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Seattle Opera History

Founded in 1963, Seattle Opera has developed into one of the leading opera companies in the United States. The company is recognized internationally for its theatrically compelling and musically accomplished performances. Seattle Operas summer presentations have been acclaimed often and widely as among the Pacific Northwests premier cultural events.

For Seattle Opera's first season in 1964, founding general director Glynn Ross presented two performances of Carmen and two performances of Tosca. By 1966, the company's season had grown to include five operas.

Soon reports were out that Seattle Opera had earned the highest per-capita opera attendance of any opera company in the nation. Then, in 1970, Ross founded OPERA America, a service organization for North American opera companies that thrives today.

In summer 1975, Seattle Opera garnered international recognition by presenting Richard Wagner's complete four-opera Ring cycle, uncut, in a week's time. In the U.S., only the Metropolitan Opera had undertaken this featonce in 1939!

For the last 20 years, General Director Speight Jenkins has led the company. During Jenkins tenure, the company has produced all 10 of Wagners major works including two complete new productions of the Ring. Seattle Operas 2001 presentation of Wagners Ring des Nibelungen was the most successful production in the companys history, selling out all 36,000 seats a full year in advance of opening. The three complete cycles of the Ring drew audiences from 49 states and 19 countries.

Visit the Seattle Operas website for more information about the company, its season and schedule

The Seattle Operas website also had an extensive Wagner section that details the history of Seattle Operas involvement with the works of Richard Wagner: An excerpt of this section is shown below.


Why are the works of Richard Wagner so important to Seattle Opera? The answer is both historical and practical. In the early 1970s, the founder of the company, Glynn Ross, who loved the operas of the German composer, realized that in the United States over the previous twenty years there had been less Wagner performed and that the mammoth work of the composer, Der Ring des Nibelungen, was receiving far fewer performances than it had since its introduction to the United States in the 1880s. At that time, only one major company, the Metropolitan Opera, had part of a Ring production, and because of complicated problems, the final opera of the cycle, Gtterdmmerung, had not yet been completed. San Francisco and Chicago, both of which companies had produced the Ring in the past, seemed to have no plans now for producing the cycle, and no other opera company in America was contemplating its production. Due to the apparent dislike of Wagner by the Metropolitans General Manager, Rudolf Bing, who was about to retire, the company had produced far few Wagner operas than in the past, and this was at a time when one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos of the twentieth century, Birgit Nilsson, was at the height of her personal popularity and critical acclaim.

Opera Photo 1978 Ring, Rudolph Holtenau as Wotan and Ute Vinzing as Brnnhilde

With all this happening in other opera companies, Ross looked around him in Seattle and saw a terrain that to him that suggested the Alpine reaches of Bavaria with our lakes and evergreens. He also believed that the audience in Seattle, up to then exposed only either to touring Wagner productions or to two of the earlier Romantic operas by Rosss less-than-a-decade-old Seattle Opera, would take to the Ring. Ross had spent the summers of 1953 and 1954 working at the Bayreuth Festival. And, clever entrepreneur that he was, he perceived that since the Bayreuth staging revolution of 1950, created by the two grandsons of the composer, Wieland and Wolfgang Wagner, all productions of the Ring were eschewing the rocks and mountain scenes associated with Wagners own Ring in 1876 as well as the stage directions in his librettos. Ross reasoned that if he could create a Ring evoking the memory of the past, many from all over the country and, conceivably, the world would come.

Opera Photo 1986 Ring, final scene of Gtterdmmerung

He started off with a production each year, first of Die Walkre, then Siegfried, finally Gtterdmmerung, all of which were accepted very well by his audience, largely made up of Scandinavian stock. In 1975, however, he made big news. He announced that Das Rheingold would be joined to the other three, and that in July Seattle Opera would present a Ring consecutively and in six days. The news hit the opera world like a thunderbolt. Here was a small company, in a place that in those days seemed very far away, preparing to do what was the province of the Metropolitan or San Francisco Operas (and the Met had given its first complete cycle in twelve years only the year before). On top of that, Ross announced that he would give two cycles, one sung in German and the other in English, the latter using Andrew Porters translation created for the English National Opera. His gamble paid off in a big way. Those who missed the old sets came from all over the country and the world; the press was intrigued not only with Seattles presenting the Ring but that the company was giving the cycle in two languages, and the performances were well attended and received good press.

Opera Photo 1995 Ring, the Dragon and handlers
Photographer: Gary Smith

That year was so successful that Ross convinced the Seattle Opera Board that the Ring should be repeated, and the audiences and press came from even farther away. Soon the annual summer cycles of the Ring (one in German, one in English) became a tradition and were repeated every year. In 1980, Ross presented a new production of Tristan und Isolde. In the summer of 1981, he presented a performance of that work between the two cycles of the Ring.

Opera Photo 2000 Walkre, Seattle Opera Scene Shop building trees
Photographer: Gary Smith

The repetition established Seattle Opera worldwide as a Ring center; it did more: it inculcated into the Seattle opera public a liking for Wagners works and a familiarity with them that is probably still greater per capita than in any city outside Germany. Criticism of the 1975 cycle, after the first year, was fairly condescending and not generally favorable in some cases. By the early 1980s, the rocks were becoming fairly dilapidated, and the other elements of the presentation were not winning a lot of favor. Audiences, though faithful, were fewer, and there was a complaint, loudly heard in Seattle, that the money of the company was being siphoned off into the Ring. Speight Jenkins was appointed general director of the company in 1983. A lawyer and by trade a journalist, Jenkins had previously worked as a music critic, a radio and TV commentator, and a speaker on opera. One characteristic might have increased his appeal to the Boards search committee: he was an ardent Wagnerian who believed in the future of the Seattle Ring and was eager to create a new Ring production for Seattle. The Ring was not the limit of his desire for Wagner at Seattle Opera. Shortly after his appointment, he said that he wanted to produce all ten of the standard canon of Wagners works at Seattle Opera, and he proposed to begin in the first season he planned with Tannhuser.

