Irene Dalis has a message for you about music. It belongs in your life. Not just inside the car radio, but in your house, on your warm summer evenings and in the darkest hours of winter. Maybe even sung live in a beautiful 1920’s theatre, complete with grand chandeliers and red velvet curtains.
That is why she started Opera San José – to bring music into our lives, especially the lives of children.
Someone once told Dalis that “San Jose is one of those ‘also-ran’ cities.” She disagreed, saying, “Wait a minute, so we are not San Francisco. We are what we are and we have our values.”
The strong value that Dalis puts upon music began with her father, a determined Greek immigrant who insisted that each of his five children study an instrument. Dalis chose to study piano and, like her siblings, she would sing for him in the evenings.
Even though San Jose was recovering from the depression, the family found many opportunities to enjoy the arts. Touring divas came to give recitals and pianists gave master classes. “But we didn’t have our own,” says Dalis.
1940’s San Jose had a population of just 50,000. “Everybody knew everybody.” Life was simple. Dalis and her sister enjoyed strolling about the “lovely downtown,” watching many more parades and celebrations than today. She admits to missing “the spirit of community we used to have.”
When she decided to go to college, she could walk from Delmas Avenue to San Jose State, where she took a minor in math and a major in music. The university did not offer a masters program at that time. Due to the war, the school was full of women, following the traditional teaching profession.
Always a quick study, Dalis skipped two grades in elementary school, and by 1946, she had graduated from SJSU. At 20, Dalis had her BA and was ready to continue piano at Columbia University in New York.
Because she sang so beautifully, her sister insisted that she take voice lessons in New York. Dalis’ family sent money with the proviso that she was only to study with the best. The lessons were expensive but her vocal skills eclipsed her piano work and Dalis soon found her way to Milan, via a Fulbright Scholarship. She found her mentor in a German teacher, Otto Mueller, who brought her to the stage in Berlin. Her 1957 US debut was at the Metropolitan as Eboli in “Don Carlo.” Her critically-acclaimed career as a mezzo-soprano spanned over 20 years – just listen to a recording of her Kundry in Wagner’s “Parsifal” in Bayreuth in 1962. Always a sturdy woman with a strong voice, her roles got her noticed. “When I went on stage,” says Dalis, “it was either to kill someone or be killed.”
San Jose State
After 20 years of performing, Dalis made the decision to retire and return home to San Jose. In 1977, she was appointed to the music department at San Jose State with a full professorship. It was when she saw the calibre of her first class of 75 singers, that she knew there was the potential for an opera company, based on a German model. Dalis created the Opera Workshop Program at SJSU.
In 1984, The California Arts Council suggested that Dalis remove University from the name and it became Opera San Jose. Due to Dalis’ savvy management, the company has always operated in the black. Over the years, Opera San Jose has purchased two 24,000 sq. ft. operations facilities and two apartment buildings (fourteen units total) for free artist housing. Singular in the United States for offering a full year residency, the company provides resident artists with rent-free accommodations and health benefits as well as the opportunity to sing multiple prominent roles in repertory.
Reaching college students at SJSU enabled Dalis to build a world-class opera company right here in San Jose, but she still wanted to reach more of the population. So she went about building a complete K-12 program to introduce school children to the opera. In fact the first dress rehearsal of the season, The Pearl Fishers, marks 30 years of bringing schools in to watch final dress performances.
“Upwards of 500,000 children have been served by our programs,” says outreach coordinator Lettie Smith. Each year, students attend dress rehearsals in the California Theatre.
Because of her happy experience playing Gertrude in “Hansel & Gretel” to delighted children each year in Germany, Dalis knew that young people could appreciate opera. So OSJ brings a touring opera into local schools. The 2012 production of “Billy Goats Gruff” deals with the ever-topical subject of bullying while sharing the art form, introducing the different voice types, and exposing little ears to some powerful vibrato.
Operas often require young cast members to perform in larger scenes. Local children from performing arts groups like Vivace Youth Chorus have performed in recent operas, providing an invaluable experience for young singers.
The company also has a Vocal Drama Class which is tailored to middle school children. Choral and drama students are taught vocal, breathing and audition techniques. Although there is a booking fee for in-school sessions, Smith tells me that they have “just received funding for 10 performances free of charge for local Title 1 schools.”
To Dalis’ delight, an anonymous donor called OSJ and proposed subsidizing an annual competition, to the tune of $50,000 per year. Since 2007, the Irene Dalis Vocal Competition has awarded prizes to ten finalists.
In true American Idol style, a $5,000 prize for Audience Favorite is determined by a vote. First prize is $15,000 and every finalist receives a $2,000 Encouragement Award. The competition is now open to all ages because when Dalis discovered “a phenomenal bass in his forties,” she insisted they remove ‘young’ from their call for entrants.
Audience for Opera
Dalis is the first to admit that opera brings in “more mature audiences.” Their typical demographic is over 60 years old, as are forty of their major donors. It is more likely to see a sprinkling of grey hair and hearing aids than to spot many young people in the house.
So why isn’t a new generation finding their way into the opera house? One possibility is the price. “Sets, costumes, orchestra and unions are expensive,” says Dalis. But opera combines all of the other art forms into one magnificent spectacle, so a dollar spent here stretches a little bit further. It also supports a tremendous number of local jobs, from wardrobe mistresses and technicians to singers and prop builders.
Could it be that the stories are no longer familiar to young audiences? Perhaps Gen Xers are worried that they won’t understand what is happening. No worries. Not only are supertitles displayed above the stage, translating every word, but General Manager Larry Hancock gives an engaging informative talk before each show which introduces the characters, explains the story and provides some history of the composer’s life.
For a woman with so much strength and success behind her, Dalis is loathe to discuss difficulties she has faced, saying only, “Life is about coping with disappointments and losses.”
And there have been some profound losses. In 1990, her home in Willow Glen burned to the ground, including the grand piano.
Twenty years later, she suffered an injury in an auto accident. Ironically, Dalis had told the San Francisco Chronicle in August 2010, “I could be hit by a truck tomorrow.” It wasn’t a truck, but a white SUV that broke her leg in a hit and run on 280 in October 2010. Despite the injury and a long recuperation period in the hospital, Dalis is back in charge – both in the office and attending every performance at the theatre. “The SUV hit my ankle, not my head,” says Dalis.
Opera in the California Theatre
Before I leave her office, Dalis entreats me to encourage young people to come to the opera. Her eyes twinkle as she thanks me for the “visit,” and she looks every bit the grande dame in the photographs on her wall.
Although it had been many years since I had been to the opera, I took her advice and saw the “Pearl Fishers.” The story of jealous fishermen fighting over a mysterious woman unfolded before me and I was completely captivated. Romance and betrayal delivered by powerful voices that resonated in the spectacular California Theatre. Opera is much less of an intellectual exercise than a purely physical experience. You don’t just hear the opera being sung, you feel it. In our world of minimalist screens and smartphones, perhaps we all need to discover the intimate drama of human experience once again. Live – right here in San Jose.
But don’t just take my word for it. Come for the music. Irene Dalis will be there waiting for you.
Written by Gillian Claus
Photography by Daniel Garcia