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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The Connecticut Opera Association in Hartford, Connecticut was established as a non-profit company in March 1942 by Frank Pandolfi, an Italian born tenor and teacher. Labeled the ‘Little Caruso’ by Sigmund Romberg, Pandolfi had Broadway experience, although he didn’t perform with the Connecticut Opera. He had been putting on productions in Hartford for his students when he realized there was a great demand for opera productions in the city, and formed the new opera company.

Its first production was Carmen, starring mezzo-soprano Winifred Heidt along with Eugene Conley, performed at the Bushnell Theatre on 14 April 1942. Built in 1930 with a Georgian Revival exterior and Art Deco interior, the theatre seats 2,800 people in a magnificent auditorium featuring ‘Drama’, one of the largest hand-painted ceiling murals in the US. Despite its size, there was sufficient demand in the first season for eight different productions, soon reduced to four or five, and later to three.

The emphasis in the early years was on famous international opera stars and Pandolfi brought the likes of Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherland, Rise Stevens, Beverly Sills, and Mary Dunleavy to Hartford. This was partly due to its proximity to New York and partly because of the artists’ fondness for the pint sized Pandolfi. The company celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a dinner for him in Hartford on 19 March 1962. That week was declared Connecticut Opera Week by the state’s governor, John Dempsey.

According to Peter Russell (see http://operaandthekitchensink.blogspot.com/2008/09/more-connecituct-opera-memories.html), the quality of the performances and artists in the 1960s and 1970s varied considerably and cast changes were frequent, usually at the last minute, and often resulted in a lesser performer. He recalls “Frank Pandolfi and his wife Carmela not even attempting to conceal their dismay at some of Marti’s [tenor Bernabe Marti] squeezed high notes.” He comments that Hartford audiences were kind and forgiving and only recalls them booing a performer on three occasions.

Pandolfi left Connecticut Opera in 1974, after 32 years as its general manager. The company changed direction and concentrated its efforts on young and rising artists mainly in the local area rather than on international stars. It also pioneered innovative threatrical sets, lighting, and costumes. The company launched Opera Express in the mid 1970s, which has taken performances to over three million seniors, disadvantaged citizens, and youths throughout the New England region. More recently, as part of the Magic of Opera program, it was taking about 1,000 children a year behind the scenes at the Bushnell for a close look at opera production. In the 1980s, the company won national and international acclaim for its productions of the operas Aida and Turandot.

By the late 1990s, the company was going through another change of direction. Its new management structure included a split of artistic and administrative activities, with the general director position replaced by an artistic director and a managing director. The company aimed to attract the stars but also nurtured new talent and maintained its outreach program. These aspects were reflected in its mission statement: “Connecticut Opera produces quality opera featuring well-known and emerging artists, stage directors and conductors, offers opera education and outreach programs that engage diverse communities, and introduces and encourages further appreciation of opera, while exercising fiscal responsibility.”

On 12 February 2009, the Connecticut Opera closed its doors after 67 seasons, making it the sixth oldest opera company in the US. Its last production, Don Giovanni, at the Palace Theater, Waterbury, had poor ticket sales. Donations from corporations and individuals also fell. These factors caused the company to suffer financially and its bank accounts were frozen, leaving it with no option but to close down. Two more productions planned for 2008-09, The Daughter of the Regiment and La Boheme, were canceled. At the time of its closure, the company had 2,000 subscribers and an annual budget of $2 million. Ticket prices were from $25 to $100.

Connecticut Opera board chairman John Kreitler blamed the collapse on economic conditions. It is not the only arts organization to be effected by the downturn. Opera and ballet companies as well as orchestras across the country are struggling. The Metropolitan Opera in New York canceled four productions for 2009-10, while the city’s Opera Orchestra dropped two 2008-09 performances. Also, the Los Angeles Opera laid off 17 staff, the Miami City Ballet retrenched eight dancers, and the Baltimore Opera has filed for bankruptcy. Umbrella group Americans for the Arts estimated that 10,000 arts bodies could go out of business in 2009. Memories of the Connecticut Opera live on for thousands of people.

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