Forty years ago Glade Peterson had a dream. An internationally known singer who spent 12 years as the principal tenor for the Zurich Opera, wanted to bring opera to Utah.
His daughter, Michelle Peterson, is the current company manager for Utah Opera. She credits her dad’s charisma and enthusiasm in bringing together a group of Utah politicians and business people to get the opera company off the ground. It was also his connections and reputation that attracted an incredible base of talent right from the beginning.
At first, Glade sang many of the roles out of necessity, but as the reputation of the company grew he turned more to the business side as he recruited by calling in favors.
Christopher McBeth, artistic director for Utah Opera, detailed a list of accomplishments for Utah Opera. “Utah Opera was the first regional company to perform four shows in a season. We were the first regional company to use supertitles. We’ve had our own costume department from the get go, starting in the basement of the Capitol Theatre with a couple of sewing machines. And we have one of the premier set production facilities in the country.”
The costume and set production of Utah Opera is so vast that during the year they rent costumes and sets to other companies who lack their own facilities. They package and ship costumes and sets to 20–25 productions a year.
Christopher credits the success of Utah Opera not only to the talented people on stage and behind the scene, but to the community. “Per capita we have an extremely large of amount of performing arts.” With that support it means not only are they able to bring a high level of talent to the stage, but are able to employ backstage artistic talent full-time.
The first opera staged by Utah Opera was La Boheme by Puccini. Coming full circle for the 40th anniversary La Boheme opened the season. Coming in January is a production of Moby-Dick, with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer. The opera has only been staged once in Dallas, and according to Christopher, “There was immediate interest and everyone wanted to stage it.”
It is a big opera that calls for massive sets and exquisitely detailed costumes; and most companies were not equipped to stage it. But with Utah Opera’s production facility and costume department it became a perfect fit.
The 32’ tall, 60’ wide, multi-level sets were partially designed by a mechanical engineer so. “We didn’t want to rely totally on gadgets, but provide a sense of magic and awe that people want when they go the theater,” Christopher said.
The costumes were put together after a lot of period research, and attention was paid to each detail, including the right amount of scuff for the sailor’s shoes.
It was such an expensive undertaking that they shared cost with companies in San Jose, Chicago, and Pittsburgh. Once the run is over in Salt Lake the sets will travel to the other companies for their productions.
Christopher sees today’s Utah Opera as an extension of what Glade Peterson started all those years ago. “We’ve created a safe place to do creative work. Artist come here to explore, discover, make mistakes, and push the walls.”
UTAH SYMPHONY’S GHOST LIGHT PODCAST: Interview with Utah Opera founder Glade Peterson’s daughters Michelle and Leslie Peterson.