The mission of the Palm Springs Opera Guild is to bring the art of Opera to the Coachella Valley through educational outreach, live performances, and financial support for artists.
The Palm Springs Opera Guild of the Desert started out as two separate organizations: The Palm Springs Opera Company, founded by the renowned Metropolitan Opera Diva Lily Pons, and the Opera Guild of the Desert, established by Mrs. William (Vicki) Malouf. Both organizations were dedicated to bringing first-class operatic entertainment to Palm Springs. When the two organizations were established in 1968, opera was still the center of the social season in cities across America and it was a natural extension to bring it to the affluent community in the desert. The performances were usually touring productions brought in from opera companies from around North America, with the local organizations providing the audience and raising funds to help finance these productions. The two organizations eventually merged to form the Palm Springs Opera Guild of the Desert and this year marks the Guild’s 52nd anniversary.
Looking through the scrapbooks and boxes of old programs and photos that contain the history of the organization, it is remarkable to see the range of productions with casts made up of a mix of the leading singers of their day and young up-and-coming talent, to perform opera in the Coachella Valley. In the beginning, a single production was presented each year, supplemented by a variety of lectures and special events. Presentations in these early years were mostly in conjunction with Western Opera Theater, the touring arm of the San Francisco Opera. Operas included Puccini’s La Boheme and Gianni Schicchi, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, and Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. A notable early success was the 1971 production of Donizetti’s romantic comedy L’Elisir d’Amore, an event chaired by former First Lady Mamie Eisenhower, with artists, orchestra and production from Western Opera Theater and the chorus sourced locally, amazingly enough, from our own College of the Desert. It was thoroughly rehearsed by stage director Ghita Hager of the San Francisco Opera so that it met the professional standards of the rest of the production and it allowed 30 singers from the Coachella Valley to perform in a fully staged operatic performance. The performance took place in the auditorium of Palm Springs High School, which continued to be the venue for these fully staged operas throughout the early history of the organization. In addition to those productions, the Guild also presented a variety of fully staged and costumed one-act operas for children including Signor Bruschino, Il Campanello, La cenerentola, and The Medium. Performances were given at College of the Desert, Coachella Valley High, and Palm Springs High Schools, with study guides provided by Western Opera Theater and funding by the Guild.
Starting in 1972, two productions a year were offered to provide a wider variety of operatic entertainment to the region. Productions came from San Diego Opera and Canadian Opera Company and included among the lyric offerings was a production of Verdi’s Rigoletto with baritone Norman Mittelmann, a long-time Guild member, in the title role. There was a production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly featuring the novelty of a Japanese soprano, Atsuko Azuma, in the title role. And a Chicago Lyric Opera production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, starring renowned bass-baritone Sir Geraint Evans in the title role, also included in the cast a very young tenor named Gregory Kunde, on the way to a major career but here singing the small part of the Notary. The Guild also presented a variety of concerts and recitals featuring such renowned opera stars as sopranos Beverly Sills, Renata Scotto, Roberta Peters, and Victoria de Los Angeles, tenors Nicolai Gedda and Giuseppe di Stefano and baritone Robert Merrill, an exceptional range of performers. These touring companies continued to provide the bulk of the productions throughout the 1980s, including productions provided by the New York City Opera, along with regional companies closer to home. Highlights included a City Opera production of Gounod’s Faust starring soprano Leona Mitchell, tenor Joseph Evans and bass Robert Hale in 1982, a Long Beach Opera production of Verdi’s sprawling historical drama Don Carlo, with a cast including legendary operatic bassos Cesare Siepi and Jerome Hines in 1986 and Puccini’s immortal Tosca with diva Renata Scotto in the title role. One other intriguing offering was a performance of Verdi’s A Masked Ball in 1986 featuring tenor William Harness and, at the very outset of her career, soprano Deborah Voigt, a recent graduate of Cal State Fullerton and soon to become a star of the Metropolitan Opera.
Productions by touring companies and regional opera companies from Southern California continued to provide the bulk of the performances sponsored by the Guild into the mid-1990s. Opera-goers in the Coachella Valley were treated to a number of interesting, well-cast operatic performances including productions from Orange County’s Opera Pacific featuring soprano Carol Neblett and rising star Dolora Zajick in Verdi’s Aida, the Barber of Seville with baritone Pablo Elvira, Tosca again featuring Miss Neblett, and Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor with soprano Ruth Ann Swenson in the title role.
Opera has always been exceptionally expensive to produce. Over the years, the major companies folded their touring companies to cut costs. Many regional companies were also forced to fold or scale back their activities. This meant that there were fewer productions that could be brought into the Valley. At the same time, the Guild, however, which had offered scholarships to local singers for many years, began expanding those opportunities into a vocal competition for young singers that has enjoyed considerable success and which includes some exceptionally talented performers – future stars including soprano Sondra Radvanovsky and tenor Charles Castronovo among its earliest winners. Providing performance opportunities for these young singers help spur the creation of Opera in the Park, an annual musical event at Sunrise Park in Palm Springs, which has grown into a major, locally produced free concert. Each Spring, thousands of Coachella Valley residents and their guests enjoy operatic performances by talented young singers with full orchestral accompaniment. The Guild also presents a concert by the finalists of the Vocal Competition, another opportunity to hear exceptionally talented singers at the very outset of their careers. Sopranos Angela Meade and Amber Wagner, mezzo Renee Rapier, and bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee are among the stars and soon-to-be stars that have won the competition. Tenors Joshua Guerrero and Jesus Leon are among other rising stars who have performed for Coachella Valley opera lovers under the Guild’s auspices, as is tenor Arnold Geis of the operatic group Vox, which appeared on America’s Got Talent and performed at the Guild’s 50th anniversary Gala. The Guild also presents concerts at other locations around the Coachella Valley including Rancho Mirage Public Library. In its early years, the Guild offered children’s performances of opera to students around the Valley. Beginning in 2005, at a time when cuts to education budgets reduced or eliminated music education in schools altogether, the organization began offering programs, featuring young professional singers, that introduced opera to students in schools across the Coachella Valley.
The Palm Springs Opera Guild of the Desert works to promote opera by bringing quality operatic performances to a large and diverse audience throughout the Coachella Valley. Through its programs – the Vocal Competition, Opera in the Park, and Opera in the Schools, we help ensure the future of opera as an art form by encouraging and supporting young singers with financial assistance and performance opportunities and through student and adult Outreach programs. From its beginnings in 1968, it has provided cultural entertainment to Coachella Valley residents and now, as it celebrates its 52nd anniversary its mission has grown into an even more ambitious one, offering education as well as entertainment. The Palm Springs Opera Guild of the Desert hopes to continue to grow and expand its programs to reach new audiences in the years to come, proud of its legacy and building on that as a continuing force on the desert cultural scene.
Prepared by Jeffrey Roberts, PSOG Board President
Read more details here.
2019-2020 BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Thomas Patrick, Immediate Past-President
Jeffrey Roberts, President
Jordan Varela, Vice President
Roy Schaefer, Secretary
Rosemarie Vacano, Treasurer
Jean C. Carrus, Parliamentarian
Dr. William Fisher
Laurie Baldwin, IOM
JoAnne Thompson, Office Coordinator
The Guild is a 501(c)(3) organization. Tax ID: 95-6220739. Donations are tax-deductible as allowed by law. The leadership of the Guild is 100% voluntary. Officers receive no monetary compensation for services rendered.
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