I heard that the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera will produce a fully staged full opera next year! When I told my friend about it, she mentioned the opera has a storied history in this town. Can you tell me about it?
Your friend is right! But to understand how, travel with me to mid-1930s Hamburg, Germany. At that time the Hamburg Opera was conducted by a man named Dr. Werner Wolff, one of the finest conductors in all of Germany. His wife, Emmy Land Wolff, was a dramatic soprano with a distinguished career in Europe’s leading opera houses. This distinguished couple would later voyage across the sea and ignite our vibrant community opera association.
Why? Well, don’t forget that Europe was standing on the precipice of World War II. Nazi demand for musical propaganda was growing, and the Wolffs refused to meet the status quo. So in 1938, they fled Hamburg with just $60 in their pockets and settled in New York City. But there was just one problem: the Big Apple was already crowded with expat musicians. Consequently, they made their way down to Athens, Tennessee, where they were hired as instructors at Tennessee Wesleyan College.
If instinct tells you a German couple settling in East Tennessee might have aroused suspicion, you’d be correct. The Wolffs had their share of skeptics. “A few looked on us as German spies,” once said Maestro Wolff. However, their eagerness to produce the highest quality opera would soon qualm any rumors of espionage. When Madame Wolff staged a production of Freischütz soon after their arrival – a far cry from the stiff recital fare then typical of student performances – word of their talent and energy spread. They were invited to join the faculty of the University of Chattanooga and Cadek Conservatory, where they became even more of a sensation.
Il Trovatore, their first opera produced with the Opera Department of the Conservatory, drew such a crowd that people were actually turned away from the University Theater. Carmen, their next production, was an even greater hit – to the degree that it incited interest in forming a local opera company. The Chattanooga Opera Association was organized just two months later, with Maestro Wolff serving as the conductor and Madame Wolff serving as coach and stage director. The couple threw themselves into training local talent in vocal technique, acting, makeup, costumes, scenery, and more.
The Wolffs continued producing fully staged operas through the mid-1950s, until Madame Wolff suffered a tragic heart attack in 1955. Maestro Wolff resigned a few years later and returned to Switzerland, where he lived his final years with friends. His parting wish? “May opera survive and thrive.”
It certainly did. The Chattanooga Opera Association remained an independent entity until 1985, when it merged with the Chattanooga Symphony to become the nation’s first joint symphony and opera company. Recent productions have included The Pirates of Penzance (2014) and The Tobasco Opera (2015). Next spring, CSO Music Director Emeritus Bob Bernhardt will conduct Madama Butterfly – the CSO’s first fully staged opera since 2009.
Hope this helps!
Hamilton Bush, Resident History Hound
Photos courtesy of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Digital Collections