Rimrock Opera

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The mission of Rimrock Opera is to enhance the cultural life of this region
and to make opera available to everyone by providing high quality
opera productions, outreach presentations and educational programming.

 Pops orchestra to honor Baber for longtime service to music communityRimrock Opera's Gail Hein interviewed by magician Kameron Messmer

Morry C. Matson, founder of the Rimrock Opera Company in Billings, has created a new, privately funded scholarship
for music students attending Billings Senior High.


The Genesis of the Rimrock Opera by Edward Harris

Until the founding of the Rimrock Opera in 1999, opera was a scarce commodity in Billings. Occasional opera performances by touring groups attracted large audiences even though the accompaniment was usually provided by piano rather than orchestra. One notable exception was the 1964 Territorial Celebration tour of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West, produced by the University of Montana and presented in a dozen sites throughout the state including Billings’ Fox Theater. Included in the tour cast were Lee Mathews (who subsequently was the stage director for the 1989 premiere of Pamelia at the Alberta Bair Theater) and Edward Harris (who helped in starting the Rimrock Opera).

In the 1970s, the presence of guest artist Julian Patrick at Rocky Mountain College made it possible for RMC’s Don Pihlaja to produce The Old Maid and the Thief and Down in the Valley. Patrick, Pihlaja and Elizabeth Rowan were featured in a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors at First United Methodist Church.

In a burst of venturesome programming, Billings Symphony Orchestra conductor George Perkins directed a Billings production of The Magic Flute in 1978. (Included in the local cast in his first operatic experience was Douglas Nagel as Papageno.) Perkins later directed a lavish local production of The Mikado which featured sets designed by famed artist Hall Diteman.

The opera Pamelia premiered at the Alberta Bair Theater in 1989. Pamelia combined local and professional talents and was made possible largely through the fund-raising work of Billings volunteer Ellen Alweis (see Note 1). The Western Opera Company presented its touring production of Die Fledermaus in October, 1993. The Billings Symphony and Chorale featured local talent in a 1995 production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. All other musical theater productions (1950s - 1990s) by schools and community theatre were lighter “Broadway” type productions featuring piano or reduced instrumentation accompaniment.

During this time, if you were a Billings opera fan, you had to go elsewhere to enjoy fully staged grand opera with professional voices and full orchestral accompaniment. If you wanted to sing in an opera, you had very few local options.

Golden West Opera

(From Morry Matson’s webpage.) “...It has always been my life ambition to establish my home town's main opera company. When I graduated from the University of Montana in 1993 with a B.A. degree in music, where I studied oboe with Roger McDonald and composition with Donald O. Johnston, I immediately went to work. I started Golden West Opera that summer and chose Mozart's "Bastien & Bastienne" that he composed in 1768 at age 12. My private oboe instructor in Billings at the time was Forest Cornwell, formerly a bassoonist for the local symphony orchestra. He was instrumental in helping me find orchestra members and local patrons to fund the project. The late Donald Pihlaja, choral director of a local private college, conducted. Hall Diteman, the renowned landscape painter, directed. Our debut production took place in March 1994 at the grand old Babcock Theater in downtown Billings to rave reviews. Forest Cornwell came to the debut, the last public performance he attended before his death one year later. The Babcock Theater will be celebrating its centennial on December 23, 2007.”
(*Note: Anything sent to the address above becomes the property of NBC and The Billings Opera Guild)

For the next several years there were frequent attempts to formally organize a Billings opera company and to produce another opera. Spearheading this effort was Morry Matson who worked diligently to obtain permission to use the now-vacant Babcock theater for this purpose. Several people were involved at this time including Don Pihlaja, Alice Lyon, Hall Diteman, Ed Harris, Michael Deitz, and Linda Fasching. While considering the Babcock theater, Ruth Moss gave committee members a tour of the building which included apartments, commercial space and a bowling alley in the basement. When the Babcock became a movie theater the rear portion of the stage area was converted into commercial space for the Westernwear store on the west side of the building. There were many lovely apartments on the second floor but the theater area itself was deteriorating at an alarming rate. Grandiose plans were discussed such as raising enough money to purchase the entire Babcock building and turn it into a performing arts center.

With the assistance of local attorney Larry Tompkins, a nonprofit corporate entity called the the Billings Opera Guild was formed, a necessary step before raising any funds. Unfortunately, the constituency of our organization was frequently changing, causing a lack of organizational infrastructure and a loss of focus on the Billings Opera Guild goals. Some members drifted away because forming and sustaining an opera company in Billings just seemed to be an impossible dream. Others moved on when it became clear we were not going to be able to use the Babcock theater building for operatic productions or for an arts center. Even the initials of our corporate organization - “B O G” - seemed to indicate we were not going anywhere quickly.

