Up on the half-built stage, a short, gray-haired man with a puffed-out chest and an odd, shuffling gait is giving orders to his stage crew. Dressed in camel-colored polyester pants, a red-and-white-striped short-sleeve shirt and a narrow plaid tie, he follows his chief carpenter around a revolving, ringlike stage and discusses building one end higher than the other so characters can peer over the edge of Brnnhilde's rock.

With his eyes covered by the kind of two-tone sunglasses John Gotti favored, Glynn Ross is Arizona's godfather of opera. Everything runs on his word. After he finishes with the stage crew, it's on to the telephone, where he buys music stands for his orchestra from an obscure company he unearthed in Davenport, Iowa.

"They're the best," he says in all seriousness, "because they're built to nest together. So much easier to pack and store."
Before the afternoon is up, Ross will have auditioned and hired a young soprano, gulped a quick lunch of cabbage rolls and beer and tracked down a man in Oregon who specializes in making magic swords for the climactic scene in Siegfried. The signs are unmistakable: Glynn Ross is hot on the trail of another Ring of the Nibelungen.

Based on Norse legends and a medieval German poem called the Nibelungenlied, Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen is the most sprawling and expansive epic in all of opera. The Ring consists of four separate works: Das Rheingold (The Rheingold), Die Walkre (The Valkyrie), Siegfried and Gtterdmmerung (Twilight of the Gods). Completed in 1874 and first performed in its entirety at Bayreuth, Germany, two years later, it is the story of destruction and redemption among the gods. Set in the pine forests and windswept crags of a fairy-tale Germany, the Ring is filled with rainbow bridges, magic rings and funeral pyres--and much of Wagner's most memorable vocal and orchestral work. One of the crown jewels of western civilization, the Ring opened new horizons in philosophy and music. In its scope and ambition, it changed the language of opera forever.

The Ring has also entered popular culture as the archetypal opera--Amazonian blond women in Viking helmets and braids carrying spears and shrieking at the top of their lungs. One of its melodies, the stirring "Ride of the Valkyries," has become a modern anthem, appearing in both film soundtracks like Apocalypse Now and in an unending string of television commercials--the latest of which has gray squirrels parachuting into bowls of breakfast cereal. The ability to pull together the massive orchestral, vocal and dramatic forces needed to make a Ring cycle work has become the benchmark of a truly great opera company. In the United States, only the Metropolitan Opera in New York, the San Francisco Opera and the Seattle Opera--under the direction of Glynn Ross--have been able to pull it off.

For the Arizona Opera, a company that rarely stages anything outside the Puccini-Verdi-Rossini axis of Italian opera, mounting the difficult and enormously expensive Ring seems like a pipe dream. The trump card in the deck, however, is Glynn Ross.

@body:When Ross first proposed bringing Valhalla to Puget Sound, critics said he'd be "sitting in the hall by himself." But in 1974, Ross, then general director of the Seattle Opera, convinced the opera's board of directors, Boeing and several other large corporations in the Northwest to go along with his ambitious plans to stage North America's first in-sequence performance of Wagner's entire 18-hour, four-opera Ring.

Unlike the annual Ring at Germany's then-98-year-old Bayreuth Festival, the Seattle Ring was done in two cycles, one in the original German and one in an English translation by New Yorker music critic Andrew Porter.

Staged in the Seattle Opera House as a summer-festival event, the Seattle Ring attracted attention all over the world. The Washington Post reviewer called the production "the most audacious and widely publicized event in American regional opera." Six Japanese newspapers sent reviewers. And nearly every German newspaper flocked in, expecting a turkey shoot--the idea that Americans, let alone those in the provinces, could stage Wagner's opus. Harrumph! What they found, however, was a Ring that was well-played and sensitively conducted. The Philadelphia Inquirer called it "topnotch." New York Times music critic Harold Schonberg called it "the Ring, more or less, as Wagner conceived it," and concluded his review with, "Glynn Ross and his summer festival, operating out of a city of only some 500,000, are doing something that no American opera house has ever attempted, and doing it quite handsomely." Although the Ring lost $40,000 in its first year, it received unstinting praise from fans and critics alike, and by the second year, word of its quality and vitality had spread. Once described by English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham as a "cultural dustbin," Seattle caught the world's eye. Operagoers made an annual summer pilgrimage to Ross' Ring. It wasn't long before the city began trumpeting statistics showing it had the highest operagoing population per capita in the world. Ross' Seattle Ring put American regional opera on the map and poured millions of dollars into the local economy. The good press culminated with a 1978 profile of Ross himself in the New Yorker. Afterward, he remarked that "even Moses didn't get as many pages in the Bible."

