Opera Santa Barbara Turns 25

Gala to Celebrate Rise of Opera in Santa Barbara

Singers Karin Wolverton (left) and Adam Diegel, pictured here in Opera S.B.’s 2017 production of Puccini’s La rondine, will participate in the January 26 all-star concert at the Lobero.
David Bazemore

To hear Marilyn Gilbert tell it, the birth of what is today known as Opera Santa Barbara occurred in a climate of prelapsarian possibility. Lip service is often paid in Santa Barbara to the idea of “another day in paradise,” but seldom are the concrete examples as sturdy and convincing as the images she paints of a small band of people working together to realize a dream on a shoestring. What is today one of the top professional opera companies in the country was once a collaborative project staffed by volunteers, clothed in borrowed costumes, and fueled by optimism and the love of music. Gilbert’s husband, the late Nathan Rundlett, started building the sets for the organization’s first production in their driveway in 1993. “He was a master craftsman,” said Gilbert; “he made it possible.”

On Saturday, January 26, friends of Opera Santa Barbara (OSB) will gather at the Lobero Theatre for an exciting all-star concert to celebrate a quarter century of bringing extraordinary works of musical theater to life on Santa Barbara stages. From hometown favorites such as Nina Yoshida Nelsen to Metropolitan Opera stars like Isabel Bayrakdarian, OSB has assembled nine great singers who will regale the audience with a program of arias that reads like opera’s greatest hits. Both current OSB artistic and general director Kostis Protopapas and former artistic director Valéry Rivkin will be on hand to conduct the orchestra, and for those who arrive early for this early show, which runs 6-7:30 p.m., there will be ice cream and champagne at the pre-concert reception.

Expect some surprises, as well, as the company celebrates and recounts the highlights of its history. After an initial period under the leadership of Gilbert and Rundlett, in which the organization developed from its humble beginnings into a force to be reckoned with, there were other chapters, all of them important to the OSB story. Gilbert fondly remembered an early Tosca that featured an appearance by the Santa Barbara Mission’s Father Vergil as the Bishop. (Gilbert recalled recruiting him for the production by placing a call to him and asking if he “would like a promotion.”) After a particularly memorable Madame Butterfly, which featured a stunning set designed by Hollywood professionals, leadership of the organization passed into new hands.

In later years, with the advent of the Granada in its newly remodeled grandeur, Opera Santa Barbara entered its 21st-century phase of expansion and experimentation. How many remember the opening night of Séance on a Wet Afternoon? The OSB of today, under the leadership of Protopapas, embraces a wide range of styles while still maintaining its allegiance to the core repertoire of the opera tradition. This season, the second and third productions of the year will take place at the Lobero, rather than the Granada, in a move that guarantees both a more optimal financial position for the company and an intimate, thrilling experience for the audience. Perhaps the best way to understand where this dynamic organization is going as well as where it has been is to attend the gala concert on Saturday at the Lobero. You will come out singing its praises.


The Opera Santa Barbara 25th Anniversary Concert will take place Saturday, January 26, at 6 p.m., at the Lobero Theater (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Call 963-0761 or see lobero.org.


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