U of L and the Kentucky Opera
A Marriage in Music

"Greatness" can be measured by what one leaves behind. "Audacious" might describe those who build the foundations for visions others dream. Both words apply to Moritz von Bomhard, who founded the Kentucky Opera.

But even greatness and audacity need nurturing and fertile ground to succeed. The door was opened for Bomhard by Dwight Anderson, the second dean of U of L's School of Music.

Much like those of the Louisville Orchestra, Chamber Music Society, Louisville Ballet and Louisville Bach Society, the Kentucky Opera's roots are deeply connected to U of L.

Herbert L. Koerselman, the school's current dean, credits Anderson for helping build a school that would become "the cornerstone for one of the strongest performing arts communities in the country."

"Anderson realized a core performing arts program would be the foundation for the school," Koerselman says, "which in turn would support an orchestra, an opera, a ballet company and other community groups."

With the advice of noted music school scholars like Gerhard Herz, Anderson knew that such companies could "put Louisville on the map musically and enable the school to attract top students and faculty," recalls William Mootz '46MU, critic emeritus for the Courier-Journal.

"Many of the seeds for these groups were planted in Anderson's office, but

he would wisely pull back to let the city's leaders and patrons take over," Mootz says.

Unlike a role later to become popular on Broadway, Anderson played a successful Yente the matchmaker. Although lacking a "dowry," he helped create a love affair that spawned the Kentucky Opera, which turns 50 this year.

That affair started with a charismatic stranger with a German accent.

Moritz von Bomhard

Bomhard believed in the European tradition of great cities fostering orchestras, operas and the arts as a matter of pride and community life. He would spend his prime years recreating such a culture in Louisville.

Born in Germany in 1908, Bomhard was a dutiful son, earning a law degree from the University of Leipzig. But he also nurtured his passion for music by earning a diploma from the Leipzig Conservatory of Music.

His passion also was directed toward a Kentucky-born cello player whom he followed to the United States in 1935. After marrying and completing a graduate fellowship at Juilliard in New York City, Bomhard became a music instructor at Princeton University and directed its orchestra and glee clubs.

Image: Moritz von Bomhard and Charme Riesley Bomhard
Moritz von Bomhard and Charme Riesley Bomhard '51 MU in the orchestra pit of the Maccauley Theatre (now the W.L. Lyons Brown Theatre). Charme played Cherubino in the second-night cast of "Figaro," Bomhard's first Louisville production in 1949; she married Bomhard in 1962.

In 1942 with Hitler changing his homeland forever, Bomhard became an American citizen and joined the army air corps. Prophetically, during a stopover in Louisville he and his fellow soldiers bunked in the ballroom above the main stage of the Columbia Auditorium, the location for many of his onstage triumphs in later years.

The war years were especially hard for Bomhard, as his wife was overcome by mental illness. She died in 1945. That same year he returned to New York and entered Columbia Teachers College, earning a master's degree in 1947. But instead of teaching he formed a small professional opera troupe, the New Lyric Opera Company, and took it on the road.

American audiences were slow to warm to European operas sung in their native languages. In Louisville, he could not even generate enough interest to secure a booking for his fledgling opera company.

Still, in 1949 when Anderson and voice department head Fletcher Smith, who had studied with Bomhard at Juilliard, asked him to return to Louisville, he agreed.

Rather than bring his company, Bomhard was challenged to work with university students and faculty, so he selected "The Marriage of Figaro," an opera with many roles and not so dependent on a leading diva. He also wanted to import professional singers for the main roles and rely on locals for the chorus, but Anderson and Smith persuaded him to stick with local talent.

They were right.

A sold-out "Figaro" changed the Louisville arts scene forever.

"Bravos, stamping feet and tumultuous applause greeted the finale

of 'The Marriage of Figaro' and the audience had good reasons for its enthusiasm," Mootz wrote in the Courier-Journal.

Bomhard and the audience lauded the talents of music school students, faculty and other performers. Among the cast was Charme Riesley '51MU, who would later become Mrs. Bomhard. She may have caught his eye when she almost took out a wall as she leaped from a window on the set in her role as Cherubino.

Fortunately, a "servant" saved the wall, but the following line, "Everything is as we've left it," brought laughter from the audience and a frown from Bomhard.

The Renaissance

A mutual admiration society soon spring up between Bomhard and Louisville, and Anderson invited him to return the following year to direct another opera.

He also recommended that the U of L Opera Project become a permanent community event.

After Bomhard's successful 1950 productions of Menotti's "The Old Man and the Thief" and Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi," it was apparent that opera would not only be accepted in Louisville, but that it would thrive.

Image: Moritz von Bomhard
Moritz von Bomhard

In 1952, the city formed the Kentucky Opera Association (KOA) to join with U of L in presenting an enhanced series of Bomhard-directed performances. The productions moved downtown to Columbia Auditorium (now Spalding University Auditorium) from U of L's Belknap Playhouse.

Louisville Mayor Charley Farnsley '30L (1948­1953) joined in the enthusiasm for local opera along with the Nortons, Binghams and Bycks, Louisville's eminent families, and many others during this cultural renaissance in the city.

Mootz recalls the period fondly.

"Farnsley may have been the only Louisville mayor who not only had an interest in the arts but saw the arts as an essential activity of the city and an opportunity to shape Louisville's image around the world."

