Opera History

Edward Harris

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 1973. (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 

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.


Rimrock Opera President History

1999 The Barber of Seville

Lloyd Mickelson, President

2000 Madama Butterfly

Lloyd Mickelson, President

2001 The Merry Widow

Elizabeth McNamer, President

2002 ToscaCarmen

Barbara Taylor, President

2003 The Magic FluteDon Giovanni

Bonnie Daniels, President

2004 Hansel & Gretel

Bonnie Daniels, President

Nosferatu, World Premiere

Lucinda Butler, President

2005 La bohèmeLa traviata

Lucinda Butler, President

2006 Die Fledermaus

Madama Butterfly

Lucinda Butler, President

2007 Così fan tutte

The Girl of the Golden West

Lucinda Butler, President

2008 The Elixir of Love

The Marriage of Figaro

Lucinda Butler, President

2009 CarmenThe Barber of Seville

Lucinda Butler, President

2010 La Boheme

The Merry Widow

Lucinda Butler, President

2011 Tosca


Lucinda Butler, President

2012 The Crucible

Lucinda Butler, President

2013 Aida

Lucinda Butler, President

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.

Lois Bent: 25 Years of Bringing Music, News and Culture to the Yellowstone Valley

Opera Guild launches show, piques interest and raises funds 

> B Christene C. Meyers

Source: Billings Gazette
Sunday,June 7, 1998

Dateline: Billings Gazette Arts Editor 

He’s sung with Pavarotti, Domingo, Sutherland and Sills in the world’s great opera houses. 

Now he’s coming to Billings to launch the Billings Opera Guild’s first major production. 

Pablo Elvira will sing the title role of Figaro in “The Barber of Seville” in a lavish production at the Alberta Bair Theater for a pair of shows next Feb. 12 and 14. Elvira hopes to make opera lovers out of the ranchers in the area who, he says, “usually love opera once they get to know it.” 

Elvira comes to town from his Bozeman home under the auspices of the Billings Opera Guild, billed by its founder Morry Matson as “the country’s newest opera company.” 

After several years of trying to procure the fallow Babcock Theatre for its venue, Matson decided to follow Elvira’s advice and book the ABT for his endeavor. He hopes the guild will produce at least two operas per season and will follow “Barber” with a more modest autumn production in the fall of 1999 with plans for something truly spectacular in 2000. Elvira hopes to produce and appear in other great operas in the next decade in Billings endash possibly “Carmen,” “Madame Butterfly,” “La Traviata,” “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “LaBoheme,” and maybe even the grand “Aida,” which demands the deep stage he never had in Bozeman. 

“With the Alberta Bair we can do almost anything,” he said excitedly. The operas will be produced in their native tongues, with subtitles, which has been successful in Bozeman. “The first few years, we’ll do the war horses. Then we’ll be more adventuresome,” he says. “In 10 years, we’ll do Mozart.” 

The guild is a fully incorporated, non-profit organization thanks to the volunteer efforts of Billings lawyers and arts buffs Jim Thompson and Larry Martin. Elvira begins a series of fundraising meetings in the Billings area Monday, visiting bankers and businessmen to launch the guild’s $100,000 fund drive. (“Barber” has a budget of $70,000.) The Guild is also selling $30 memberships, which include a regular newsletter and rehearsal privileges. 

Although he has been commuting for several months for meetings with Billings opera lovers, Elvira plans to rent a small house or apartment in Billings this winter when rehearsals begin. He has donated his time and expertise and usually pays his own gas and hotel bills, since the organization has virtually no money yet. An orchestra of about 30 musicians will be recruited, along with a 16-voice chorus. They will rehearse for several weeks, but the principals — all professional singer friends and colleagues of Elvira’s cultivated through his international career — will fly into Billings for only about a week’s intensive rehearsal before the premiere. Each will receive a stipend of $2,000 for the stint, modest by touring standards which sometimes demand $10,000 or more per performance. 

Elvira’s will be artistic director and board member “with the goal of steering the guild into a first-rate, nationally acclaimed opera company.” Besides procuring the singers, he is using his contacts to obtain attractive rentals on lavish sets and costumes and says the Metropolitan Opera Company is following the evolution of this newest fledgling guild with great interest.
The Guild has hired a professional fundraiser and is going after both corporate support and matching grants, Matson said. Elvira is looking for commitments of $5,000 and up, but Matson says the $30 memberships are also needed and welcome. Elvira says he is looking for “angels” such as the Jim Taylors in Bozeman, whose largesse has endowed the Museum of the Rockies and many other endeavors and was critical to the survival of Intermountain Opera. 

“You’d be surprised how many ranchers love opera,” Elvira says. “It will happen here, too.” 

Matson, 27 and a Billings Senior High and University of Montana graduate, was bitten by the opera bug when he toured Vienna and sat in the $1.50 seats four nights running. He is not a vocalist but has a degree in music and toured with one of the Navy bands as an oboist. 
He now works on embroidery in the sportswear department of Sutton’s — “sportswear by day and opera by night.” 