But Wagner was merely the centerpiece of a grander plan that Ross had been busily hatching. Two years after he had the Ring in full flower, Ross announced his ambition to create a Pacific Northwest Festival. With the Ring as its linchpin, the festival would include music, dance, theatre and other arts. To fund his dream, Ross talked the Washington State Legislature into appropriating money for the project, Weyerhauser corporation into donating 30 acres of forestland and Washington Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson into introducing a bill to support the project in the U.S. Congress. The project went as far as architectural models for a three-theatre complex that was to have cost $12.5 million.

But Watergate and the political uncertainty it engendered killed any hope of federal money. At the same time, there was also growing opposition on the Seattle Opera board to Ross' dream. Members felt he wanted to grow too big too fast. They wanted to consolidate and focus on their season. To Ross, an inveterate schemer and salesman who during his Seattle tenure had also launched Pacific Northwest Ballet and founded Opera America (a professional organization of opera companies), the handwriting on the wall was clear. In the spring of 1983, after 19 years as the founder and general director of the Seattle Opera, he resigned. Since Ross' departure, the Ring has lost most of its former momentum; it is currently being produced once every four years. The end of Ross' tenure in Seattle seemed to end his reign as one of America's foremost Wagnerians. But now, at age 77, at the helm of the Arizona Opera Company since 1984, Ross is again talking of heldentenors, otherworldly rear projections and the trials of finding a good Brnnhilde.

Ross is determined to bring a complete, in-sequence production of Wagner's Ring to Arizona in 1995. He'll begin by including one opera in each of the next three regular seasons. In the 1992-93 season, the Arizona Opera Company will stage its first Wagner opera in 11 years, The Valkyrie.

"It's interesting to me," says Speight Jenkins, the current general director of the Seattle Opera and the man who replaced Ross, "that it took Glynn around eight years here to begin thinking of a Ring, and now, after eight years in Arizona, he's at it again."
@body:The stories about Glynn Ross are legion. He is a larger-than-life director who once approved a press release calling La Boheme "the story of six old-time hippies in Paris." In trying to drum up support for the Seattle Opera, he issued bumper stickers with the risqu message, "Get Ahead With Salome." His press kit contains quotes calling him the "Nebraskan Siegfried," "The Paganini of Public Relations," an impresario possessing "the energy of Jiminy Cricket, the charm of Cary Grant and the promise of Santa Claus." Under all this self-promotion is the irrefutable fact that Ross did, through simple force of will, bring America its first complete performance of Richard Wagner's Ring. And he has made the Arizona Opera Company the only professional arts organization in the state to stay in the black.

Glynn Ross is a man who over a 40-year career in American opera has made devoted friends, implacable enemies and a lot of good opera. In 1965 he brought a rising star named Beverly Sills to Seattle to sing. A year later she had a New York triumph in Julius Caesar. In 1967 Ross convinced Joan Sutherland to sing Lakme in Seattle by convincing her she needed to sharpen her skills before recording it. In recent years, Ross discovered Ealynn Voss, an American soprano who, since her first major role in a 1990 Arizona Opera production of Turandot, has gone on to the world's best stages.

Ross is a curious mix of incessant dreamer and hard-nosed pragmatist. He's an affable, Nebraska-bred farm boy and a snobbish aesthete. A multilingual mythology buff who can swear like a trooper. A walking encyclopedia of pasta, Chardonnay and other refined pleasures. A snake-oil pitchman. A cantankerous visionary who wants to balance the budget and not only do a Ring, but do it in Sedona.