During the opera's early years, its principal singers and much of the chorus came from U of L and the Louisville community. The university provided the first home for the KOA at Gardencourt, and Bomhard served on the music school faculty, championing new works and compositions for voice, joining the Louisville Orchestra's commissioning series and pioneering opera on television with George Norton of WAVE-TV.

Bomhard built "one of the most adventurous and respected regional opera companies in America," Mootz wrote in a tribute in the Courier-Journal shortly after Bomhard's death in 1996 at the age of 88.

"Bomhard was a risk-taker and innovator," Mootz says. "He presented operas in English so that audiences better understood the drama on stage.

"He championed new works and brought obscure works to popularity, performing several before the Metropolitan Opera produced them."

During his 30 years with the KOA Bomhard and company often took to the road, bringing opera to areas throughout Kentucky and other parts of the region. The performances were memorable, sometimes for more than their artistry‹often putting Bomhard's patience and innovation to the test.

During one performance of "Faust" at another university, for example, Bomhard watched flabbergasted as much of his male chorus failed to appear when the curtain rose after intermission. Apparently, several "soldiers" were caught by university police taking nips of an illegal beverage and carted off to jail.

At yet another performance, this one at the Brown, the revolving set "clunked" and then stopped during the second act, Mootz recalls.

"We saw Bomhard leave the orchestra and disappear, followed by the sound of a hammer pounding and a few select curses in German," he says. "The set moved, Bomhard returned and the performance went on."

When Bomhard retired in 1982, the opera board was faced with some tough realities.

"Not only did they have to replace a general director, they needed a set designer, carpenter, conductor, stage director and rehearsal pianist," Mootz says. "Bomhard could do it all‹compose, arrange, perform, conduct, organize, raise money, design and build. With help from students and patrons, he could stretch resources to unbelievable results."

A Lasting Union

The relationship between U of L and the Kentucky Opera was maintained after Bomhard's retirement in 1982 through the leadership of Thomson Smillie, who served as the opera's general director from 1982 to 1997.

Deborah Sandler has been the director for the past four years. She hopes to forge an even closer relationship between the opera and the university by creating new works.

"Bomhard was a beacon of light in that regard," Sandler says.

"What an incredible force he was in such an exciting and vital time for the arts in Louisville.

"I greatly admire his achievements and just plain gumption in presenting an amazing repertoire."

Image: Edith Davis Tidwell
Edith Davis Tidwell '72MU, '74GMU as Musetta in the 1973 Kentucky Opera production of "La Boheme." Today Tidwell relies daily on Bomhard's teaching as she leads the voice department at U of L. "He taught me the nuances of language, expression, movement and style--not just voice. He demanded that honest, heartfelt emotions must come from the music as audiences deserve no less," she says.

Today, U of L music students often are cast in the chorus and comprimario roles of Kentucky Opera productions. Kimcherie Lloyd, the opera's music director, is also director of orchestra and opera at U of L, following a long line of faculty who have played key roles at the Kentucky Opera.

"This helps me in so many ways, both as a teacher and a mentor, and it helps our students," says Lloyd (pictured coaching U of L opera students Katherine Lay and Joey Wilkerson in the collage on page 12). "The Kentucky Opera exposes students to great opera productions so that they can learn what it takes to move into the professional ranks."

One of the best examples of a Bomhard-era opera student who not only made it to the professional ranks but also excelled there is Edith Davis Tidwell '72MU, '74GMU. She went on to become an internationally known prima donna.

Picked out of the chorus by Bomhard, well-known for his ear for talent, Tidwell sang lead roles in the New York City Opera and other international companies and performed in 25 KOA productions.

She also has served on the School of Music's faculty since 1976.

Coda

Dwight Anderson's dream more than 50 years ago was for the school of music to become a "cornerstone" for a strong performing arts community.

"He succeeded," says Koerselman, who retires this year after a decade of leading the school. "We remain one today, presenting quality music, training the next generation of aspiring musicians and helping to collaborate and sustain area arts groups."

Mootz agrees.

Image: Mitzi Bornwasser Friedlander
Mitzi Bornwasser Friedlander '52A, '71GA gave a hair-raising performance as Madame Fiora in the Kentucky Opera's 1953 debut of "The Medium."

"The quality of the music on Belknap Campus is better than it has ever been," he says. "Herb Koerselman has strengthened virtually every department, and the school is very healthy."

As Mootz looks to the future, he hopes for the continued emphasis on excellence and also for new matchmakers and catalysts like Anderson and Farnsley.

"We can look at our past for investments in a better future," he says. "We need a cultural renaissance or we may lose the wonderful creations of these cultural founders.

"They were innovators who gave Louisville an international reputation for its creative energy. Their institutions are in trouble, and someone must rock the boat on their behalf."

Editor's note: The "The Marriage of Figaro" will be performed at the Kentucky Center for the Arts on May 17 and 19.

Writer John Chamberlain is a marketing research and advertising assistant at U of L. Nancy Hanaford '77A and Doris Batliner at the Kentucky Opera's Plumb Boyer Library contributed to the research and photos for this article.

Archival photos courtesy of Plumb Boyer Library, Kentucky Opera. Photo of Moritz von Bomhard in the opening collage by Patrick L. Pfister.


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