
TK: Certainly the logical one.
B: [laughs] Well, not really. I take no credit because one person cannot do all of that alone. You have to have friends and helpers.
TK: So you had known Mrs. Lobit for some time before the founding of the guilt?
B: No, I had just met her.
B: (04:46) No, I had just met her. And she came to me because, I suppose, someone had told her that I had done these other things, I do not know. [laughs] But, at any rate, she wanted me to head the Guild. And we began to work in March, and in April we began to talk with friends, begging them to help us form a guild because we needed that guild to get the opera off the ground. Just a few board members, mainly businessmen, could not do that. Therefore, they needed the hard core, dedicated women who were interested in music and loved what music entails in order to give us our beginning opera company.
TK: Why did you call it a guild?
B: We patterned it after the Metropolitan Opera Guild, which found itself in very grave circumstances. You see, the Metropolitan had been going for 20 years. It had 20 years of activity, and it was confronted with a diminishing audience, and a vanishing income.
TK: This was in the 1950s?
B: (06:07) This was in 1935. They were 20 years ahead of us. But, I had the Metropolitan Guild program, and we began to talk about a guild. And in their few pages, what they did in the Guild, in 1955, is exactly what we copied, because they stated on one page showing pictures, “We serve the Metropolitan.” Which is—we wanted to serve the Houston Opera. “We welcome the young people.” And then we began to think of the young and to know what they had done in bringing in the young people. And we wanted to educate them. And that was one of our main goals with the Guild, because I had two young children at that time, and I wanted them to be musically interested. And then the fact that they could meet these stunning opera super stars, and the fact that they could share the arts with the world. And so, page by page, we copied it. And in the teaching of ourselves, we had no time to teach ourselves how to begin opera classes, and we had no time to form the opera news, which they had, because mainly we were working in the office trying to put in regular office hours. We gave hideous hours, sometimes at 7:30 in the morning we would arrive, or 8:00 after taking children to school. And we worked all day, and it didn’t finish with the day, because in the evening, especially if we were with groups of people in the evening, we did nothing but talk of opera and try to sell our friends.
TK: (08:02) See, that’s what I had anticipated, was that, even though education may have been an early goal, you spent most of your time just in the hard process trying to survive.
B: We had to. We had to, yes. You have to do what I call the ground work. And that’s what it was. Later, we graduated, so to speak, and we had enough money to pay the office help. And there were those of us—I could type—I did some of the typing. And we had several telephones. But since the Met, we found that the Met had their huge question was how to bring back their audiences and how to interest the youth to help them out of their dilemma. They found that the answer was in a membership of a type, called a Guild. And, therefore, it led to a deeper understanding of opera. And, with that came along certain privileges, of course, for Guild members. And it is interesting because in that first Guild, in the 1955 Guild, the Board of Directors on the Guild, two people whom I see twice a year in New York at the Met, Edmond, uh, Loyal Edmond, and William Rockefeller. Loyal Edmond was president of the Metropolitan Opera National Council last year, and he served his term and this year turned the gavel over the William Rockefeller, who is now the president of the present Metropolitan Opera National Council.
TK: Were there any other guilds or friends of the opera type organizations that you patterned yourself after?
B: (09:50) No, just the Met. That’s all we had time for. Because, you see, Dallas didn’t have an opera at that time. Three years later, they came down to us to study our opera. Mrs. Lobit has put Stanley Marcus on the Guild because he was a good source of bringing people to Dallas down to our opera to sell some seats, you see. And so they came to us to study us.
TK: Were you a little proud when that happened?
B: Yes. Very proud, yes. That’s also happened with the Museum of Fine Arts. Dallas has come to study us and to find out how we raised money for certain projects. So we began working in March, patterning ourselves after the Metropolitan. And we began to collect dues, and it seemed unusual to ask for dues at that time because we had no opera and they were going to have to pay $5 or $8 or $20, or whatever, for their box seats or for their balcony seats. But we simply told them that we needed this money to help run the office and all of the friends who would give me $5 on the instant I asked them, that money went in to Mr. Knapp who was our wonderful treasurer at that time, and it was money that was used by the opera. For instance, one $5, [laughs] I can remember, Mr. Herbert had no cab fare to go someplace. So that was—the bill that came in and the new name that went on the founding members of the guild. And there were some whom we said, if you don’t have $5, would give us $1. It shows that you have interest, and if you think of giving us the $4 later, that would be quite all right. So that’s the way we began it. Many of them personal friends who believed in you and trusted you.
TK: (11:54) It seems amazing to build an organization on $1 and $5 donations.
B: Yes, it does. But, you see, our goal was only $22,000, which sounds such a pittance today. And we were trying to build two operas on the $22,000, borrowed money, and security at the bank guaranteed.
TK: Other than dues, I imagine that some people made outright donations. Would that be a fair surmise?
