Longform

KING OF THE RING GLYNN ROSS WANTS TO KNOCK YOU OUT WITH WAGNER'S MASTERPIECE

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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.

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Robert Baird