Finally some momentum and credibility were obtained when the world-famous baritone Pablo Elvira gave his support. He had been instrumental in forming the Intermountain Opera Company in Bozeman 25 years earlier. Pablo devoted an enormous amount of his talent, time, and energy into forming that company. With his network of friends and contacts in the international opera community, he was able to attract world-class talent to perform for Montana audiences. However, what was most lacking in Bozeman was a theater space of sufficient quality and scope for operatic productions. He had long been promised that a suitable theater would be built in Bozeman, but after two decades, Pablo was extremely frustrated by the lack of movement toward getting a new theater in Bozeman.

Elvira came to Billings and met with the members of the Billings Opera Guild who were still active. With his experience in the opera world he was an extremely helpful resource and convinced the Guild that an opera company in Billings could be a viable entity. He pointed to the large number of Billings opera fans who had been traveling to the Intermountain Opera Company productions for years, adding, "If it can be done in Bozeman-it certainly can be done in Billings."

With this encouragement, new members were added to the organization, and advice on fund-raising was provided. The group took a new name and its focus changed from purchasing the Babcock to simply producing shows at the splendid Alberta Bair Theater.

Pablo Elvira offered his talents (at a reduced rate) to star in the premiere Rimrock Opera Company production of Rossini's Barber of Seville. Through his experience and connections we obtained the rental of orchestral parts, the services of Roberto Stivanello to provide costumes and sets, and Giampaolo Bracali to be the musical conductor. He also used his connections to help finalize the casting which included artists David Cody, Anne Basinski, and Douglas Nagel. Support was also provided by the “Pamelia Fund,”--assets remaining from a 1989 Centennial project. (See note 1)

With the help of Hall Diteman posters for Barber of Seville were printed to be distributed by members of the board. A second “collector” poster was provided by Heins Creative. Meanwhile, orchestra rehearsals were difficult while the local pit musicians dealt with the leadership style of the visiting conductor.

Early ticket sales did not inspire confidence among the members of the Opera Board. Many members of the orchestra were disgruntled by the remarks of the conductor. And the star attraction - Pablo Elvira - was becoming undependable, ill and struggled with a sore throat. Two days before opening, the board had an emergency meeting to consider seeking a last-minute replacement for our ailing Figaro. Pablo assured the board he was recovering and expected to be in full voice by opening night. (See Note 2)

Finally everything came together by opening night, November 19, 1999. Although Pablo was not in full voice, he managed to charm the audience with his high spirited performance of the scheming barber Figaro, a role for which he received international acclaim.  (see Note 3)

Everyone was surprised and/or delighted by the success of the inaugural show. Despite trials, trepidations and inexperience, we sold enough seats to pay all the bills and still have money left over in the bank - a feat seldom accomplished in the opera world. A gala reception took place at Gainan’s Flowers.

After the matinee on November 21, the board met at John Baber’s home to discuss with cast member Douglas Nagel his willingness and availability to serve as Rimrock Opera’s first Artistic Director.  (See Note 4)

Just for the Record:

1999 – The Barber of Seville
2000 – Madama Butterfly
2001 – The Merry Widow
2002 – Tosca
2002 – Carmen
2003 – The Magic Flute
2003 – Don Giovanni
2004 – Hansel & Gretel
2004 – Nosferatu WORLD PREMIERE
2005 – La Boheme
2005 – La Traviata
2006 – Die Fledermaus
2006 – Madama Butterfly
2007 – Cosi fan tutti
2007 – Girl of the Golden West
2008 – The Elixir of Love
2008 -- The Marriage of Figaro
2009 – Carmen
2009 – The Barber of Seville
2010 – La Bohème
2010 -- The Merry Widow
2011 – Tosca
2011 – Rigoletto
2012 – The Crucible
2013 – Aida
2014 La Traviata
2017 Magic Flute
2018 Nosferatu
2019 – Blodwen, Marriage of Figaro
2020 – The Impresario
2021 – Pagliacci
2022 – Twilight Tones
2022 – Carmen
2023 - Salome
2024 – Cinderella
2025 – Hansel & Gretel

Note 1

“Pamelia,” by Eric Funk was commissioned to celebrate the Centennial of six northern plains states, was premiered in Billings in 1989. Opera based on the life and letters of Pamelia Fergus, Montana pioneer. Composer, Eric Funk. Librettists, Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith. Premiered August 1989 in Billings, Montana. Featured: Pablo Elvira, Leslie Richards. Conductor: Uri Barnea.