B: Yes, yes. And that’s what the Guild was all about. Because we sold the opera tickets. We told people that if they could buy them in a hurry we would place their order and they could send us the check, knowing full well that when the tickets were issued that they would have the better seats, which is how we did it. But, before we got into this, we had a Houston city map. We began to—we started with, of all things, the River Oaks area [laughs], because we knew there were many old homes in River Oaks and people who had enough money, who had paid for their homes, or partially paid for them, and who could afford these $5 and $8 tickets, whether they had a box seat or not. But I still have that map, and I treasure it because it was a great way to begin. Then, we took the telephone book, and we had copies made. I kept the copy of the files. We gave workers and we checked on them later, different names from the telephone book, people whom we knew and we checked out. But mainly, our main support came from friends. For instance, we began by using a social register and the River Oaks Country Club and International Club, the Houston Club, and St. John’s School. And the Racquet Club, people whom we knew. Then, Ted Moody gave us the Houston Country Club and the Bayou Association and the Pi Phi Sorority. And Christine Ember gave us the Petroleum Club. F. M. Caldwell gave us the Paul Jones Club, and I could go on. Smith College came from L. S. Tizzie, and the Doctor’s Club, Valene Bartlett supplied that. And Helen Anderson gave us the English-Speaking Union and the Tejas Club. Katherine Calhoun gave us the S/L Terk Cicory (??) (14:34) and the 100 Club, and Maizie Marshall gave us the Bolero Club. This is how we began. We started with our clubs. And, for instance, June Lacks gave us Corinthian Yacht Club. We said, all right, that is your assignment. Begin with your friends. And call them and see if they would be interested in the opera. And Winifred Jones gave us the Bayou Club. Connie Lansdowne, now deceased, bless her soul, gave us the Top Club. And that’s how we collected all of these.
TK: Hmm, you were very systematic.
B: (15:11) Well, not really. It was just something that we had to do. Whom do you know who would buy a ticket to the opera? You see, we had to do all of the work in the office. We answered the phones, and we answered the questions, we assisted Mr. Herbert, he was new in this city, and he didn’t know too many people. So we assisted him with names of people and giving him background, and that sort of thing. But, these people worked very hard and long hours. As a matter of fact, several people came to me later and said it was breaking their health. [laughs] And that they had never worked on a project, a volunteer work, and given such long, dedicated hours. They had mainly done church work or civic work, and they had taken, say, 10 cards for donations, and had done the work and gone to the meeting; turned in their money, and they were finished with the job. This was not so with opera. We could not let go. It was quite a grind.
TK: (16:24) Still, there’s a special quality in remembering days when things were hard.
B: Oh, yes.
TK: When there were problems to be solved.
TK: Do you miss that a little bit?
B: Yes. Well, I still am active. I don’t want to live if I can’t help someone else. And I feel that the spice of life is music, and I think it gives a great deal of joy all through your life. I think you’re never alone if you have music.
TK: Well, now, have, I’m sure we probably haven’t mentioned everyone.
B: No. By all mean, no. I must—I would like to indelibly impress upon you the fact that these wonderful workers helped in the office. They gave their days. They gave those hours. They thought nothing, if they’d seen you at a party, of calling you back at midnight and saying, “I know you aren’t asleep but something occurred to me. Could I do that in the morning? Which was why my telephone rang off the wall.
TK: And if you were asleep, that was tough, right?
B: (17:31) No, not really. They more considerate than that. Buy, at any rate, I must commend Lela Abercrombie, who is now Mrs. Paul Barkley. She was an angel. And Mrs. Ed Goodhaden, who worked very diligently in the office. And also Katherine Calhoun. My goodness, there could never be an opera without Katherine. And she has done so much in every facet of opera. And Mrs. W. K. Chester, and Mrs. Charles Cockrell, Mrs. Jack Ferrell, who lives in Arizona now. And Mrs. W. T. Fleming, and Mrs. George Francisco, Sr. Mrs. Jan Lykes, Jr., my neighboring good friend who helped me all the way. And Mrs. Denman Moody, also a neighbor and good friend who worked very, very hard. And Mrs. John L. Mortimer. There couldn’t be an opera without Fay Mortimer. She is one of the most dedicated people I have ever known. And Natasha Rossen, who was Brant Rossen at that time. And Claire Schlumberger, Mrs. Pierre Schlumberger. And Mrs. J. W. Field, Mrs. Richardson Moore, and Mrs. Oreon Smith. And, of course, Adena Tomlinson, who came in after my tenure in the Guild. She became the next Guild president. And, of course, the ever-wonderful Elva Lobit, the main driving force of the opera. And Marietta Walbridge, and Nell Willman. I could go on and on, and I’m sure I’ve missed many valuable people because all of them assisted us. Some could not work every day as we did, because we literally worked every day. We gave up social engagements. We got off of all the boards in order to give full time to the opera. And, a number of people would say, “I can’t come in on Monday because I have a doctor’s appointment, but I’ll be with you all day Tuesday, and I’ll be there Wednesday,” and so forth. This is how we manned the office. We typed and we had the printing done. We helped make up the programs. We even assisted with our furniture in some of the sets. We had very little money, you see. And Rex Harrell, a wonderful man, was coming over to design the sets for Salome. And then later, when Nancy Blackburn was our beautiful Cio-Cio San butterfly, people were eager with Chinese possessions to offer because they knew Nancy would be on stage, and Eugene Connelly, at that time, had a marvelous voice.
TK: Was there a common denominator in the personalities of these people that you have mentioned? What makes a person work 12 hours a day for the opera?
