Within the next year, three local cultural institutions will celebrate landmark anniversaries. Here’s how they transformed Arizona’s arts scene.

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Written by Keridwen Cornelius Category: History Issue: September 2016
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The upcoming 2016 and 2017 seasons mark a rare cultural conjunction in the Grand Canyon State: the 45th anniversary of Arizona Opera, the 50th anniversary of Arizona Theatre Company, and the 70th anniversary of The Phoenix Symphony. These organizations became oases in Arizona’s mid-20th-century artistic wasteland. But now, some of them are navigating rocky seas.

45th Anniversary Season

Sapphire Celebration (Oct. 15-16), a 45th anniversary performance starring Frederica von Stade
Rusalka (Nov. 11-13), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid
Madama Butterfly (Feb. 3-5)
Riders of the Purple Sage (March 3-5), the world premiere opera based on Zane Grey’s bestseller, with scenery by Ed Mell
Cinderella (April 7-9)

Arizona Theatre Company 

King Charles III (Oct. 6-23), winner of the 2015 Olivier Award for Best Play
An Act of God (Nov. 17-Dec. 4), by 13-time Emmy Award winner David Javerbaum of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Fiddler on the Roof (Jan. 6-29)
The River Bride (Feb. 9-26), winner of the 2013 National Latino Playwriting Award
Ring of Fire: The Music of Johnny Cash (March 30-April 16)
Holmes and Watson (May 11-28) 

The Phoenix Symphony will celebrate its 70th anniversary in 2017. 

Highlights from its 2016-2017 season include Bravo Broadway: Music of the Night, Halloween at Hogwarts, Handel’s Messiah for the holidays, Cirque de la Symphonie, Music of David Bowie, Star Wars: The Music, Simply Sinatra, Music of Led Zeppelin, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and classical music by Beethoven, Mozart and more.

It was 1947, and the topic thundering across Phoenix’s front pages was – drum roll, please – plumbing. The talk of the town was the desperate need for water and sewage systems, traffic lights, and the proposed Sky Harbor Airport. As a growth spurt pushed the population toward 100,000, practicality was the watchword.

“But what,” the Arizona Republic mused, “about the mental growth, which in reference to cities we label by that unfortunately condemning term, cultural? Is it a frill – or something that adds meaning to the physical growth?”

Fortunately, many Phoenicians did not consider the C-word a frill. In May, 25 people convened at the Arizona Club on Central Avenue to form The Phoenix Symphony. The movement proceeded at prestissimo pace. By July, they named a conductor: John Barnett, associate conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The 30-year-old with chiseled, brooding looks was educated in New York City, Paris and Salzburg, and served as bandmaster in the Army. Eager to engage his new audience, Barnett put notices in newspapers asking “music lovers to name their first three choices of symphony music” in the blank spaces provided and mail in the clipping.

On November 10, culture vultures packed Phoenix Union High School’s auditorium to hear the 66-member orchestra play Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Berlioz. According to the Republic’s backhanded compliment, it was a rousing success: “The concert was unmarred by the bursts of coughing and restlessness which often characterize Phoenix audiences. The respectful attentiveness was as much a tribute to a sterling performance as was the prolonged applause… It will be the talk of the town today.”

The Phoenix Symphony is now Arizona’s largest performing arts organization, treating music lovers to classical, pop and rock, plus reaching more than 108,000 through its educational and community outreach programs.

Arizona Theatre Company

Mid-20th-century Tucson was a dramaturgical desert. Actors and critics dismissed it as “a poor theater town,” “a way station” for aspiring thespians, and “a very hungry, starving baby,” according to newspaper reports.

Cue the entrance, in 1966, of Sandy Rosenthal, an interior designer with no formal theater training. “I think more than anyone else, he was responsible for getting live theater off the ground in Arizona,” Tom Oldendick, former producing director of Phoenix Little Theatre, told the Arizona Republic. 

Born on a Minnesota farm, Rosenthal moved to New York City as a young boy and began prowling the playhouses and art galleries. When he relocated to Tucson and opened Sandy Rosenthal Interiors, he wanted to bring a bit of Broadway to Baja Arizona. According to the political memoir Calling Arizona Home by 2014 gubernatorial candidate Fred DuVal, Rosenthal gathered around a kitchen table a cast of boosters including Dino DeConcini – future chief of staff for Governor Raúl Castro – and DuVal’s mother, Carol DuVal Whiteman. Together, they hatched the Arizona Civic Theatre.

The debut play, William Goodhart’s comedy Generation, opened on June 13, 1967, in the Rendezvous Room at the Santa Rita Hotel. “[Rosenthal] has sparked his players with some of his own innate sensitivity for theater magic,” wrote theater critic Micheline Keating. 

For its second act, in 1978, the company began presenting part of its season in Phoenix, and the name was changed to Arizona Theatre Company. Now performing full seasons in both cities, ATC is the only two-city company in the League of Resident Theatres.

Unfortunately, the recession hit stages hard, and in 2016, ATC launched an emergency campaign to raise $2 million or consider closing its doors. After a flurry of donations in July, the goal was reached, and the curtain will rise on Arizona Theatre Company’s 50th anniversary season.

Arizona Opera

The setting for Arizona Opera’s first performance, The Barber of Seville, was far less grandiloquent than Figaro’s famous aria. “In chunks the ceiling is falling down, lights powered by a portable generator are jerry-rigged, and traffic on East Speedway Boulevard plays a ceaseless swoosh-swoosh for accompaniment,” the Tucson Daily Citizen reported. “Yet, a few feet away from the mindless traffic, an infant company of singers is crying itself to life in a grand cause.

A few months prior, in late 1971, more than 100 people gathered to form the Tucson Opera Company. By 1976, it was performing full seasons in Tucson and Phoenix and was rechristened Arizona Opera. The company further elevated its status when it brought in impresario Glynn Ross, founding director of Seattle Opera. “He had a reputation for putting opera companies on the map,” says director of marketing Laura Schairer. The first director to bring Wagner’s Ring Cycle to a regional company, Ross wanted to perform the weeklong opera at the Grand Canyon, since both the lyrics and the rock formations reference gods, but had to settle for Northern Arizona University.

Ross was succeeded by David Speers, who ushered in a fresher perspective. “To give you an idea,” Schairer says, “under Glynn there were scenes where the chorus carried torches made of flashlights and cellophane. When David came, we had actual fire.” 

Recently, Arizona Opera has initiated emergency fundraising efforts. But now it appears to be weathering the economy, thanks in part to efforts to attract new audiences including young people and Latinos. As new director Joseph Specter took the reins in July, the company was optimistic about its 45th anniversary season. “It’s certainly not out of the woods,” Schairer says. “But it’s in way better shape than it was.”