Note 2

Board members at that time included Fay Ellis, Paul Hickman, Lloyd Mickelson, Ron Sexton, Elizabeth McNamer, Lois Ann Nordstog, Louis Spencer-Smith, Pat Etchart, Ken Woosley, Ken Mueller, Ed Harris, Alyce Lyon and Barbara Gulick.

Note 3

Feb. 8, 2000 - Pablo Elvira - obituary
Bozeman, Mont. (AP) - Widely known baritone Pablo Elvira Jr. died Saturday of natural causes. He was 62. He was found dead Sunday at his Gallatin Valley residence.

A native of San Juan, Puerto Rico and the son of a dance orchestra leader, Elvira began his musical career playing jazz trumpet with his father's group and later formed his own orchestra. The turning point in his singing career was his introduction to Pablo Casals and a successful audition that led to Elvira's touring and recording with Casals' Oratorio for world peace.

In 1966, he participated in the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in New York and was selected by the Dean of the Indiana University School of Music to join their voice faculty. He remained there for eight years and performed leading baritone roles in the opera school's productions.

After a year spent performing in Europe, he returned briefly to Indiana before moving to New York and debuting with New York City's Metropolitan Opera in 1978, becoming one of the leading baritones. While in New York, he performed with such opera greats as Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo.

During his career, Elvira sang in France, Germany, South America, Australia, Puerto Rico, Israel and throughout the United States. He was known for his interpretation of the brash, joke-cracking role of Figaro in The Barber of Seville.

Note 4

Douglas Nagel was hired as Artistic Director from 1999 to 2013.

ROC's Doug Nagel to step down from post

MSUB professors travel to China next month to teach

Tragic Aida Fills the Alberta Bear Theater for Douglas Nagel's Swan Song

MERGER.  On May 11, 2013, Rimrock Opera and Venture Theatre merged into NOVA Center for the Performing Arts. NOVA provides opportunities for growth and future security made possible by the merger and has expanded revenues by offering space for a wider spectrum of users. The Center has become an important part of the community and will continue to facilitate lifelong learning in theater arts. NOVA’s comprehensive business plan allows donors to realize the benefit of integration.

Both Rimrock Opera Company and Venture Theatre began between 1989-1993 when they were both looking to fill an empty niche in Billings-one utilizing local actors in theater productions to challenge and inspire audiences and the other, capitalizing on local and regional opera talent for local main stage productions with live orchestra.

Rimrock Opera Company found success by not only breaking even but by making a profit at its premiere production of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, something many opera companies have never accomplished. Since that time, 21 operas have been performed by the Rimrock Opera Company at Alberta Bair Theatre, including a sold-out Aida in April 2013.

Rimrock Opera Company provided educational opportunities to thousands of students through its touring outreach programs, student matinees and ROCK (Rimrock Opera Chorus for Kids). Venture Theatre productions, which began at MSU B (then Eastern Montana College) were never afraid to confront the audience on topics that might cause them to squirm in their seat and question their prejudices and fears. As it developed, Venture moved from the college to bars and restaurants in Billings, then to a garage and ultimately to the current location at 2317 Montana Avenue. During those years, the popular One Act Play Festival, Venture Improv and the high quality youth education program were developed.

NOVA Center for the Performing Arts has an outstanding premiere season planned. There’s something for everyone: plays, improv comedy, opera, youth productions, Wet Ink, Fringe Festival and musicals. The best of both organizations shine through at NOVA. Thank you for your continued support. Enjoy the Show!

NOVA Center for the Performing Arts is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation governed by a board of directors.

NOVA’s Initial Board of Directors and Staff:

President Cam Saberhagen Vice President Lucinda Stearns Butler 2nd Vice President Dane Jorgensen Treasurer Julia Warmer Secretary Karen Postema Board Members Steve Butler, Virginia Mermel, Mary Goplen, Randy Hammerquist, Brooke Buchanan, Don Sommerfeld, Jennifer Chapman, Joan McCracken and Angela Langeliers Finance Director Darci Hertz Technical Director Amber Felker

Past Presidents: Bonnie Daniels, 2003-2004; Barbara Taylor, 2002; Elizabeth McNamer, 2001; Lloyd Mickelson, 1989-2000.
Committees Conservatory Artistic Committee Opera Artistic Committee Theater Artistic Committee Building Maintenance (sub-committee Community Outreach/Facility Usage) Finance/Grants/Sponsorship Special Events/Fundraiser Merchandise/Box Office Volunteers Nominating/Governance Personnel Marketing/Publicity

In June 2013, Matthew Haney was hired as Managing Producer and Dan Nickerson as Youth Conservatory Director. Craig Huisenga was hired as Managing Producer in September 2013.

Lucinda (Cindy) Butler is NOVA Center Past President, Rimrock Opera Foundation President and Executive Producer