B: Well, I think, actually, all of us were music oriented. And we had one little statement that we used when we talked to people. People who said, “Ahh, I don’t like opera. I have had nothing to do with opera.” We would say, “Well, do you realize that our city is destined to be one of the largest cities in the world. And do we want an ignorant, uneducated community?” Now, that was a tough question to ask people, and especially very successful businessmen with huge companies would buy a block of tickets.
TK: (21:10) And I suppose if you asked that question of somebody like Glenn McCarthy, he said he just wouldn’t care about the opera.
TK: I mean, it was a—more than one answer was possible to the question.
B: Well, actually, no, no. Let me tell you. This friend of my mother’s, Connie Nysdown, went to Glenn McCarthy to get the list of the Court Club. She was an elderly woman, and did not have it. And she got the list from Glenn for me. But, I think music’s the world’s greatest creator of happiness.
TK: You’ve opened, just now, what seems to me to be an interesting question, not immediately pertaining to the Guild, but something I’d like to pursue anyway. Were people in this city, in the 1950s, self conscious about the charge that they were nouveau riche?
B: Yes. Yes.
TK: Was there an inferiority complex?
B: (22:06) Yes, we had that, being stamped with this misnomer. At the time Glenn McCarthy opened the Shamrock Hotel, it was quite a boisterous party. And there’s a full page picture of the lady from Longview was credited all over the nation as having been an Houstonian. And she was not. But, on the other hand, I think this is your news media—what it does to a city. And I think it’s sad, because we have wonderful people in Houston. We are dedicated. We are cultured. We are educated. And many people have gone to the east to be educated, and returned home to live. But, somehow the easterners at that time felt that only the New Yorkers and the Bostonians and others in that area were the educated people. So we’ve had to fight that. And this is why we used that slogan, and asked our businessmen, “Do we want this ignorant, uneducated community? That’s what the world thinks of us.”
TK: Given the drive, not just in the opera, but in, for example, the Society for the Performing Arts, Ballet, and so on, it’s almost a self education, isn’t it?
TK: Just that fierce determination?
B: Yes, we brought ourselves up by our own bootstraps. And just as these women who helped, they were a hard core of dedicated music lovers. And, we actually got the opera off the ground. We could not have brought in another cultural organization without this core of women. One or two people could not have done it alone. And businessmen were too busy.
TK: Why opera? Why not start with ballet? After all, ballet didn’t come in until ’67, ’68. Why was opera the first big cultural push, so to speak?
B: (24:20) That I don’t know except, of course, with opera we have brought in ballet into our operas, you see. But all of us loved symphony—we had that. It took the symphony to have an opera. We not only had a visual stage with a performance going on. We had the marvelous symphony music in the orchestra pit. And then, later, the ballet came in to perform for us. There were small ballet schools here. But I really feel that it gave an impetus to bring in the ballet and it’s been very helpful to have all of these organizations pull together.
TK: So you feel there’s been a kind of cross-fertilization of the performing arts?
B: Oh, yes, indeed. Indeed I do.
TK: Have you personally been active in any of the later performing arts, such as the founding of the ballet?
B: No. [laughs] Actually, I don’t want to be—
TK: Opera was plenty?
B: No, I was asked to be on the board, but I was already on eight boards. I could not handle another one. So, therefore, I declined. But my heart has always been there, and I love ballet.
TK: Let’s return to the details surrounding the founding of the Guild. How was it that you were chosen to be the first president?
B: [laughs] That’s most unusual, because in the beginning Mrs. Lobit asked me to be the Guild chairman in March. And I realized that when we had founding, I believe it was August 5. We had worked all those months; those people had been in the office; they had been working very hard. And I had no title, and didn’t want one. [laughs] Because I thought when we met at Mrs. Lobit’s home, if they wanted to choose someone else that would be fine with me. It mattered not, because I had already set up the luncheon for the beginning of the ticket sales. I think the luncheon was on the 13th after we founded it on the 5th, I believe. But at the founding meeting, Mrs. Lobit appointed me. We elected her as president. But Mrs. Lobit appointed me as the first chairman of the Opera Guild.
TK: (26:55) Are presidents elected now?
B: No. I think they just—well, yes, perhaps they are. I don’t recall. But it’s a matter of the work you do.
B: And how you serve. If you are vice president, yes, I’ve seen several vice presidents come in as president of the Guild.
TK: So actually the word president insofar as it has democratic connotations might be a misnomer?
B: Yes, it’s the work that you do. Yes. She appointed me. But had they elected—the board approved me, you see. But had they elected someone else, those 35 members [laughs], they could easily have done so. And I would still have gone on with all we had done.
TK: Is it ordained that the president of the Opera Guild shall always be a woman?
B: (27:40) No. No. For a very short time, we had a man president, Charles Sanders. But he declined. We had some stationery printed with his name on it, Charles Sanders, President of the Guild. This was in 1960. And there was a very valid reason why he could not continue. But he had done much work and has always been interested in the opera. And, you see, in the beginning, when we had our first 100 founding members, had we added the husband’s names, as they are doing today after 20 years, we would have had 200, perhaps, excluding here or there single people. But we could have had more people had we added the husbands, but they were all women. It was the women who had the time during the day, you see, to do the work.
TK: At what point in time did you feel that the Guild became a solid organization, that you sort of quit worrying about paying Mr. Herbert’s taxi fare on an annual basis?