A Shakespearean actor turned opera impresario, Ross combines a penny-saved-penny-earned philosophy with a finely honed sense of stagecraft, vocal performance and the kind of pageant opera needs to be successful. Able to sing many of the roles from the standard repertoire by heart, he's also able to stage-direct or conduct. A maddeningly stubborn egotist hard on both board members and employees, Ross has more than a touch of megalomania. Everything from Mimi's wig in La Boheme to the gargantuan Egyptian court sets for Aida had better be his way or else.

A mercurial personality, Ross also has his dark side. His contempt for symphony musicians, for example, is legendary.

"Symphony players don't like to sit in the pit," he sniffs. "They like sitting up there in those white ties and tails." Ever the pragmatist, Ross can be politic when one of his projects is at stake. Realizing early on that a Ring's musical demands would require a large, professional orchestra, Ross made peace with the Phoenix Symphony. The PSO will be in the pit for all of Arizona Opera's upcoming Wagner works.

Not surprisingly, Ross' relationships with boards of directors have been stormy. He's not shy about showing his disdain.

"If you have a roomful of uninformed people," he says, speaking of boards in general, "you can bet that the decision they make will be uninformed."
About his unceremonious, and by his own admission acrimonious, departure from Seattle, Ross says, "There were several small-minded people on that board who wanted a plateau rather than growth." Neither Ross nor the administration of the Seattle Opera will talk about how Ross' long tenure there ended. It's clear that there are still hard feelings on both sides. "I'd rather not speak about the way he left. I'd really rather just skip that," says Jenkins, the current general director of the Seattle Opera. Nor would past and present Arizona Opera board members talk about Ross. Last year several members of Arizona Opera's board of directors resigned, reportedly over disagreements with Ross. Ed Zito, a vice president at First Interstate Bank in Phoenix and one of the most disgruntled former board members, did not return repeated calls about the opera. Through an assistant, he made it known that he "no longer wishes to discuss the Arizona Opera Company." The opera's latest brouhaha concerns the recent firing of longtime music director Johan van der Merwe. Although painted by opera staff as a move made because of "creative differences," the dismissal was more a matter of van der Merwe and Ross butting heads. The new music director will be Byron Dean Ryan, formerly of the Utah Opera. Once an impediment to Ross' plans for the Ring, the board has undergone changes that have consolidated Ross' power. Current opera board president Lou Lagomarsino admits Ross can be thorny. Lagomarsino has the unenviable task of creating the illusion that the board runs the show, while the reality is that Ross has the power. "Hell, yes, there were people on this board who opposed the idea and said, 'We're going to do the Ring just because Glynn Ross wants it?'" Lagomarsino says. "But those kinds of people no longer exist on this board. We've come together, and it was the board that came to Glynn and said, 'Let's go for it.'"

Lagomarsino speaks in hopeful terms of convincing Ross to schedule John Adams' Nixon in China. It's clear from his tone that the board will have to coax Ross because it cannot--or will not--overrule his judgment.

A traditionalist to the bone, Ross is, in his regular-season lineups, steadfastly devoted to the war-horses of Italian opera. Inevitably, his Arizona Opera seasons have offered safe, wigs-and-knickers versions of opera's ABCs--Aida, Boheme or Carmen. He despises modern staging like that of controversial opera whiz kid Peter Sellars. "It drives me up a wall," he says, while admitting he's never seen a Sellars production. "It ends up looking like a bunch of people running around onstage. And that does no one any good."

Ross' taste in opera is undeniably middlebrow, a reflection, perhaps, of his Nebraska heritage. Although his obsession with Italian grand opera is admirable and unassailable, in presenting nothing but well-worn, traditionally staged war-horses, Ross is mortgaging the future for the present.

The opera, like the symphony, is rapidly losing its audience. If opera is treated like a museum piece, that's exactly what it will become. By Arizona Opera's own calculations, the average age of its audience is 55 years old. To survive, a younger audience must be enticed to pay from $9 to $36 to see opera in Arizona. While stodgy versions of Aida, Boheme and Carmen may please the well-heeled blue-hairs who keep the opera's coffers filled today, those works will not build an audience for tomorrow. When an opportunity to reach out to a younger audience has presented itself, Ross has dropped the ball. Most shortsighted is his refusal to support either the University of Arizona's Opera Theatre or ASU's excellent Lyric Opera Theatre. This year, instead of joining forces with the student opera companies, or programming a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, Ross unveiled as an audience-builder a concert performance of Rossini's unexciting La Donna del Lago.

