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The Minnesota Opera was born at the Walker Art Center

A scene from the Minnesota Opera’s 2008 production of “Romeo et Juliette.”

Since its founding in 1963 as the Center Opera Company of the Walker Art Center, Minnesota Opera has maintained a reputation as a highly regarded opera company. In the twenty-first century it produces standard classics while also commissioning and creating compelling new works.

Interest in opera performance thrived in the Twin Cities in the 1950s due to yearly touring productions performed by the Metropolitan Opera of New York. The St. Paul Opera Company (originally called the St. Paul Civic Opera Association) also staged works from the classical repertoire. In 1963 the Center Arts Council, affiliated with the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, established Center Opera Company to produce chamber operas. The Center Arts Council organized concerts and theater not offered elsewhere in the community.

Dominick Argento, a University of Minnesota music professor, composed A Masque of Angels for the first Center Opera production. The world premiere took place in January 1964 at the Guthrie Theater, which had opened the previous year on Vineland Place, adjacent to the Walker.

The new company became the financial and administrative responsibility of the Walker Art Center. Initially it received financial support from the T. B. Walker Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. During its second season the Center Opera Association was formed to promote interest in the company. It acquired new members and funders, making a third season possible.

All Center Opera productions during the first five seasons took place at the Guthrie Theater. For more than a dozen subsequent years, at least one opera production occurred at the Guthrie Theater each season. Other venues included the Cedar Village Theater in Minneapolis and O’Shaughnessy Auditorium in St. Paul.

In 1969 Center Opera incorporated as a separate company governed by its own board. As Norton Hintz, Center Opera’s president, reported in that year, the incorporation as a separate financial entity would allow “greater artistic and financial independence, more productions, and a closer cooperation with the University [of Minnesota], schools, and major musical organizations.”

Hintz also explained the artistic direction of the early years. “The operas of the twentieth century provide an enormous range of artistic styles,” he observed. “[They range] from romantic, neo-classic, to the most advanced contemporary. The reputation and uniqueness of the Center Opera Company is based on new directions in opera production.”

Center Opera launched its first national tour in 1971. It traveled to San Francisco, throughout the state of Minnesota, and on to the East Coast to present Gertrude Stein’s The Mother of Us All. It also staged the world-premiere production of Faust Counter Faust by John Gessner and H. Wesley Balk.

In the fall of 1972, while publicizing its upcoming tenth season, Center Opera changed its name to Minnesota Opera. An October 8 press release explained the company’s aim “to avoid confusion with other opera organizations which use the word ‘center’ in their name.” It intended for the new name “to reflect the degree to which the local company has become a nationally known phenomenon of this region.”

By 1975 the St. Paul Opera no longer produced its annual summer season of well-known operas, and financial deficits forced it out of business. Final productions from the 1974 season included Bizet’s Carmen and Wagner’s Siegfried. Several former board members of the defunct St. Paul Opera were then invited to serve on the board of Minnesota Opera.

The Twin Cities opera scene weathered major changes in the 1980s. Minnesota Opera became a founding tenant of the Ordway Music Theater when it opened in downtown St. Paul in 1985 and began offering productions in that venue annually. In 1986 the Metropolitan Opera discontinued its national tours, limiting the options of local fans who preferred traditional opera. In response, Minnesota Opera shifted its programming philosophy and began offering more traditional opera repertoire.

In 1990 the Opera Center opened in the Warehouse District of Minneapolis. Its new site consolidated company operations into three renovated warehouse buildings and provided a top-tier complex for all phases of opera production.

In 2008 Minnesota Opera launched a New Works Initiative. It commissioned and produced new operas, such as Silent Night (2012), to critical acclaim.

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