B: No, that didn’t—that only happened until we were able to sell our tickets, you see. That was only a few months. And that certainly Mr. Knapp kept track of all of it and it went into the entire opera fund. The Guild dues were given to the opera as a gift. But that went on—you see we had no time for by-laws, just as the Metropolitan didn’t seem to have any by-laws. And when you give that many hours you have to stay with what you are doing. There is no time to call meetings because you are trying very hard to get something large off the ground.
TK: What I was driving at was, when did it become routinized? When was there enough full time staff that you didn’t have to—
B: (29:39) Oh, yes. Later, we were able to pay Margaret Doerr, she had been a volunteer, and we paid her in the office and we acquired some office help. And in 1960, we sorely needed some by-laws, and the opera had almost died, you see, before that time. We had had parties. Mary Lou—Betty Lou Jones and Mary Lou Gifford, I recall, gave opera parties to try to save the opera.
TK: When was this?
B: This was in 1960.
TK: Hmm. I was not aware that there was a great crisis at this time.
B: Oh, yes. Yes. Well, we had had our drive, you see, in 1960, and we had not raised enough money. I don’t want to inject my husband in there, but for 10 years he’d been vice president. At that time, he was president. And we had a holiday scheduled abroad, a long one, and we canceled it because we saw we could not leave the city. With this small amount of money, we could not have kept our contract with our opera stars to pay them and we could not have put on the productions for the coming season, because we had not collected enough money from our maintenance drive. Therefore, we needed $60,000 to begin our opera company in the fall, and we were so distraught.
(31:20) So we stayed home all summer to raise that money. There were many dedicated people, but many of them, of course, would leave the city and people are hard to find in Houston during the vacation time. But two wonderful board members, Thomas B. Anderson and Marshall Wells—Marshall was then head of the Houston Endowment. I don’t know which one came first, Thomas’ gift of $20,000 from his Anderson Foundation; or whether Marshall Wells gift from the Houston Foundation. But each of them joined in proposing to us this money provided we could raise the matching amount to have our opera survive. And this is why we stayed home. We called on, called people, and begged and pleaded, and many days I didn’t get out of my nightgown until 5:00 in the afternoon because I was so hot on telephone numbers. I recall many good friends, Mrs. Farish, had helped us with the museum when I headed both of the ladies’ drives there, and she bent a very wonderful ear to me and she had me contact her brother-in-law, Ella’s husband, Jim Winston. And that was a hard one to contact because he was so busy and it was very difficult to get to him. But, at any rate, we were successful in begging, pleading, cajoling, begging people to hold up the money and to wait until the nth degree to give it; saying you do not have to pay it now. Please give it to us in December, or before you make out your tax return. And the last $1500, my neighbor across the street, Cornelia Cullen Long, now Mrs. Meredith Long, told my husband that if we came within the last $1500 that she would give it from the Cullen Foundation. And, bless her soul, she came through and I’ll love her always for that, because she literally helped us save the opera.
TK: (33:46) Did you get to go on your vacation?
B: No, we did not. And what does it matter? I mean, so long as you can keep something alive and going?
TK: Was that the only severe crisis in the history of the opera? Or were there others?
B: Well, I think, yes, there are always crises, just as every president of the Guild has reorganized—I mean, of the Opera Association—has reorganized the opera. And every chairman of the Guild has reorganized the Guild. That’s their prerogative, I think they should.
TK: Well, now, by crisis I mean, very specifically, financial.
B: Well, the big financial one was in 1960 when we could not have had an opera. So many of our people were out of the city and could not be contacted. And yet, in those days, the president would have to go to the opera office and put in hours of work, like signing checks and signing union contracts, and signing payroll checks, and that kind of thing. But many hours were put in by the president. And now the president, being a businessman, does not have to put in that many hours in the opera office. He also is there, I’m not discrediting what they do, because they certainly have plenty to do, but one doesn’t have to do that much. There are so many paid workers who do help.
TK: (35:15) Do you find that donations to the opera tend to go in regular cycles with the economy? In other words, in a year when the economy is off that there’s more problems?
B: Yes, indeed. I certainly do, because when we were forming this opera board and the guild, we had quite a time getting enough people to go on our note, for instance, just like the SPA. In the beginning of that, everyone had to pledge $1,000, and we lost it all. Those of us who pledged the $1,000 to be on the board, lost it the first year because they lost money. Well, not so with the opera, because in 1955, we were begging people to go on our note, therefore pledging $1,000. And they did not have to pay off. Now that is remarkable.
TK: It certainly is. How about inflation? Has the recent inflationary trend created a lot of problems for the opera?
B: Not necessarily, I don’t think. We have had to up the tickets in price because everything else has gone up. But we certainly do not charge as much as they do at the Metropolitan in New York.
TK: No, that’s true.
B: (36:36) Therefore, you know, if you get there under your own steam you don’t have that heavy cab fare to the opera and that sort of thing, the airplane trip up to New York and back to see it. And sometimes our operas, Mr. Bland and I go twice a year to New York for the Met, and we have come home and our operas have been better. We have, and we’ve had people visiting us, who have stated that our production has been better than the one that they have seen at the Met.
TK: Of course, the Met has a whole host of almost unique problems.
B: Oh, yes. Yes.
