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Orlando Opera Oral History Interview with Nancy Phipps

So when I moved down here I was ready to help work with the opera… Nancy Phipps started working with the Junior League in Orlando just after their first opera performance in 1958 and has been giving life to opera in Orlando ever since. Mrs. Phipps worked on the Orlando Opera Guild’s Designer Show House for 27 years. Listen as she tells the history of opera in Orlando in this two part oral history interview at her lovely lakeside home on February 13, 2014.

LISTEN Part I (20:23)

The Junior League (text highlights excerpts from audio recording)

They do good things. As a matter of fact I just did a talk to the Junior League about what the league was like when I got in. It was very selective and very few people taken in at a time. I have done many things with the League. I have worked with children in classes. I worked with the nursery and that was when I was working and we only had a few volunteer places and this was at night. It was nice… part of my placement was with the thrift shop and I worked at that and I was head of the thrift shop. That was really my first love. But with the League you have to have another placement. And in Atlanta, I was living in Atlanta a few years, and the Metropolitan Opera Company came to Atlanta once a year. The League backed it. They sold the tickets. And, of course, to get a ticket to see the opera you had to wait for someone to die. It was unbelievable. Tickets were really hard to get. But if you were a League member you could usher for the opera, thereby get to see the opera. It didn’t get you a seat at the opera, that just got you to see the opera. So I started doing that…

Opera Galas

So when I moved down here I was ready to help work with the  [Junior League]  opera. And what they were doing, they were not putting on operas, they were putting on galas. At the time they would invite marvelous singers in to sing arias: Richard Tucker, and it just went on and on, many, many very great artists. And then finally they got the nerve to do an opera – full-scale. And the great thing, by then we knew an awful lot of singers so we could rely on them to give us the names of good singers who were just coming up, and, of course, didn’t charge so much. And that’s kind of the way we got started… The idea was, years later, to try to get two operas on because you could get a grant for that. Well, that was, of course, you had to balance whether we had the money to do it. And whether we were to get the grant.

Orlando Opera on stage at Bob Carr Auditorium

Florida Symphony Orchestra

And we were by dent of having the Florida Symphony play for the operas were under the thumb of the Florida Symphony which decided which operas we were going to do and who we were going to have mostly. They had a lot to say about it. And after a while that got kind of wearing. And, oh, for one thing, we were always allocated the first week in February and it always rained the first week in February. And we were just dying to get away from it… So we went to war, tried to get away from the Florida Symphony which we finally did and it was hard going, believe me.

Orlando Opera Company

I think we were the Opera Gala at that time. Names have changed all down the line and then we became Orlando Opera. And we had several people who were the managers. I don’t like that term. Director of the opera would be better, of the company. Then the last one we had didn’t do so well and the Orlando Opera Company went bankrupt. Sad, but true. And the crazy thing is the money raising arm didn’t go bankrupt, but the opera did. And people felt that, you know, if we were tied in with it, that we too went bankrupt. So all of the oldies, so to speak, sort of backed out or backed up.

Florida Opera Theatre

We now have a new board, a new company actually called, Florida Opera Theatre. And we’re putting on Menotti operas and other small operas, only what we can afford. We can’t go into debt for it. And a lot of people have been mighty nice to us. Kathy Miller has had the opera in her home several times for which we’re very grateful. And other people have, you now, come forward….

Zarzuela

Also, the Orlando Opera Company did a gorgeous Zarzuela and the Hispanic community really came to. It was marvelous! So if we could do even one more of those, it’d be great. And, in fact, I just went to Fort Lauderdale this weekend for an opera. And it’s the Miami opera and the program is half in Spanish. The subtitles were in English and Spanish…

Youth Chorus

We have a youth chorus that has sung with the Philharmonic for three occasions that I can think of, right off the bat. Once a year, usually Christmas time, Robin Jensen who’s head of it has the kids come to Central Christian Church and they have soup opera. And the kids entertain us with their songs and all these people bring these different kinds of soups and they’re all so good. We come along and we pay, for the children it’s free of course, and we get a great soup dinner and so do their families. And that’s one of the things. And we have an opera chorus that is used with the Philharmonic and other places. I am not sure all the places they do go. It’s the root of our original chorus who got so good that they could, our director could walk in … it would take about one rehearsal and he’d realize who could do what on stage…. Two things they do now, there is money involved, that is, the children have to pay for their chorus practice and lessons. But they do get a lot of practice -meaning getting on stage. And, in fact, this last Christmas, Robin insisted that they do single numbers for practicing their presence on stage…. And, of course, we have fund raisers, too, when we can….

Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo Come to Orlando

We were talking about when we were lucky enough to get Beverly Sills to come. Well, she had not been on the front of Time magazine then, which was a week after we had her. And Placido, Placido Domingo had just come into town or into the states I should say because he’s from Mexico. And thanks to Norman Treigle, a beautiful bass who knew everybody and everything, knew very well that Beverly had had a concert canceled and that she could come. We’d never heard of Placido. And he said, “Well, he doesn’t speak much English.” Well, he didn’t too much, but he was a great pincher. So down he came. Nobody had ever heard of Domingo before and we did this fantastic opera with top singers in New York. But that was thanks to knowing another singer which fortunately has pulled us through many times. If we found out someone can’t come or need a recommendation for someone. Of course, you still have to deal with agents….

American tenor Curtis Rayam at Bob Carr

LISTEN Part II (20:27)

La Boheme

I’m trying to think of what else we’ve done. I mean so many crazy things have happened. We put a fish, a real fish in a basket in La Boheme one time and it slid across the stage. And, in fact, the baritone in the piece called me last year and said, “Nancy, do you remember what kind of fish that was you all pulled on us?” And I said, “I don’t.” He said, “I’m sure it was a grouper.” And I said, “No. It wasn’t a grouper because my husband [Harry Phipps] loved grouper and he would never have bought a grouper to sling across the stage. It’s got to have been a flounder or something else.” He said, “Oh, I could have sworn it was a grouper.”

