Kathleen Clawson, Artistic Director
From the first meetings of its founders in the fall of 1960, Dayton Opera has enriched the cultural life of the Miami Valley. Dayton Opera’s over 50-year history began in the autumn of 1960, when a group of opera-loving Daytonians met on December 13, 1960 to discuss the region’s need for a professional opera company. With great volunteer support, Dayton Opera performed its first season in 1961-62, and was formally incorporated on May 31, 1962.
Since that time, the company’s budget has grown from $30,000 to nearly $2 million. Audiences have grown from 3,000 in its first season to over 20,000 in recent years. In 2003, Dayton Opera moved from its long-time home of Memorial Hall to its current home at the Benjamin and Marian Performing Arts Center. This state-of-the-art facility, perfectly suited to opera performances, has enabled the company to produce bigger and better productions in an acoustically superior theater.
Throughout the company’s history, it has had significant partnerships with other arts organizations, stemming from the need for economical operations and the desire to produce the best-quality opera possible. Toledo Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Cincinnati Opera and Victoria Theatre Association have all been strategic partners throughout Dayton Opera’s history.
Dayton Opera’s founder and first artistic director, Lester Freedman (also then-artistic director of Toledo Opera), led the young opera company for 20 years, producing the staples of the opera repertoire in Downtown’s Memorial Hall.
In 1981, Dayton Opera aligned itself with Michigan Opera Theatre and its General Director Dr. David DiChiera, who also served as artistic director for Dayton Opera. DiChiera, whose tenure ended in 1993, was known for his commitment to encouraging promising young talent on the international, national and local levels. From 1982 to 1989, Dennis Hanthorn served as managing director, overseeing the business operation of Dayton Opera.
In 1990, Jane D. Nelson became managing director and then general director in December 1991. Nelson oversaw and advocated an evolution of Dayton Opera that established greater independence of the company from Michigan Opera Theatre. From 1993 to 1995, Nelson oversaw both the administrative and artistic operations of the company.
In 1996, Dayton Opera began a new partnership with Cincinnati Opera, sharing staff members including Paul A. Stuhlreyer III as general director and Thomas Bankston as a part-time artistic administrator. Ardith Hamilton led the company as interim managing director for the 1997-98 Season and in July 1998 Dayton Opera entered into a strategic partnership with Victoria Theatre Association for shared management and administrative services. Under this agreement, Mark Light served as president of Dayton Opera, and Dione Kennedy as executive director. Bankston was named as part-time artistic director.
In 2001, after several years of great artistic success and increased financial stability, Thomas Bankston was appointed as full-time artistic director and then as General & Artistic Director in 2004. During his tenure, Dayton Opera grew in size and stature, especially through the move from Memorial Hall to the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Center in 2003.
On July 1, 2012, Dayton Opera joined forces with the Dayton Ballet and the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra to create the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance. This historic merger has enhanced Dayton Opera’s ability to produce and present the best in performing arts for the Miami Valley.
Beginning with the 2021-2022 season, Kathleen Clawson was appointed as Dayton Opera Artistic Director.
Many accomplished and well-known singers have been heard in Dayton Opera productions throughout the years. They include Martina Arroyo, Placido Domingo, Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters, Jerome Hines, Erie Mills, Samuel Ramey, James Morris and Mary Jane Johnson.
In recent years, Dayton Opera has fostered the developing careers of artists such as Vivica Genaux, Lester Lynch, Megan Monaghan, Cynthia Lawrence, Scott Piper, Anna Christy, Jennifer Rivera, Andrew Garland and Indira Mahajan. The desire to support young talent has also been manifest through the company’s Artist-in-Residence program, a professional training program established in the 1987-1988 season.
In 2003, Dayton Opera performed its first production in the Schuster Center, a critically acclaimed production of Verdi’s Aida. This production, the largest in the history of the company, played to full audiences and began a new era of opera excellence.
Also in 2003, Dayton Opera inaugurated a new concert presentation entitled the Dayton Opera Star Gala. This annual concert has featured such internationally renowned operatic artists as Denyce Graves, Deborah Voigt, Angela Brown, and Ruth Ann Swenson.
In 2006, Dayton Opera brought a significant new production of Madame Butterfly to Dayton. Designed by renowned Japanese modern artist Jun Kaneko, this non-traditional production featured bold colors, geometric shapes and multi-media effects to bring animated visual artwork into the opera theatre. Audiences from 19 states attended this landmark production, which was a critical and popular success.
In 2010, Dayton Opera raised the curtain to its 50th Anniversary Celebration Season. The season was underwritten by The Miriam Rosenthal Memorial Trust Fund and Kettering Health Network was the season’s Main Stage Sponsor. Additional funding came from the Harry A. Toulmin, Jr., and Virginia B. Toulmin Fund of The Dayton Foundation.