Opera Photo 2000 Walkre, Wotan (Phillip Joll) sets fire to the ledge
Photographer: Gary Smith

In the ensuing nineteen years, Jenkins has done what he promised to do. In August of 2003, a new production of Parsifal will complete the canon, enlarged as it has been by the creation of two complete Rings. Over these years, the company has enhanced its reputation for Wagner productions, productions created in a variety of styles and with many of the greatest singers of Wagner. The company is now held to the highest possible standard by the world press. Audiences come to Wagner performances from all 50 states and as many as 18 foreign countries. The non-Ring operas as well as the Ring attract interested audiences, and local support for Wagner has grown exponentially over the years.

Opera Photo 2003 Parsifal, designer Robert Israel [middle] and Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins [right] examine fabric swatches for costumes
Photographer: Robert Schaub

In the early days, only the German cycle of the Ring was well attended. Now, with all performances in German, the three cycles of 2001 were completely sold out a year before the opening. When they are presented, the other Wagner operas receive eight performances each, all well attended.

The future will bring revivals of certain Wagner productions, including Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and Tristan und Isolde, as well as the Ring. Revivals of the present Stephen Wadsworth Ring production, conducted in 2005 by Robert Spano, will take place that summer as well as in 2009 and 2013. Another new Wagner production on the horizon after the 2003 Parsifal is Tannhuser, scheduled either for 2007 or 2008.

Seattle Symphony History

Seattle Symphony Photo
Seattle Symphony Orchestra at Benaroya Hall

The Seattle Symphony gave its first performance on December 29, 1903, when violinist/conductor Harry West assembled 24 musicians to perform in Christiansen Hall, site of the current Seattle Art Museum and directly across the street from Benaroya Hall, home of the Seattle Symphony.

The most famous of all maestros in the Symphony's formative years was Sir Thomas Beecham, whose orchestra-building expertise and charismatic presence conferred upon the Seattle Symphony a significant boost in skill and reputation. In 1954, Milton Katims began his 22-year tenure as Music Director, greatly expanding the Symphony's education program through public school concerts. Rainer Miedl, Music Director from 1976 until his tragic death from cancer in 1983, led the Orchestra on its first European tour in 1981.

Gerard Schwarz came to the Seattle Symphony as Music Advisor in 1983. The following year he was named Principal Conductor, and since 1985 has been the Symphony's Music Director. During his tenure, Maestro Schwarz introduced many popular series, including Music of Our Time, Basically Baroque and Mainly Mozart. He has recorded more than 85 compact discs with the Seattle Symphony, many of which showcase music by contemporary composers, such as major orchestral works by Hanson and David Diamond, Honorary Composer in Residence of Seattle Symphony. The Seattle Symphony now enjoys a relationship with Naxos of America that will result in the release of 10 re-mastered recordings in 2003 and 2004.

On September 12, 1998, the Seattle Symphony inaugurated its new home, Benaroya Hall, culminating more than 13 years of dedication and hard work that engaged all levels of the community. Since that auspicious occasion, the Orchestra has further honed its already considerable level of orchestral finesse-duly noted by audiences, critics and the musicians themselves. The Symphony also has greatly expanded the number and scope of its concert offerings.

On April 17, 2001, Soundbridge Seattle Symphony Music Discovery Center opened its doors in Benaroya Hall. Designed for people of all ages and levels of musical experience, Soundbridge serves as a center for the Symphony's education and community programs. To date, Soundbridge has served over 40,000 visitors.

The Seattle Symphony recently conducted a three-year exploration of music from the Pacific Rim through a series of festivals, beginning with FusionWest to East: East to West in May 2001, continuing with Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project in May 2002, followed by a celebration of Latin American music with the Viva la Msica Festival in May 2003. Each festival explores different aspects of the rich and varied music of Pacific Rim cultures through symposia, workshops, lectures and concert performances, engaging local cultural organizations as community partners.

In February 2002, the Seattle Symphony toured the state of Florida, giving highly successful performances in Ft. Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, Miami, Sarasota and Orlando. The Orchestra toured its own state in 2000 and 2002, bringing performances and educational opportunities to Northwest regional audiences.

The 2003-2004 season marks the Seattle Symphony's Centennial Season. In celebration of this important achievement, the Symphony will present renowned guest artists and conductors in a season including six newly commissioned works by American composers. The Seattle Symphony will embark on an East Coast Centennial Tour in Spring 2004, which will include the Orchestra's Carnegie Hall debut.

Seattle Symphony History used by permission of Seattle Symphony

Seattle Youth Symphony History

Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestras, founded in 1942, is the United States largest youth symphony organization, providing high quality, long-term, direct involvement in the study and performance of classical music to over 1,100 students annually. One of Seattles oldest and most respected cultural institutions, SYSO provides life changing musical experiences for talented students in the Pacific Northwest, regardless of their financial resources.

Seattle Youth Symphony Photo

SYSO helps students develop their relationship to great music, expand their capacity for self discipline and focus, learn the value of community and teamwork, and continuously acquire new musical skills with professional artist teachers. SYSO alumni play in every major orchestra in the United States and hold leadership positions in the major orchestras and opera companies of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and New York. They also perform in the leading ensembles of London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan, Hong Kong and Tokyo.