He hopes to get 1,000 basic memberships for the guild within the next few years, which would raise $30,000 toward the budget. Elvira, with fundraising under his belt from the Bozeman operation, is going after the bigger fish. “We had a couple rough years, but we were in the black from the beginning,” he said. “And the tickets sell out now in three days. In the beginning, we were told it was a risky business.” 
Robert Stivenelo, son of Elvira’s old friend, Anthony Stivenelo, will produce the opera. 

Elvira will continue his touring, including stints as one of the “Three Baritones,” patterned after the popular “Three Tenors” and “Three Divas.” He has sung with all of the three tenors, including Placido Domingo in “Manon Lescaut,” and Luciano Pavarotti in several productions including his debut in “Rigoletto” with Lyric Opera of Chicago, for which he earned a standing ovation. 

He has played the world’s great opera houses and sings occasional galas in San Juan. 

He envisions the February production as “a huge event — we need volunteers on every level — costumers, dressers, beauticians, people to donate car rentals for the performers and ladies to make casseroles for the rehearsals.” 

The return to the ABT has an emotional appeal to Elvira because he sang the final concert in the old Fox Theatre in 1985 before the building closed for a nearly $6 million renovation and reopened as the ABT.

Nagel Looking Forward to Life After Rimrock Opera

May 24,2013
By SHARIE PYKE – For The Outpost

“Oh my God! I’ve done the opera for 14 seasons!” said Doug Nagel, commenting on his decision to leave the Rimrock Opera.

“I cannot teach all day and sing all night,” he added. “It’s time in my life for me to move on and to focus my energies on my job here at MSU B. “I have 20 students and it’s intense, one on one.”

Professor Nagel first connected with the then Billings Opera Guild as a performer in Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” in 1999. The guild then asked him to become the group’s artistic director. Over the years, he’s been a performer, a producer and the general manager as well.

His favorite operas are “Salome” by Richard Strauss and “Die Walküre” by Wagner. His favorite operetta is “The Merry Widow,” but he also enjoys Broadway tunes.

“My signature tune is ‘Ol’ Man River,’” he said. He’s a Helden baritone, a dramatic or heroic baritone.

“I basically sing the big roles,” he said. He has performed all over the United States. His favorite roles are Baron Scarpia in “Tosca,” which he performed here in Billings with the Rimrock Opera in 2002, and “The Flying Dutchman.” He also received outstanding reviews as John the Baptist in “Salome.”

But his repertoire is not limited to the classics. He’s comfortable in all genres.

“I do love modern music. I’ve done 506 modern works with the symphony. I like modern music because it challenges the musician.” He stepped effortlessly into the baritone part in Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” with the Billings Symphony Chorale in March when the scheduled performer fell ill.

“I started life out as a teacher. I took music ed at the University of Wyoming and then, for my first job, I did all the music at Park City while the music teacher was on maternity leave.”

But he really wanted to sing opera, so he enrolled at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where he studied under teacher and mentor Dickson Titus, now deceased.

“He was able to tap into what worked best with my voice,” he said. Other influences include Ettori Bastianini, whose voice Professor Nagel described as “steely,” and American baritone George London.

Now he’s teaching voice at Montana State University Billings. “This is very rewarding for me. I can make a difference with my students. Seven of my voice majors were in the chorus (of “Aida.”) That’s what I do here. I produce singers.

“Aida’s a really big show to manage,” he added. “I was the producer. It was a challenge to keep everyone happy and from freaking out.”

The last week in June, Professor Nagel will lead the second Institute per la Bella Voce for junior high and high school students. It’s a one-week camp. “It’s an opportunity for my college students to get some hands-on experience in teaching voice,” he said. And some of the high school students enroll as freshmen at MSU Billings.

He also teaches in Connections, a program at MSU Billings that allows high school students to take college courses for credit. “I have five kids in the Connections program here. It’s a wonderful tool to transition them into college life.”

At this writing, Professor Nagel is in the People’s Republic of China. “We have a partner university, Xuang Chen University in Zheng Zhou, Hunan Province. It’s a city of over a million. I will be teaching there for a month, twenty 18- to 20-year-old voice majors. They sing only in Chinese. I’ll teach Italian art songs, German lieder and Broadway. My last week that I’m there I’ll give a solo recital, mostly in the English language.”

Professor Nagel has never been blase or laidback about anything he’s done in his career. Singing is his life.

“It’s hard to take criticism when it’s your passion. And change is hard for all of us, personally and professionally,” he said once more, referring to the end of his association with Rimrock Opera. But he ended his comments on a positive note.

“The timing was amazing. I’m full time at MSU B, and I really love my job here. Now that I’m teaching, I think that I’m singing better than ever. And the opera’s going to have a facelift, new ideas.”