The rich and varied history of opera and musical theater at The University of Southern Mississippi began in 1948 by Frank Earl Marsh with a fully-staged production directed by Lloyd Patten of Smetana's Bartered Bride, accompanied by full orchestra. Unlike a strictly choral music program, the opera and musical theatre program helped the music department grow by attracting both vocal and instrumental talent. Through the years, the high-quality performances have attracted more and better students who present marvelous productions for the community.
In the 1950s, the university's talented faculty contributed to the new opera and musical theatre program by composing musicals for and about Southern Miss. Robert Hays wrote eighteen tunes for the musical Hey Daze about life on campus, produced during the 1955 season. Composer William Presser contributed an original work with his chamber opera titled The Whistler, which premiered at the Fourth Annual Forum of the Southeastern Composer's League in 1959 on the university's campus.
The opera program began producing both fall and spring musicals, a tradition which continued throughout the next decade. A new tradition was born with the guest artist appearance of world-renowned bass Norman Triegle. The cast of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah had the opportunity to sing alongside and learn from this major talent as he played the role of Olin Blitch in 1966. Other major vocal artists who have made guest appearances with the USM Symphony throughout the years include Thomas Palmer (1972), Roberta Peters (1977), Denyce Graves (1998), Placido Domingo (2005) and Renee Fleming (2010).
In 1969, Robert Mesrobian began a seven-year tenure as artistic director of the opera program, and under his leadership productions such as Cosi Fan Tutte, Faust, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream were produced. The 1972 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream was a landmark in the musical life of Southern Miss. This was the first production staged in the new Mannoni Performing Arts Center. With a dramatic set design, wonderful costuming, and fine musical talent, the opera was an impressive opening for the new hall. Their desire to share this great work led the faculty and students to make more than twenty visits to area schools, as well as perform two matinees on campus for middle-school-aged children, instituting a tradition of educational outreach performances that continues to this day at USM.
In 1986, David Holley became artistic director of the program and continued the emphasis on opera rather than musical theatre, presenting audience favorites including Englebert Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, and Otto Nicolai's Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor. Following Holley's departure, Jay Dean became artistic director of the Opera at USM and began establishing working relationships with regional opera companies in New Orleans, Mobile, Jackson, and the Gulf Coast. Dean partnered with Mississippi Opera to offer USM singers an apprentice program, giving student singers the opportunity to perform beside and learn from professional singers, work with a professional director, and place professional credits on their resumes. Operas produced in collaboration with Mississippi Opera include Verdi's La Traviata, Bizet's Carmen, and Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. Other productions by the Southern Opera and Musical Theatre Company in recent years include Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story, Stephen Schwartz's Godspell, Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls, Stephen Sondheim's Company, a double bill of Leoncavallo's tragic opera I Pagliacci and Puccini's "divine" comedy Gianni Schicchi, and Puccini's La Boheme.
In the 21st Century, our opera and musical theatre program enjoys strong administrative support, an excellent student orchestra, professional conductors and stage directors, and talented singing artists, ensuring Southern Miss's place alongside other major schools of music with its outstanding Southern Opera and Musical Theatre Company.