I recently received the news that former Cincinnati Opera general director and artistic director James “Jim” de Blasis has passed away at the age of 91. His daughter writes:
“During his career, which spanned nearly 50 years, Jim worked with and gave opportunities to many young opera singers, who went on to become famous in their field. He was ahead of his time in staging productions of rare operas and set the level of expectation of his casts very high. The result was always thrilling!”
Some of those “young rising stars” included James Morris, Tom Fox and Barbara Daniels. During his tenure, a “Who’s Who” of the opera world crossed Cincinnati’s stage — Beverly Sills, John Alexander, Kathleen Battle, Sherrill Milnes, Renata Scotto, Richard Leech and many more.
Mr. de Blasis worked with Cincinnati Opera for about 28 years. He was named Cincinnati Opera’s Resident Stage Director in 1968. He served as its General Director from 1973 to 1987. In 1988 he became its Artistic Director, a post he held until 1996.
In his 25th anniversary in 1993, it was reported that his record was only surpassed by Fausto Cleva. He’d directed 93 productions, including 15 company premieres. He oversaw the move of the Summer Festival from its longtime home outdoors at Cincinnati Zoo to Music Hall in 1972.
His innovations included the Cincinnati Opera Ensemble, which toured area schools, and the Young American Artists Program.
During his tenure, Cincinnati Opera programmed rare operas such as Maxwell Davies’ Resurrection and Weinberger’s Schwanda the Bagpiper. It also added musicals to its repertory — H.M.S. Pinafore, South Pacific and The Music Man — in an effort to broaden the audience base.
One of early highlights of the de Blasis era was a new interpretation of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, which changed the setting from Spain in the 1820s to the “Wild West” of 19th-century Texas. The production was later filmed by WCET and nationally televised on PBS in 1980.
Mr. de Blasis was preceded in death by his wife Ruth — who often delivered pre-performance lectures and provided narrations — and leaves his daughter Blythe de Blasis Watkins, son-in-law Brad Watkins, and grandchild Brenna Watkins.
The family wishes memorial contributions be made to East End Hospice, P.O. Box 1048, Westhampton Beach, NY 11978.
With thanks to Eldred Theirstein’s Cincinnati Opera: From the Zoo to Music Hall.