Philanthropist Loretta Ver Valen, 96, singer, Baltimore Opera patron

January 18, 2000|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Loretta Ver Valen, a former opera and concert singer who contributed to cultural, medical and religious institutions in Baltimore, died of heart failure Friday at the Blakehurst retirement community in Towson. She was 96.

In 1997, Mrs. Ver Valen, a former Roland Park resident, made significant bequests to a number of local institutions with which she had maintained an interest throughout her life.

The Johns Hopkins University received $1.5 million -- $1 million for the Peabody Conservatory, $250,000 for the Wilmer Eye Institute and $250,000 for the Johns Hopkins Hospital Oncology Center; the Walters Art Gallery received $250,000; Grace United Methodist Church was given $1 million; and the Baltimore Opera Company received $1 million, the largest single donation in its history.

"She told me her father had been a physician and the donations to medical institutions was to honor him," said the Rev. Emora Brannan, senior pastor of Grace United Methodist Church, where Mrs. Ver Valen was a member. She had sung in an earlier succession of congregations that later formed the North Baltimore church.

"Because her mother was an artist, the donation to the Walters was to honor her," Rev. Brannan said. "However, she said, `The money for music and the church are for me because throughout my life they have been my loves.'"

Mrs. Ver Valen's relationship with the Mount Vernon Place conservatory went back 76 years, when she studied voice there. In 1926, she earned her teaching certificate from the Peabody and a year later an artist's diploma in voice -- the third person ever to attain the distinction.

"I owe Peabody something that goes far beyond monetary value," Mrs. Van Valen said in 1997. "The school has always been very good to me. It gave me a scholarship and opportunities to perform when I was young. Now I want to give those opportunities back to other young people."

Said Robert Sirota, Peabody's director: "She is one of the great ladies of Baltimore whose life almost spanned a century of artistic and civic service to the city and the Peabody."

"She was very understated about her philanthropy. She never wanted anyone to assume that she had the capacity to do that. It's very painful to have to lose her," said Michael Harrison, director of the Baltimore Opera Company.

Mrs. Ver Valen helped nurture the opera company from its beginnings in the 1950s, working with Leigh Martinet and the great diva Rosa Ponselle. She left the board in the mid-1990s.

She also directed the Baltimore Opera Competition for more 30 years, an event that produced such winners as James Morris, Paul Plishka, Gordon Hawkins, Florence Quivar, Juliana Gondek, Michael Sylvester, Marilyn Mims, Maria Ewing, Harolyn Blackwell and John Aler. All went on to successful careers with the Metropolitan Opera in New York or with other companies.

Mrs. Ver Valen's bequest to the Baltimore Opera will establish the Loretta Lee Ver Valen Endowment Fund for Leading Operatic Artists, which will help the company bring leading operatic figures to Baltimore for performances.

"She was known across the country because she ran the most efficient and finest competition in the nation," said Mr. Harrison. "She was scrupulous to detail and always felt that her integrity was at stake. She simply wanted it to be right."

Mrs. Ver Valen never seemed to lose her sense of stage presence. In the 1920s, she was a leading lyric soprano and sang such roles as Nedda in "Pagliacci," Pamina in "The Magic Flute," and Mimi in "La Boheme" as a member of the East Coast-touring DeFeo and Columbia opera companies.

When the Baltimore Opera performed "Madame Butterfly" at the Lyric several years ago, Mrs. Ver Valen arrived dressed in a kimono. "She had a very keen and charming sense of humor and told me if anything happened to the soprano, she was dressed and ready to go on," laughed Mr. Harrison.

Born Loretta Lee in New Castle, Pa., Mrs. Ver Valen decided to attend Peabody after learning that Metropolitan Opera soprano Mabel Garrison had graduated from the school. While attending Peabody, she met Alfred C. Ver Valen, whom she married in 1928. A real estate developer, Mr. Ver Valen died in 1970.

Mrs. Ver Valen taught in the Peabody Preparatory department from 1926 to 1929, and left teaching to raise her family in Homeland during the 1930s. She returned to teach at Peabody from 1940 to 1948.

Vigorous until the end of her life, Mrs. Ver Valen amazed friends when she decided at the age of 91, to explore the Oregon Trail with her son, Henry C. Ver Valen of Bowie. In addition to following the famous westward trail, she enjoyed hiking and whitewater rafting.

"When you get into music you never really get out of it," she said in 1991. "And besides, if you don't get busy, it's over. If you don't think, you lose your mind. If you don't walk, you lose your legs. Use it or lose it."

A memorial service for Mrs. Ver Valen will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday at Grace United Methodist Church, 5407 N. Charles St.

In addition to her son, she is survived by a daughter, Caroline Lee Hopson of Springfield, Pa.; six grandsons; and four great-grandchildren.

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