World's Fair 'Aida' Still Resounds In Seattle
In 1962, Milton Katims was the high–profile conductor of the Seattle Symphony, and he had a plan to put his adopted city on the cultural map.
In a city with no established opera company, his symphony would mount a majestic production of Verdi's "Aida," a tragic tale of forbidden love set in ancient Egypt. It would include some of the world's top singers, a luxurious new opera house, and a cast of hundreds drawn from the ranks of the city's church choirs, choral societies and wedding singers.
One of those cast members was John C. Carlson. Now he's 89 and lives in Lake Forest Park. He says his first music teacher was a nun at his Catholic school in White Center.
She compared him to the opera legend Enrico Caruso.
Carlson: "She was introducing me to the bishop, she said, 'this is my little Caruso.' Caruso? Good Lord! I thought, 'Robinson Crusoe's the only Crusoe.'"
Carlson had to look up the singer in a dictionary.
The song "Danny Boy" was more Carlson's style. He never saw an opera until he was picked for the chorus of "Aida." But after that he spent a good 15 years as a Seattle Opera chorus member. He says these union jobs were the best money most chorus members had ever seen.
Carlson: "It was good, and fun, and profitable! [Laughs]"
Another cast member back in 1962 was Lois Moe. She was a relative veteran, having sung in some of Seattle's fledgling opera productions in the 1950s. But when "Aida" was announced, Moe says she knew it was something special.
Moe: "We'd never had anything that grand, it led to our present opera status at this point."
Moe grew up in a big family in Seattle. She was the daughter of a minister turned carpenter. Moe had learned to read music, sing in various languages, and even play the piano, despite no formal musical training.
Moe: "We couldn't afford for my lessons, but my older sister had the lessons. So I would learn to play by ear and I would play all these popular songs."
Like Carlson, Moe went on to a long career in the Seattle Opera chorus.
The 330 cast members rehearsed on an old pier on the waterfront — sometimes until two in the morning. Carolyn Carpp was another cast member. She worked as a schoolteacher and had never sung opera before. Carpp became not only a longtime chorus member, but its union negotiator for decades to come. She says the pageantry of "Aida," plus the A–list casting, made it the perfect choice to get Seattle excited about opera.
Carpp: "I think it was the showiness of it and the fact that it was pretty well known, and they felt like they could sell it out, which they did with no effort at all."
That's not to say there were no glitches.
Carpp: "Since we'd never done it before there were a lot of funny things that happened, with people that weren't used to these long, flowing costumes. We were bumping into each other just like the press had said."
The Seattle Times called the opera "a dazzling achievement," but had harsh words for the set, which relied on a giant turntable. Ticket holders had a lot to absorb — there was also the newly remodeled opera house. It occupied the same site as the old Civic Auditorium, but was now a sea of red plush and polished wood.
Carolyn Carpp notes that the remodel only applied to the parts the audience saw.
Carpp: "But they did not do anything to the dressing rooms; the dressing rooms, I think, were pre–World War II."
Seattle Opera's Monte Jacobson performed often in the old house.
Jacobson: "In the old days, you'd have to line up for going onstage, it would be so tight."
Improving those backstage areas to accommodate more people and scenery would have to wait until the major renovation in 2003 that created McCaw Hall at Seattle Center.
Jacobson: "Now it's all expanded. People can get lined up for the grand operas."
The cast and crew that put on "Aida" in 2008 at McCaw Hall probably had a lot more breathing room.
"Aida" has remained a staple of the local opera scene.
Seattle Opera has staged it five times since that first star–studded production in 1962.
Jenkins: "It is directly the source, the foundation, of our opera company."
Speight Jenkins is the general director of Seattle Opera today.
Jenkins: "The 'Aida,' from what I understand, although I was not here, caused the opera to be. Up to that point there had been several fledgling opera companies in Seattle, including one that had failed just two or three years beforehand."
The year after "Aida," Seattle Opera was founded as a permanent, full–season opera company.
So it's no coincidence that as the curtain falls on the 50th anniversary of the World's Fair, Seattle Opera will celebrate its own 50th anniversary in the fall of 2013.
I'm Amy Radil, KUOW News.
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