On the noon news here last Monday three local stories were featured by KING, the NBC outlet. The battleship New Jersey, out of mothballs at the Puget Sound naval shipyard, was being towed to Long Beach, Calif., for a $330-million refitting with cruise missiles. In some dramatic courtroom footage, a mother was offering an alibi for a rape charge against her son. And the, the news reported that the Seattle Opera's "Ring" banner was stolen for the second time in a week.
The what was stolen? Well, the anchor people assumed their Seattle audience would know, so they didn't explain. And it wasn't clear to an outsider until they flashed a shot of a wide cloth banner attached to a footbridge over Mercer Street that connects the Opera House with its parking garage. The banner was advertising the summer performances here of Richard Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung," now concluding. It seems that the banner regularly gets stolen, much in the spirit of, say, the midshipmen's larcenous pranks in anticipation of the Army-Navy game. Late in the week, it was still missing.
In most places, opera does not elicit this kind of high jinks from the public, much less make the noon news. But Seattle has been taught to perceive the opera almost as a public utility, stripped of most of the form's frequent stuffiness.
The man who taught Seattle this lesson is the company's founder and general director, Glynn Ross, 66, who was asked to start the opera here in 1964 with two performances each of "Tosca" and "Carmen" and by a decade later had built one of the finest regional opera companies in America.
Back then there was little taste for opera here; earlier attempts had fizzled.
Bristling the feathers of a few esthetes, Ross decided that a hard sell was necessary. He plastered Seattle with opera publicity over the next few years. Skywriters spelled out "Bravo Opera" with Mt. Rainier as a background. Bumper stickers declared "Opera Lives." Signs on cement trucks proclaimed "Get Mixed Up With Opera." And there was an outrageously wonderful pun, "Get Ahead With Salome."
And when the "Ring" cycle started, there was "The Ring of the Nibelung: Get Into It" on posters around town. Meanwhile, Ross advertised a "Wagner Orgy" in the papers.
He practiced the old-fashioned barnstorming Barnumism. It might not work everywhere, but Ross had judged right. Audiences swelled to unforeseen proportions, even during the cutbacks at the Boeing Co. in the 1970s. And Ross' proselytizing has led to a wide awareness among citizens who never set foot in the opera of its potential economic and cultural benefits for the whole city.
Perhaps heavy merchandising comes more easily to Ross than to other opera directors, because, iconoclast that he is, it's an old-fashioned kind of iconoclasm.
He's part the intense scrapper who grew up in the depths of the Depression and the Dust Bowl on a Nebraska farm, never went to college, staying around to pay off the mortgage and his late father's medical bills before going out into the world.
He's also the aspiring Shakespearean actor who went to the Omaha Community Playhouse, like Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire. Then he went on to Boston's Leland Powers School of Radio and Drama, spending two pre-World War II summers at Stratford-on-Avon. Ross concluded finally that "I was not big enough or handsome enough to be a successful actor."
Then there is the disciplined 1st Lt. Ross who was wounded at Bizerte in North Africa and received a field commission later in Italy for his organizational skills. That's where he really got going in opera, doing stage direction at Naples' San Carlo Company, where they were sometimes performing three operas a day "with the same sets" in order to keep the troops "off the streets" as they flooded there before shipping home. These days the military control remains and there is no question who's boss. Ross is probably the only opera manager anywhere to stay at the Army-Navy Club when he's in Washington.
There is also Ross' old-fashioned, idealistic, visionary streak, which leads him to do "The Ring" when others hesitate. As his publicity manager, Galen Johnson, notes, "It's not just been his talent. Or his luck at being at the right place at the right time. It's his ability to recognize when he's at the right place."
Ross, a wiry man who could easily pass for a man in his late 40s, describes his approach this way, "Life is short, art is long."