At times Ross' devotion to Italian opera appears almost charmingly naive. He was surprised to discover, when a production of Don Giovanni sold out a few years back, that Mozart could sell--failing to recognize a war-horse in German.

The scheduling of a La Donna del Lago is an example of Ross in his teacher mode. The director often succumbs to the curious habit of opening a season with long, stuffy works, such as this season's version of Verdi's mammoth Don Carlo, a five-act opera light-years beyond the attention span of all but the most devoted aficionados. Light operas, operettas, even short, modern one-acts, all the bread and butter of other regional companies, have never been a part of the Arizona Opera under Ross. One gets the feeling that Don Carlo and La Donna del Lago are there not because they're good for business, but because they're what Ross likes and thinks his audience should see.

Stuffy or not, there's no arguing that the Arizona Opera has attained financial stability under Ross.

Arriving in Arizona in 1984--at the behest of Pat Tully, the wife of former Arizona Republic publisher Duke Tully--Ross took over a then-struggling Arizona Opera. By cutting deals and costs, Ross put the opera back on a solid financial footing in less than two years. Since then, as the Phoenix and Tucson symphonies, Ballet Arizona and Arizona Theatre Company all ran up deficits--ATC's at one time exceeded $1 million--the Arizona Opera Company remained that rarity, an arts organization in the black. A company that was a half-million dollars in debt the day Ross arrived now boasts a $250,000 cash reserve and a $250,000 endowment fund. In addition the Opera owns $500,000 in real estate, which includes its Tucson headquarters, a house in Scottsdale and its office building in Phoenix. Always ready with a good quote, Ross cites a financial theory that goes back to his Nebraska boyhood.

"There's an old Swedish proverb I learned from my mother," he says, flashing the toothy grin that is one of his trademarks. "I learned early in the game to take from the top of the sack rather than the bottom."
@body:In his long and varied career, one experience changed Ross the most. In 1954 he journeyed to Bayreuth, Germany, to see Wagner's Ring cycle produced firsthand. Ross learned much from the festival's director at the time, Richard Wagner's grandson, Weiland Wagner, acknowledged as the most creative member of the family to control the festival.

The Ring became for Ross opera's finest expression. It would become a passion that would literally give him something to live for nearly 40 years later. According to Ross, his life has been a series of fortunate accidents controlled by "a choreographer that watches over me." It began, improbably enough for a future opera director, on December 15, 1914, in south Omaha, Nebraska. Ross' father, Herman Aus, was a Norwegian immigrant turned Texas cowboy who drifted north and married Ida Carlson, another Scandinavian immigrant who had grown up in a sod house in Nebraska. The family, which included Glynn and his older brother, moved to a farm in Sarpy County outside Omaha in 1921. Raised on the Great Plains during the Depression, Ross learned the value of money after his father died in 1936. Taught by his mother to "take a dime and give a nickel to the church and a nickel to the bank," Ross came to believe in the virtues of hard work and thrift. He was not raised with culture or music. In fact, his most vivid musical memory from Nebraska concerns hearing what he labels "Bohunk dance music."

Some of Ross' personal history seems embroidered, if only because he's repeated it so much. The self-proclaimed "hot property" of his high school glee club and drama class, Ross left Omaha after being fired for sleeping on the job at a meat-packing plant. His high school drama teacher had gone to the Leland Powers School of Radio and Theatre in Boston, so in the summer of 1937, Ross wrote them and said he was coming. At the Powers School, Ross became enamored of Shakespeare, which led him to Stratford-upon-Avon where, in the summer of 1938, he worked as a gofer. After two more trips to England before the war, Ross returned to the States on a ship he now calls "a Who's Who of the arts." His shipmates included the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, pianist Arthur Rubinstein and the Russian tenor Vladimir Rosing. After landing, Rosing asked the 26-year-old Ross to accompany him west to assist Albert Coates, then conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in forming an opera company there. In the spring of 1940, Ross gained his first directorial experience assisting Rosing in a production of Faust that included sets and costumes by the Works Progress Administration.