TK: They’re not without their difficulties.
B: That’s true. That’s true.
TK: Well, once the Guild became established, I suppose you found it more feasible to pursue the educational function?
B: Oh, yes. Our goal, you see, in the beginning—trying to emulate the Metropolitan—our goal was to educate the young. And in order to collect the dues, we told our friends that their children would be able to see one production free. No, two productions free. We were giving it free without charging a penny. And therefore their gift of $5 to the Guild was not a large sum. And we did put on matinees of our productions. But they were ill-attended. And it was not until Mr. Martin Mosier, he is now deceased; when Mr. Mosier came to us, he became the vice president of education. And he was retired, more or less, and he went to all of the schools and the first matinee we gave under his guidance was attended by 2,500 children. He put on that production in 1958. Then in ’59, there were five matinees, and 11,500 children came, approximately, you see. And then in 1959-60, there were four matinees—9,500 children. And in ’60-’61, two matinees—5,000 children. And the following year, four matinees—10,000; five matinees—12,000. And in 1966, ’65 and ’66, we were giving eight matinees and they were attended by 24,000 children. And those seats were so hard to come by, they were then charging a small fee. But they were so hard to come by that the tickets to different schools had to be limited only to music students, or students in top grades—who had top grades—could be excused from class in order to go. And that made them sought-after, you see, it made the children want to go.
TK: (39:49) Actually, it seems though, that a music student would be inclined to the opera any way. And it might have been even more appropriate to give the tickets to the non-music students, on the hope that they would acquire some love for this.
B: Yes. Well, we have done this. You see, we’ve given—now, for instance, when we began the Guild, we were unable to fill the hall but we didn’t want it to be empty, nor bare, and we saw that we were going to make it with this hard labor. And at the very end, we gave tickets to the nurses in the hospitals, and to students, and now, today, I’ve just replied to a letter from Joe Furr, one of the past presidents, giving money to students so that they may attend the opera. What that student will be studying, I do not know. Whether it’s music, or whether it’s medicine, or whatever.
TK: Let me ask you this—Have you met any students, well, people who were students in, say, 1958, who have come to you and said, “I first discovered the opera in one of your programs and I’m a regular opera goer today.”
B: (41:04) Yes, we have. And I wish I could recall the names. I do, indeed. But, yes, we have. And I’m very happy that the news media at the time pictured a few small children who were brought to the opera. This is how we got Stanley Shiffness to be the second president of the opera. We literally wrung his hand because he had told me—Katherine Calhoun, and Stanley and I were on a “find the president” beat. This was, oh, back in 1958, I guess it was. Katherine Calhoun had been the acting president. And Katherine and Stanley and I went to see Bill Farrington, who built Tanglewood. Bill was doing so much for the symphony at that time that he declined, and we had tried very hard to interest others in becoming the president and we were unable to get them. So, finally, coming home from interviewing one of them, and we’d made an office appointment downtown, Stanley told me the story of his beginning with opera. His family in, I believe, Indiana, it was a northern state, took him by the hand and took him to opera when he was four or five years old. And he remembered this. And, with that, Katherine and I prevailed upon him, and he became our second president.
TK: Sometimes you hear apocryphal stories of poor European immigrants standing in line patiently to get a poor seat at the Met. Do you recall any immigrants in Houston who had acquired a love of the opera in Europe, and who became regular opera-goers?
B: (42:54) Oh, yes. Some of my husband’s employees—they have come from France and many of them from Mexico. We’ve taken some of them with us to the opera. And they come from foreign countries, some of the Czechoslovakia. We have a great core of people—obviously, educated people—who wouldn’t dream of missing an opera.
TK: When there is an opera performance in Houston at Jones Hall, from what region do you draw people to the opera?
B: Oh, I think all over. All over. In the beginning, you see, we had a hard time because we did want to populate our audience with—some of the people, I had served with Gen. Bruce from the University of Houston—and I went to him and asked him to please send some of the students from that area and from all walks of life to our performances. We also set aside, I know, the people who work in my home, were among the first ones to see Salome and Butterfly. Also, Mrs. Lobit personally employed people. And then a friend of mine who helped us in the audience most wonderfully, Mrs. B. W. Bordash, we talked her husband into giving us our sign boards for free for the opera, which was a wonderful thing. But Mrs. Bordash gave two of the tickets to the person who helps her in her home. And I have the dearest, sweetest note from Z. D. Hand, and she enjoyed them so much. She was elderly at that time, but I am hoping that she is still attending.
TK: Of course, there are other educational functions besides the previews for students. There’s something else called an Opera Preview.
B: (45:03) Yes. Well, that’s part of the Guild, you see. Just as a baby is born, and the baby has to be diapered and cannot feed itself, the Opera Guild has grown. And now the Opera Guild is going into its 21st year. The Opera Guild should be adult, and it certainly is. Because at the time we began the Guild, we had no time for opera news. And the opera news at the Guild was then 20 years old, you see, they had had this Guild for 20 years. So naturally they had time to have educational classes for opera, and to be able to publish a lovely opera news, or queues, whatever you wish to call it.
You see, with this program, we had opera back in 1922. Here is the Mary Parson Grand Opera Company. That’s an antique-dog [laughter]. That’s a gem to be—I want to give that to the Guild.
