LOOKING BACK: It all started with 'Aida,' Rosa Ponselle and a group of dedicated believers.
On April 28, 1950, Egyptians and Ethiopians confronted each other in the unlikely confines of the Maryland Casualty Insurance Company building on West 40th Street and Keswick Road. The clash of nationalities, passions and loyalties in the company's auditorium, all sung to the stirring music of Giuseppe Verdi, launched the Baltimore Civic Opera Company and five decades of enriching the city's cultural life.
No one knew for sure if that inaugural production, staged for less than $5,000, would lead to a lasting institution. But the intentions were certainly as grand as "Aida." And no less a diva than retired soprano Rosa Ponselle had lent her name, influence and knowledge to the reorganized company.
Maud Key Shelton, a descendant of Francis Scott Key, sang the title role. And a young Baltimore-born tenor, Eddy Ruhl, was cast as her heroic love interest, Radames.
"I remember the performance went smoothly," says Ruhl, 83, from his Hollywood, Fla., home. "But I also remember Rosa laughing at the choreography during the ballet scene. I didn't get paid much, I can tell you. But I would have done it for nothing."
The next season, two productions were staged; a third would be added to the annual lineup just a couple of years later. From its humble venue at Maryland Casualty, the organization would move first to the Polytechnic Institute on North Avenue and then, in 1952, to the Lyric Opera House. That's where it will launch its 50th anniversary this week, appropriately, with its good-luck opera, Verdi's "Aida." (It will cost a little more than in 1950; the current production has a $1.1 million price tag.)
Baltimore Opera Company -- the "Civic" was dropped in 1970 -- has gone from a shoestring budget to $7.5 million, from a roster of primarily local artists to one of internationally established singers, directors and conductors. It has been quite a journey.
Letitia Bernhardt has been on that journey from the start -- even before the start. She and her husband came to Baltimore in 1929, both singers eager for experience. They got some while performing in Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci" with the Martinet School of Opera, which had been founded by Eugene Martinet in 1927.
"It was really a one-man opera company," Bernhardt says. "Gene Martinet handled the conducting, the directing and even all the ticket sales. I made my own costume. The musicians in the orchestra were horrible."
A subsequent production in the 1940s of Sigmund Romberg's operetta "Blossom Time" starred celebrated baritone John Charles Thomas and Ruhl. The young tenor had recently met and auditioned for Ponselle, who recommended him for the part.
Her seal of approval meant a great deal to Ruhl, whose first exposure to opera had been a performance of Halevy's "La Juive" starring Ponselle and Giovanni Martinelli. (Years later, Ruhl fondly recalls, those two luminaries would pay their compliments to him backstage after one of his many Baltimore Opera performances.)
Martinet's company folded after his death in 1947. But his widow, Mary, didn't want his dream to die with him.
"She asked me to help get the company started up again," Bernhardt says, "but I told her no, not unless she would be interested in making it an out-and-out civic opera company, using every voice studio in town and Peabody Conservatory. She agreed. So she and I and five or six others got together and incorporated the company in 1950. Mary and I ended up doing most of the legwork."
Martinet's son, Leigh, did almost all of the arm work -- conducting throughout the company's first decade. Ponselle quickly went from heading the audition committee to serving as artistic director, and had a particular mission with casting.
"Rosa was very interested in helping American singers," Bernhardt says. "She knew how hard it was for American singers to make it then."
"She taught me and other young singers a lot of the great traditions of singing," Ruhl says. "The principals would come out to her house for rehearsals. She often sang the duets with me and sounded wonderful."
Among those benefiting from this exposure to one of opera's legendary artists was a soprano who wouldn't become a household name for several years -- Beverly Sills. She sang opposite Ruhl in Massenet's "Manon" in 1953 for $75 a performance.
Well-established singers also graced productions, among them one of Toscanini's favorite sopranos, Herva Nelli. But, as Ruhl remembers it, the company focused primarily on a core group of young artists who took the stage time and again during the early years. From that initial "Aida," the tenor sang in six more productions by 1959; some of his co-stars appeared even more often.
"Baltimore Opera started out as a resident company," Ruhl says. "The idea was for singers to stay all season long. Then Rosa wanted to get all the Metropolitan Opera people in there, and ruined it, as far as I'm concerned. She and I had many a fight over that."