Susannah

And then we did Susannah. We did all the sets. The composer of Susannah Carlisle Floyd came and directed. And we did the sets and we did them in a warehouse off Gore Avenue behind Thomas Lumber. Every night we would go and my children. We finally put cots in there for them to sleep. And they had to go do their homework and if they were really good they were allowed to sweep up the nails or maybe learn to paint a tree for a backdrop. But we put, I don’t know if you know anything about the opera Susannah. It’s about this holier than thou minister and it’s really in the south. And he had a podium and we made it out of an old desk. And it had an inkwell thing and we took a ping pong ball and painted a blood eye, you know, eyeball and put it in there. So when Norman got on the stage he would have to pull himself together for that. We’ve done some terrible tricks on them and they have, you know, by the same token taken care of us.

Backstage

And one of the great things was the fact that all of backstage was done by us. They were not stage hands. They got so good at that, Jean Newsom, a former president, was asked up to Syracuse, New York to work an opera for Richard McKee of whom I have a picture here. They called the boards and they worked left and stage right, we had a chorus coordinator, a job I did one time. That was fun. And when the new people came to head up the opera company and were told that we did the backstage they were appalled. And thought that can’t be. We got to scotch this real fast. And then they saw them work and realized they knew what they were doing. So they’re doing a great job. And, in fact, Rita Wilkes is still at it. She has ended up backstage or turning pages. She’s been at it a long time….

Dominic Cossa, center, with Nancy Phipps, far left, and her two children at the original Bob Carr Auditorium

Opera Parties

At one time they had them at the Country Club, Orlando Country Club, after the opera. That’s one thing again getting a singer to an after the opera party is like not to be believed because you have to wait on them to get cleaned up, dressed, get all their clothes together. And that was stopped after a while, but what we mostly did was they came to one of our houses. We’d have backstage over with the singers. Because, you know, you couldn’t handle that many. But they didn’t really want to be on call or be asked to sing or anything else or feel they’d have to speak to a lot of people. They’d come over in their sport shirts and just sit around and drink beer, you know, we’d have something, whatever. And then all during the week a lot of people would have parties for them. There was a remark one singer made: Does every person live on a lake? Because every party is at someone’s home on a lake.

One time Sherrill Milnes was here and Bud and Catherine and the idea was to go out on the dock and have drinks. Well, it was a lovely idea, but it came to be sundown and you could not see. There was no way you could see anybody else standing next to you. So we all had to go back inside. But I always thought that was so funny. Sherrill said, “Why are we leaving?”Because we can’t see anything that’s why we’re leaving…

Opera bass Richard McKee having fun with the Phipps

Met Auditions in Orlando

Orlando has the Met Auditions.. We just had them January 19, or whenever it was, a Saturday at Trinity School. Being the center of Florida they were headed up here by Carol Fenner who did it for 20 years. And singers come here to audition for the Met. And then if they win a prize they go on to Atlanta and from Atlanta to New York. In fact, Swantje Levin who’s head of it now is to be in Atlanta this weekend for the Atlanta trials to see if our persons go any further up because they get a whole scholarship at the Met, you know its just unbelievable. And several of our singers who we’ve known a long time also were Met Audition winners. That’s how they got there….

Mrs. Phipps with Aaron Pegram, a young opera singer in Orlando

Bob Carr Auditorium

The performances started at the Bob Carr in the sixties? Or it may have been ’58, right along in there. Oh, yes, and when they were like that it was a flat floor, and chairs were put in and we put in boxes. We built boxes that were raised only about six or eight inches off the floor so that you could buy a box and enjoy the opera. If you were president, it was a freebie, that was a big deal. But anyone could sit in it that you wanted. We kept them in storage and they got pulled out every year for the opera only.

Traveling, I didn’t mention, was when Carol Fenner was president. We took Butterfly to Lakeland. That was an exciting trip I got to tell you. We really felt we were doing pretty well then. …

And then one year, when they redid Bob Carr we had to go to Kissimmee to Tupperware Auditorium. That was fun. And I used to joke about I want to get out of town. I want to get out of town. I’ll go to Kissimmee. Couple years later, darn if I wasn’t going to Kissimmee every day….

But I have not mentioned Sally Pace. She is the one who carried this whole opera through town on her back… Sally Pace is not among us now, but boy she did a monumental job. And Richard Tucker was her favorite friend. He would come and sing for Sally…

Spring 2014

They’ll be a Traviata [Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre] that the Philharmonic’s doing. They’re already in rehearsal, I believe. The Philharmonic is doing Traviata this spring 2014. Only one opera they’re doing because of money. Or they would be doing two which is what they’ve been doing…

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Mrs. Nancy Phipps
Mrs. Nancy Phipps with Aaron Pegram, a young opera singer, photographed in Orlando after the opera.
Dominic Cossa Backstage at the Bob Carr
Dominic Cossa, center,  speaking to the Phipps family backstage at the original Bob Carr Auditorium in downtown Orlando. Mrs. Nancy Phipps, far l...
Curtis Rayam in Romeo and Juliet
The American tenor, Curtis Rayam,  a Florida native,  is pictured center stage floor in Orlando Opera's performance of Romeo and Juliet at...
Orlando Opera
Orlando opera on stage at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in downtown Orlando. Photo courtesy of the Nancy Phipps Orlando Opera Archives.
Richard McKee with the Phipps Family
Richard McKee, off stage,  having fun with the Phipps in Orlando. Opera bass McKee,  performed on stage  in Orlando five times.  H...
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