TK: Would you describe for us a little bit what goes on at these Opera Previews?
B: (46:14) The audience, well, they are taught what the opera is all about. We have opera books, you see, and librettos—the librettos gone through.
TK: Who does the teaching?
B: Many people. It’s many-faceted number of people. Alfred Newman was one of our first educators. And since then I’m reluctant to call their names because I can’t recall them.
TK: How does one gain admittance to one of these Opera Previews? Through membership in the Guild?
B: Through the dues, yes. Yes. If you pay the dues, and sometimes they have had so many attend that they had required that you bring your Opera Guild card to the meeting so that you can enter. The seating capacity at Foley’s and other places, Kincaid School and St. John’s School, it’s limited seating capacity. They’ve had some of them in the country clubs, also.
TK: Do you recall when the first Opera Preview was staged?
B: (47:18) No, I cannot. It was after ’60, though. ’61.
TK: When did the magazine, Opera Queues, first appear?
B: That was in the ‘60s, and I cannot—Louise Gaylord has done it for so long that I wouldn’t want to malign her with the number of years. [laughs] But, we’ve had it for a number of years. I can’t recall how long. But as far as—
TK: She was the inspiration behind the publication?
B: Well, she has done the most, I would say.
TK: Well, now, even though there are more and more of these sorts of things going on, I’m sure the Opera Guild is still very active in raising money?
B: Oh, yes. That’s what opera is all about. [laughs] Yes. That’s why in 1960 we said, well, one could not serve in the opera and just sit there and do meetings and attend functions, because one had to raise money. That’s what opera is all about.
TK: What I’d like to ask, though, is how the methods of raising money have changed, if indeed they have.
B: (48:28) Oh, yes, they have, considerably. Because we now have opera cards, and we go to meetings, and we’re given so many cards, and are expected to raise so much money. And they’ve done this with the small gifts. I’ve been on the big gifts ever since the beginning of opera [laughs] and still am. But you are given a certain amount of cards; people you know or have contacted. I’ve contacted the same people for so long that this year I had people whom I love dearly write me notes and ask me not to contact them any more. So I shall give their cards to someone else. I’m certain it’s quite a bore to have the same people come year after year. And, yet, there are certain people who do not mind giving in that manner.
TK: How much money does the Opera Ball bring in, for example?
B: Well, I could not tell you today, because I recall a figure like $13,000. But I do recall the first Opera Ball, which was given on Friday, November 18, 1960. I remember this because we had much to do with it. We made $78.
B: And later, someone said $9. But we made $78. It was given after a performance at the Rice Hotel. Then our second Opera Ball was given Friday, January 26 in ’62, and it made $970. And the third ball was given in 1961—it was given in 1962. And from then on, I don’t recall what the balls have made.
TK: Is the raison d' être of the Opera Ball more financial or social?
B: (50:20) It’s more social, and I’ll tell you why. Because we were astounded, even though you took two or three tables and sent your children and all of your neighbors’ children to fill up one table, you know, in order to have the first ball. We were absolutely astounded to think that we had made such a pittance--$78. [laughter] With all of the hard work that went into it. That was just horrible. But Mrs. Leo Linbeck and Mrs. J. Robert Ember really put the Opera Ball on its feet. This was in the ‘60s. It was the most elegant occasion one has almost ever attended in Houston. And they did it at the Shamrock Hilton Hotel in that beautiful Anteroom. And I was ever so grateful to the news media for giving it its rightful place, because although the people who worked the hardest have not received the praise, it was certainly voted the most outstanding event in Houston for that year. It was done with candelabra, and white candles, and done in a gold theme—I shan’t forget it ever. It was most beautifully done. Since then, I think every chairman of the Ball has tried to live up to that opinion.
TK: Is it still held at the Shamrock?
B: Yes, mainly. We’ve had it other places, but the Shamrock is the great place—it was there last year, I believe. There’s so many balls in Houston, one forgets [laughs] where the balls are. But the Opera Ball, we always attend, if we’re in the city.
TK: Would you go so far as to say that it is the premier social event on the social calendar?
B: (52:13) Without seeming to put first things first, yes, I would say so. Although it is a charity ball, there is only one ball in all of Houston that is not a charity ball. All of them are, with the exception of the Mayor’s Ball, the Consular Corps Ball. In my estimation, the symphony does not have a ball. And the young ladies worked very hard in the Junior League putting on a most wonderful floor show. It was a different kind of ball. But for elegance, I think, yes, the Houston Grand Opera Ball is The Ball. It’s foremost in my mind.
TK: At this point in the interview, I’d like to shy away from questions on the Opera Guild, per se, and just record some of your more general opinions concerning the growth of the Grand Opera. To start with, have you noticed any major changes under David Gockley’s directorship?
B: Oh, yes. David has been absolutely wonderful. He’s had a broad hand in doing so much for Houston. We certainly were not in the position that we are today prior to having David. David understands opera. He’s very intelligent. And he knows people from the opera areas. He has inroads with people whom we had not known of before. David has done a magnificent job, I think.
TK: (54:04) Specifically, is he trying to move away from what Mrs. Lobit characterized as the old war horses, and present it with some more innovative operas?
