Ed Purrington, who helped transform the Washington National Opera, is dead at 82


Ed Purrington, a top administrator of the Washington National Opera who helped the company cultivate young musicians and develop its modern repertoire during a period of rapid growth, died April 14 in Potomac. He was 82. (Mary Lou Foy/The Washington Post)

Ed Purrington, a top administrator at the Washington National Opera who helped the company cultivate young musicians and expand its modern repertoire at a time when opera seats were as sought after as Redskins tickets, died April 14 at the ManorCare nursing facility in Potomac.

He was 82 and had complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his wife Lois Howard.

Mr. Purrington retired from the WNO in 2001 after 14 years as a sort of logistical conductor, with duties that included overseeing auditions, contract negotiations and the scheduling of rehearsals and performances.

He had worked under two general directors — Martin Feinstein and Placido Domingo — and remained until his death a consultant to the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, which identifies and trains promising singers.

When Mr. Purrington joined the company as administrative director in 1987, Washington Post music critic Joseph McLellan described the job as “one of the most exciting positions in American opera.”

At the time, the Washington Opera, as the company was known, was in the midst of a dramatic expansion. By 1995, The Post reported, seats at the Kennedy Center were “almost as scarce” as football tickets, and “usually cost more.”

Mr. Purrington had long been “at the forefront” of the regional opera industry, said Marc Scorca, the president of the nonprofit organization Opera America. As general director of the Tulsa Opera from 1975 to 1987, Mr. Purrington was credited with turning the outfit into one of the best American companies of its size.

Earlier in his career, he worked for the Santa Fe Opera in roles ranging from stage manager to development director. Through the Santa Fe Opera, which remains one of the most respected regional opera companies in the United States, Mr. Purrington worked with contemporary composers who included Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith and Gian Carlo Menotti. Mr. Purrington brought that experience with modern opera to Washington.

One of the most notable productions during his tenure was the American premiere in 1992 of “Savage Land” by Jin Xiang, a Chinese composer who was imprisoned in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. McLellan praised it as “a marvelously melodic and well-produced opera.”

The Washington Opera and the Dallas Opera commissioned “The Dream of Valentino” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Dominick Argento about the 1920s screen star Rudolph Valentino. Mr. Purrington helped scout the talent for the world premiere, which took place in 1994 at the Kennedy Center.

In 1999, the company presented Robert Ward’s opera “The Crucible,” based on Arthur Miller’s play. Mr. Purrington told an interviewer that he considered the show “one of the finest things that we’ve done in years.”

“That was music theater at its utmost,” Mr. Purrington told the publication “World and I” in 2000. “People left in tears.”

Mr. Purrington was a past judge for young artists competitions, including Domingo’s Operalia and the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions. He also instituted the WNO’s educational program “Look-In,” which brings elementary-age students to the Kennedy Center for backstage tours and short opera performances.

Edward Cobb Purrington III was born Dec. 6, 1929, in Holyoke, Mass. As a boy, he staged puppet shows in his back yard, his wife said. His love of the opera came later, after a relative began taking him to performances at the Met in New York City.

He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1951 and a master of fine arts degree from Columbia University in 1958. He served in the Air Force from 1951 to 1955.

His first marriage, to Sandra Sanchez, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife of 21 years, Lois Nilson Howard, the former artistic administrator of the National Symphony Orchestra and of the Kennedy Center’s chamber music programs; two sons from his first marriage, Christopher Purrington of Albuquerque and David Purrington of Rawlins, Wyo.; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Howard of Washington; and six grandchildren.

In 1993, after an orchestra strike, Mr. Purrington rounded up the singers, conductor and musicians to revive a canceled performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena.” The Post called the feat “one of the more remarkable efforts in the history of the Washington Opera — a last-minute resuscitation melodrama involving more than 150 people from Seattle to Vienna.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.