Early performances hosted by the Pacific Repertory Opera generally entailed rolling a piano into Linnaea's outdoor patio and performing for the lunch crowd. Then, in January of 1987--two years after Jill Anderson and Jean Cook founded the SLO-based performance group--they staged Hansel and Gretel, their first full-scale production. In those early years, PRO endeavored to present two productions per year: a small show that would cost somewhere between $12,000 and $13,000 to produce and a larger production with a whopping price tag of $24,000 to $25,000.
The opera company has made great strides over the past 20 years, relocating from the city's hub of do-it-yourself art and
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
- A NEW CHAPTER : Jill Anderson co-founded Pacific Repertory Opera in 1985. Now, 23 years and dozens of performances later, she's stepping down.
In November, Anderson announced plans to retire from her role as general director. Robert Ashens, a San Francisco resident who served as artistic director of the Eugene Opera, will become Pacific Repertory Opera's artistic director in her stead.
Anderson moved to San Luis Obispo from Los Angeles in 1983. Almost immediately, she found herself teaching voice lessons, singing with the Mozart Festival, and getting to know the city's three major conductors.
"I was kind of looking for a niche to fill," she said. "It occurred to me that opera was a niche that wasn't being filled, so I thought, 'Well, this is something I can do here.'" San Luis Obispo already had a symphony, a ballet company, and a theater, but no opera. Anderson enlisted Cook, a friend who had once had an opera career in Germany, and the duo founded Pacific Repertory Opera.
"I had a sense of how great an undertaking it was, but not really," Anderson said.
Within less than a year, Cook died, leaving the newly founded company to Anderson, who had no real experience operating a nonprofit organization. But Anderson did have the necessary passion. She had discovered opera while pursuing a degree in applied music at Pomona College.
"I didn't know much about opera, and I was exposed to it and it captivated me," she explained. "Up until that time, I had been thinking musical theater, but this was discovering something even better than something I thought I loved."
With a B.A. in music, a Master's degree in opera from USC, and a doctorate of musical arts from UCSB, Anderson began attending auditions after graduate school. She quickly learned that her voice wasn't the necessary quality for a career as a world-class soloist, a discovery that was mitigated by the fact that she loved singing in the choruses of large-scale productions. She has since performed with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the San Francisco Opera Chorus, and the Pasadena Chamber Orchestra Chorus. She spent the last five years teaching voice lessons at Cuesta College, which lacks both opera training and a musical theater program.
To supplement her passion with some much-needed practice, she applied for a grant offered by Opera America in 1989 to people interested in learning opera administration. For one year, Anderson had to live away from her home and family, working with three opera production companies. The smallest was the Sarasota Opera in Florida, based in a city of 300,000 people. She also spent four months working with an opera company in Milwaukee and another four months in Los Angeles. The fact that the smallest company she worked with was located in a city with a population 10 times that of San Luis Obispo was disconcerting, to say the least.
"I did a lot of thinking about why these companies were successful, and they really knew their market," she said. "And I did question whether we have the critical mass in SLO. And that has been something I have questioned since. It's really amazing that we've continued to survive."
Since those early shows at Linnaea's, Pacific Repertory Opera's productions have continued to evolve. In 1989, they staged their first show at the Spanos Theatre--which wasn't actually called the Spanos Theatre at the time--financed by a grant they received from the city of SLO. But once the PAC opened, in 1996, Pacific Repertory Opera found a permanent home. It doesn't hurt that their budget for individual productions has expanded from a modest $24,000. Anderson recalls her year working on her fellowship, when she was shocked to hear that one organization spent $30,000 on a single show.
In 2009, the SLO-based opera company is expecting to spend $70,000 on a single production.
The faces behind the scenes have changed as well, and have grown in number. Initially, the team consisted of Anderson and her board of directors. In 1989, they hired their first staff person, who worked quarter-time. This expanded to a half-time employee around 1993. Today, in addition to Anderson and the hard-working board, Pacific Repertory Opera employs a full-time administrative director--Mikele Hushing-Kline--and a part-time development assistant named Judith Bernstein. As Anderson steps down, Hushing-Kline will assume her former organizational and office duties as managing director. In this capacity, she and Ashens will dually serve as Anderson's replacement.
In addition to Anderson's confidence that she's leaving the company in capable hands, she's pleased to be leaving while it has some money in the bank as well. In 2005, Pacific Repertory Opera's treasurer recommended that the organization begin a financial campaign in conjunction with its 20-year anniversary. Over the course of the next year and a half, the 20-20 Vision campaign raised $100,000--enough to establish an endowment.
"We've got money in the bank," Anderson said happily. "We've got an endowment. The future is somewhat secure."
It's fitting that the last opera Anderson conducts with Pacific Repertory Opera will be Carmen on April 4 and 5. Pacific Repertory Opera has performed Carmen three times, the first was at the South Bay Community Center in 1988 and the second was in 1995 with a small orchestra ensemble at Cuesta College. But Anderson's farewell performance will incorporate a full orchestra, at the impressive Performing Arts Center, illustrating the long road the opera company in the small town has traveled.
"I am very happy that Carmen will be the last opera that I conduct with Pacific Repertory Opera," Anderson said. "I think it's, in the end, going to be good for Pacific Repertory Opera to have fresh vision. It's difficult, but it's good to have a changing of the guard."
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach lives in a shoe. Send abnormally large socks to email@example.com.