B: Yes. David is young, and I think he’s trying very hard to give us not only contemporary, but modern opera. And he has done so in a number of instances. But you realize that we cannot raise this money—we are not a concern that makes money presenting opera. In other words, Mrs. Sanders was in a business when she brought Metropolitan here. That was her business. But we are an organization made up of patrons who give the opera gifts. This is why I think we have to have the tried and true operas—Tosca Aida—we have to have those to sell tickets, and Tom, of course, is so popular. And yet I wouldn’t miss a performance for anything—of any one of them. Although you tire of some of them, you still want to go and see how this man has staged this one.
TK: Right. Well, you have anticipated my next question, which was that there seems to be a kind dilemma at work here. On one hand, there’s financial security; and on the other, there’s desire for artistic innovation.
TK: And, I wanted to ask if this had created a strong tension in the opera audience here in Houston.
B: (55:31) Oh, I think, yes, at one point, it had. But I think it’s probably has been forgiven.
TK: How would you evaluate the contribution of Walter Herbert?
B: Oh, I think he is superb. Walter Herbert could get more out of a dollar in opera—money speaking, than any man on the face of the earth, I do believe. He was not only well educated and knew opera, and a great conductor, but he had a sharp mind. For instance, he was an avid bridge player.
TK: Bridge player, right.
B: And, goodness knows, he won at that. But his mind was so sharp. And he had a faculty of looking at young singers and presenting them—bringing in new faces. Beverly Sills is my good friend and my outstanding person, and no one had heard of Beverly Sills until he brought her here. And, now, she’s the superstar. And he’s also brought Russell Christopher and Gabriella Tucci, and Jim McCracken, and of course we’ve had S/L Sebbanon (??) (56:49), Richard Tucker, Robert Merrill. And I remember one of our first productions with Roberta Peters in Figaro.
TK: Of course, I wasn’t here when Mr. Herbert was, but I had had noticed a couple of reviews in which the comment was made that Mr. Herbert’s propensity to stretch the opera dollar had, in fact, resulted in a spare performance. This criticism was made. Is there any truth to that?
B: (57:21) Yes, I think so, because he actually did not have the money. For instance, a number of friends would come to me and say, well why did the stage look so bare? Well, knowing my husband was going to all the executive meetings. He would come home and tell me, after all these years, you know, well we have practically nothing left in the budget. It has to be a reasonable opera. You see? And some of the tickets, we had three operas, and we had two operas at first and then three operas, and we’ve added operas, you see? But in order to do that, sometimes something would come along that would cost more, that would spare us. For instance, we had a cancellation of an insurance at one time and we had t pay off, I’ve forgotten what it was all about, but at any rate, we had to pay a $12,000 sum. Because the insurance had not been renewed. This is something that you have to deal with opera with the money you have at hand. But we had opera, actually, in the black in the ‘60s. And, of course, we were trying very hard to put it on for the money that we had at hand.
TK: Mr. Gockley, I take it, is not so sparing with his dollars as Mr. Herbert was?
B: Now, that I don’t know, because I give David great credit for what he has helped us raise with the foundations. He’s gone out from Houston, and he’s worked very diligently and very hard to help us raise this extra money. And, remember, Bill Fisher’s generous gift from the Bill Fisher Award, this last $100,000. It’s unbelievable. And Bill says now he may not be able to do that again. You know, just for one opera company. But he was most generous with us, and David got it. And it was great.
B: Although Bill has many friends in Houston.
TK: One of Mr. Gockley’s more controversial efforts was the presentation in the last season of Berg’s Lulu, which is of personal interest to me. It’s just one of the more amazing operas I’ve seen.
TK: How do you feel about the opera?
B: Well, Lulu was controversial—most controversial. And I thought it was out of place for our company, I really did. I know it was presented in Santa Fe, and I’m sorry I wasn’t there that year to have seen it. But, we had something else scheduled, you see, that didn’t come off. The Retra Committee had scheduled another opera, and this one was shoved in at the last moment. But, the patrons were so indignant, and I was so very sorry that they were. In reading the Lagretto, I always go back to my books on opera, but what little information I had when asked me, I said, well, you know Lulu is very much like Salome. And we didn’t offend you with that first production, did we, because Salome did look almost naked. She was not, but with her dance of the veils, you know. And I said, it was not offensive. And, of course, it was agreed, but everyone loved Salome. But Lulu was something else. And so many people found it repulsive.
TK: So many? Would you venture to say a majority?
B: (1:01:04) That I would not have the vote of the balcony and some of the other people, and the young students, and that sort of thing. I would not know. But among my friends, and I call the Old Guard, I would say most definitely. But I think Lulu did cause considerable pain for many, many people. But I think it’s probably forgivable.
TK: Out of curiosity, what was the opera that was slated to take the place of Lulu?
B: Well, I can’t recall. I wish I had thought to dig that out of my files.
TK: Well, that’s all right.
B: I tell you—I have boxes of opera [laughs]. It’s difficult to dig all of it out.
TK: Do you think the exchange of letters in the paper, for example, and all of that, in any way damaged the image of the Houston Grand Opera?
B: Yes, I did, for the time being. And I had people say, some of my finest friends in the symphony, whom I have worked for in the past, came to me so distraught, saying, I will not renew my season ticket for next year. And I have said to them, Very well, remember when we had Mr. Freechild, and we had Stakowski, and some of the conductors and some were such contemporary performances that you walked out of the symphony? That was my reply. But I did ask them, in all fairness, to hang on to their seats until they saw what was to be presented next year.
