Kentucky Opera was founded in 1952 by Moritz von Bomhard and designated the State Opera of Kentucky in 1982. Operas were presented in the Columbia Auditorium until 1964 when they moved to the Brown Theatre. The company began performing selected works at Whitney Hall in the Kentucky Center for the Arts in 1984 and moved all mainstage performances to the Whitney in 2000. The Louisville Orchestra plays for all performances, and the Louisville Ballet performs on occasions when operas require classical dance.
Under Bomhard’s direction, Kentucky Opera grew from a small organization, one of the first regional opera companies in America, to become a strong, innovative and respectable company that presented quality productions for appreciative audiences. The Bomhard Theater at the Kentucky Center for the Arts is named in his honor. After 30 years of tenure, Bomhard retired in 1982.
Thomson Smillie then became General Director. A native of Glasgow, Scotland, Smillie had worked for the Scottish National Opera for twelve years in addition to being the Artistic Director of the Wexford Festival of Ireland. In the United States, Smillie led the Opera Company of Boston before coming to Louisville. Smillie served 16 seasons with Kentucky Opera before leaving in 1997.
In 1998, Deborah Sandler became the third General Director of Kentucky Opera. She came to Louisville from the Opera Festival of New Jersey where she had been on staff as Executive Director since 1985 and later as General Director. During her tenure at the Opera Festival of New Jersey, the company more than tripled its budget and reached national prominence as one of the country’s outstanding summer festivals.
Kentucky Opera has had several performing homes during its 50-year history. The first performances were presented in the Columbia Auditorium. Despite the fact that this venue had no orchestra pit, it remained Kentucky Opera’s home for over ten years. In 1963, the company moved into the Macauley Theater (now known as the Brown Theatre), which had just undergone a major refurbishment. The Kentucky Center for the Arts, which opened in 1981, became a part-time home for the company. Larger works were performed in Whitney Hall, the 2,400 seat theater, medium scale productions were presented in the Macauley/ Brown Theatre and small chamber pieces were often performed in the 600 seat Bomhard Theater in the KCA. This arrangement remained until the 2000 season when all of Kentucky Opera’s productions were presented in Whitney Hall.
The company has a rich heritage of courageous producing. During his directorship, Maestro von Bomhard made it a practice to present at least one Louisville premiere each year. Indeed, during the 1950s Kentucky Opera presented five world premiere works, quite a feat for a small regional company. That spirit of innovation survives today.
The company is committed to increasing its young audience through the development of several educational initiatives designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Meeting tremendous success in its inaugural year, Kentucky Opera launched the Music! Words! Opera! program in Kentucky and Southern Indiana in May of 2000. Developed by OPERA America, the yearlong program trains teams of teachers to facilitate students to create their very own opera. With help from teachers, local artists and musicians and Kentucky Opera professionals, the students compose music, write librettos, design sets and costumes and perform their opera in front of a live audience.
Also debuting in 2000-2001 was the Rudd Program for Young Artists. Made possible by a generous grant from Louisville businessman Mason Rudd, the 15-week program was designed to bridge the gap between study and a professional career for four singers and a pianist. The young artists performed in Kentucky Opera’s opening main-stage production. The group also toured Kentucky and Southern Indiana high schools and colleges with a fully produced, forty-five-minute production called OperaWorks. The program serves a dual educational purpose by providing performers with a professional learning experience and by providing young audiences access to the operatic art form.
Yet another education program debuted in the summer of 2001. Opera Puppet Theater was designed to teach students in grades 3-5 about the art form. During the week-long summer workshop, students learned about opera while building hand-and-rod puppets and sets for a children’s opera. The workshop culminated in a production for family and friends performed to a pre-recorded soundtrack. This program is no longer offered.
Educational opportunities are not just for kids, Kentucky Opera offers several educational opportunities for adults as well. Opera Previews are presented, at no extra charge, one hour prior to each mainstage performance. Kentucky Opera music staff gives audience members and introduction to the opera they are about to see, reviewing the plot, musical features and notable aspects of Kentucky Opera’s production. During “Lunch and Listen”, artistic staff and principal artists give listeners an insider’s view of mainstage productions while lunch is served. This program is presented in conjunction with Louisville Public Media and is offered online for download.
In January 2006, David Roth was announced as the new general director of Kentucky Opera, succeeding Ms. Sandler. Roth had been with Fort Worth Opera since 2000 where he balanced the artistic and fiscal responsibilities as both Director of Production and Director of Finance. During his tenure with Kentucky Opera, Roth strove to push the artistic levels of the company with debut productions and artists. David Roth passed away in July 2015.
Kentucky Opera is financed by ticket sales, corporate sponsors and individual donors, the Fund for the Arts, the Kentucky Arts Council, and local fundraisers such as Carnevale, and the annual Car Raffle.
From its humble beginnings in 1952, when the budget of $10,000 produced three operas, Kentucky Opera has grown to a respected regional company with an annual budget in excess of $2.4 million. With the addition of Kentucky Opera Studio Artists Program and other growing outreach programs, the company is well positioned to take its place as a leader in the region and the nation in the dynamic field of opera.