After the United States entered World War II, Ross joined the Army and was shipped to Italy. He was wounded in the leg in 1943, and it was while he was recovering from the wound that his resourcefulness became evident. So did his ability to turn his hand to a variety of tasks--at one point, his career choices were running hotels or directing opera. In Naples the Army put Ross in charge of a hotel that American soldiers used when on leave. By swapping cigarettes and other scarcities, he was able to stock his hotel with good Scotch, French wines and even fresh lobsters. With his harlequin Great Dane by his side, Ross was put in charge of seven Naples hotels before the war was over. During this time, he met his future wife, Angelamaria Solimene (called "Gio," pronounced "Jo"), the daughter of an old Neapolitian family. The two were married in 1946; they have four children, one of whom, Melanie, is the company manager of the Seattle Opera.

When the war ended, Naples was flooded with troops waiting to ship out. To keep them busy, the Army staged dramas and operas in the Naples opera house, Teatro di San Carlo. Because of his drama training, Ross was hired as stage director. "I looked out one night and the entire house was clad in white," Ross begins. "What had happened was that the captain of an American destroyer in the harbor had told his crew, 'This is a rough town, stay out of the alleys,'" Ross says, making his voice low and gruff like a ship captain's. "And, oh yeah, by the way, there's this show in town and the theatre is called the San Carlo. Ask somebody and they'll show you the way. It's about some geisha girl that a shavetail gets pregnant.' "Boom! The house fills."

Ross' experience at the San Carlo convinced him that opera was where he wanted to work. In 1947 he returned to California and a year later was hired by maestro Gaetano Merola to stage-direct at the prestigious San Francisco Opera. Freelance directing engagements at New Orleans, Fort Worth and the Seattle-based Northwest Grand Opera followed. In 1959 he returned to Naples to stage-direct at the San Carlo. While there he received an intriguing offer--to create and direct a new opera company in Seattle. In 1963 Ross and his family traded sunshine for rain forests.

@body:Ross knows how difficult it will be to mount a Ring cycle in Arizona. He estimates it will cost "a couple of million" to do it right. The first step is finding that kind of money in a recession-strapped economy that has been increasingly ungenerous to the arts. Last year the first grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts for $750,000 for the Ring was turned down. So far the Arizona-based Flinn Foundation has contributed a $200,000 grant, which must be matched on a three-to-two basis, and the opera has received an anonymous grant for $50,000.

Several major parts of the Arizona Ring are already in place. Henry Holt, Ross' maestro for the Ring in Seattle, will conduct. Ross is also in serious negotiations with a young German stage director named Klaus Knig. Whether the German-language Ring will use the now-common practice of supertitles--translations projected over the stage--is still to be decided.

The most spectacular aspect of the production is the setting. Ross is considering several sites in northern Arizona, mostly around Sedona. He thinks that the spires of Sedona's famous red-rock country will make a perfect Valhalla.

"People keep asking me who I'm getting to do the sets and I keep saying it's already been done--by God."
Ross is also well-aware that many, even on his own board, think he's a little crazy to be mounting another Ring at age 77. "The first rule of venture capital is you must be sure the person you are investing in has more to lose than you do. Anybody putting money in the Ring, I have more to lose than anybody--my reputation." In applying for grant money, the opera has had to address the issue of succession should anything happen to Ross. But he won't discuss it, saying he'll take an early retirement at age 99. In fact, Ross is already looking down the road, beyond the Ring.

"Once we get the Ring up and running, I want to move on to my next project," he says with his patented toothy grin. "My really big plans are for the year 2000, the millenium. I want to do a festival made up of performances of the Orestia, the five great tragedies of Shakespeare, as well as classic dramas by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and then Wagner's Ring or maybe Parsifal. It will be a festival of tragic heights, a festival of exaltation."


KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Baird