TK: So, would you say, then, that they were dealing here with a volatile audience? People who, if they don’t like something, they will just get up and leave? Is this common?
B: (1:02:51) Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Many in our box left. And all over the audience. And friends said to me later, knowing that they had tickets for the Friday performance, and they would not give them away. They said they wanted the seat to remain empty. [laughs]
TK: On the other hand, moving away from this most recent controversy, which have been some of your favorite Grand Opera performances in Houston? That’s a hard question, but I’ll ask it any way.
B: Yes, well, I shan’t forget the Magic Flute. And when we opened Jones Hall, Tucci and Aida. It was out of this world. Gabriella Tucci. Richard Tucker made his debut, I believe, at that time. And he was panned, but we loved it. And, of course, it was such a great thing; there were so many facilities in Jones Hall to present an opera as it should be presented. And having just seen Der Franz Shaaten in New York, and wondering how in the wide world an opera of that caliber could be put on any stage, I was more than pleased to return home and find that our production in the new Jones Hall was so superb.
TK: Had the fact that Jones Hall is a multi-purpose arena, not only for the opera, but for the other performing arts, hampered the Grand Opera in any way?
B: Yes. I think that there’s been much controversy over the seating and the non-existent aisles, and the bathroom facilities. And I hesitate to say this, my good friend Jesse Jones Bailey, who’s Uncle Jesse Jones gave us the hall, at first he wanted to give Houston an Opera House, and I loved that thought. And we’ve always called it our Opera House that Uncle Jesse wanted to give to us. But along came, of course, Performing Arts, and I think Freddie and John T. were instrumental in more or less patterning that after the Metropolitan, because that area is for the performing arts.
TK: One thing that immediately strikes a researcher in looking at the performances put on the by Houston Grand Opera is the relative lack of Wagner. I was wondering if that had anything to do with the architecture of Jones Hall.
B: (1:05:45) Well, that I don’t know. But, of course, Wagner does not sell as well as some of the other operas.
TK: Not any more.
B: Not any more, no. And we have had Wagner. I recall S/L Ingabook (??) singing this—I cannot recall the name. It doesn’t come to me.
TK: Of the opera?
TK: It was Meistersinger, wasn’t it?
B: That, also, we had. But we had one very, very heavy opera. I shan’t forget. She was on stage so much of the time. And we had taken friends along in our box, and I knew they were—the men were pulling at their collars, and they were dying to go home. But, of course, a Wagner is heavy and you have to love Wagner to be able to love the singing. It’s very heavy.
TK: Aside from Wagner, and I’m not even sure that you, yourself, like Wagner, what are some of the operas that have not been presented in Houston that you would like very much to see in the near future?
B: (1:07:00) Well, I have one that I would adore to see, but I don’t think it could ever be presented in Houston, is Attila the Hun. We saw that in Hungary last summer, and it was the most magnificent opera. But I think it’s too much to expect. But I have been very happy that they have come back with some operas that were only presented one time, and I’ve forgotten the name of some of them, but we had had them again, and they’ve proven very enjoyable.
TK: I have only one last question, and this has occurred to me in the course of the interview. You keep mentioning that money is the lifeblood of the opera—
TK: —and of course, that’s true. And you’ve been very, very active in raising the money, as much as anybody.
B: Well, not as much. [laughs] But I’ve stayed with it. I have not raised the sums that some people can from foundations and from large businesses and that kind of thing, but I’m dedicated and I’m still in there pitching, so to speak.
TK: What I want to ask is if there’s ever been a time when the burden was so imposing that the joy of opera somehow got lost in raising the money? Have you ever felt like that? Did you ever just want to throw up your hand?
B: No. I’ll tell you, back in the olden days, back in, I guess, it was ’58, there were certain people who wanted to kill opera. They didn’t want any more opera. They thought it was too much work and too much trouble, and they were tired of giving money and felt it was just too difficult to work so hard to keep it alive. And they didn’t want us to branch out and add an extra opera every year to try to educate and to give Houston a broader base. But, I think they were very few and far between. Personally, I’ve never felt that way.
TK: It’s always been worth it?
B: Yes, it has to me, because I think music is so important in your life.
TK: Well, I have no more prepared questions, but of course there’s always the possibility that I’ve skipped over some aspect of the opera and the Opera Guild. Is there anything else you’d care to set down on tape?
B: (1:09:36) Only to say that without these wonderful women, I mean, no one person could have done it alone. It took this hard core of dedicated women, and I would like to read all one hundred names, but I am certain you don’t want to hear them all. But I shall never forget the dedicated effort that went into getting this off the ground. I’m happy to see that it’s still alive and going, and I salute David Gockley and the present officers. After 20 years, I think they’ve done a most magnificent job. And I hope that we’ll grow and keep growing. I think every year we ought to add something else. Just as a baby grows, [laughs] I think we ought to add new things and find new ways of making money and doing more things to learn more about Opera.
TK: On behalf of the Houston Metropolitan Archives, I’d like to thank you very much for a very detailed and thorough interview.
B: Thank you.
(end of tape)