An Interview with Norton Hintz – Founding Board Chair
I came to Minneapolis in 1952 to take a faculty position at the University, and I met some people who were members of an invitation-only volunteer organization called the Center Arts Council. I worked closely with the Walker Art Center and around that time, the director was Martin Friedman. The Center Arts Council put on various programs – dance, lectures, architecture and concerts – and I got involved with the music committee. After various successes, including the famous water music concert in Loring Park, I became chairman.
While visiting Copenhagen, I went to the opera quite often and really liked the idea of an opera company. Minneapolis only had the St. Paul Opera nearby, which was sort of a “pick-up” company that brought in singers and scenery. So when I returned, the Guthrie Theater was being built, and the T. B. Walker Foundation had given the land in back of the museum for the theater. In return, the Walker was to have one night a week while the plays were on and four or five nights when it was dark. I felt that it was our chance to start a modest little opera company. We didn’t think in terms of a permanent company at that point, but intended to put on small-scale pieces, chamber operas using local singers and local musicians. Our first opportunity was at the close of the Guthrie’s season in 1963. I immediately got in touch with the leading composer, Dominick Argento, and also Tom Nee, who was the conductor of the Minneapolis Civic Orchestra. We formed a committee, and it was decided we would start with the baroque opera Venus and Adonis and a commission by Argento, The Masque of Angels.
An unofficial general manager, I was also doing research in physics and teaching. My secretary nearly quit because of all the calls coming to her, and we had trouble with the unions and the set people – all the problems you would expect from a start-up organization. But somehow we got it on the stage. The Guthrie people laughed at us, but congratulated us afterwards. The theater at the time seated 1,437 seats, and we had about 900 the first night, which was very good, all things considered. It was a fairly big success and the critics praised it. For our second opera that season, we chose Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring. Essentially everyone was a volunteer except the singers and musicians, who were paid, but not much. Our total budget turned out to be about $30,000 that year. Critics came from The New York Times because they had heard about this new, innovative opera in Minneapolis and we got a rave review.
One of the early things Martin did was to encourage that we use young artists as set designers rather than the traditional Broadway people. One
he discovered was this kid in his early 20s at MCAD named Robert Israel, and of course Bob became famous all over the world. He designed several
very innovative productions for us. As we got bigger and bigger, Martin gently pushed us out, and we then formed our own non-profit board. I was chairman for the first couple of years, and Martin had hired John Ludwig as general manager, realizing that I couldn’t carry that role any longer.
John brought a colleague from Yale, Wesley Balk, who became the artistic director. They started doing a combination of chamber operas by Britten and Haydn alongside world premieres. The opera started to expand beyond small-scale works. It had outgrown the Center Arts Council and so Center Opera was a misnomer. At some point, it morphed into Minnesota Opera.
Minnesota Opera was built and founded by a number of key people. All I can claim credit for saying is, “How about we do an opera at the Guthrie.”