Florence Louise Pettitt

Florence Louise Pettitt was one of the first American female opera conductors. For over forty years, she simultaneously served as orchestral conductor, dramatic director, and vocal director for the Chaminade Opera Group, which she founded in 1959. She promoted the growth of opera, and the advancement of many performers ranging from amateur enthusiasts to internationally known professionals.

Born to a musical family

Mrs Pettitt's mother had already lost four children in childbirth when Florence - her last - was born.

Florence (aka Louise) was raised as an only child, and perhaps derived a high burden of expectation from the singularity of her survival.

When she was four years old her maternal grandfather, while playing Christmas music for the family at home, suffered a fatal seizure in her presence.

Her father was a cellist who played in various orchestras in the New England region over the years. He was also very active in local theatre groups in the area. Louise was taken to countless rehearsals, even as a small child. This was an environment in which she thrived all her life.

Trained to be a Professional Classical Singer

She was a diligent student, with a high grade average, and eventually became valedictorian.

As a teenager she applied her musical aptitude to the cello, following in her father's footsteps. She became a proficient pianist and cellist.

Ultimately she discovered a preference for classical singing, and sought excellent vocal training in Boston, New York, and Providence.

She trained in voice with much loved Gladys Childs Miller in Boston, Massachusetts, at the New England Conservatory, several of whose students went on to sing for the Vienna, Paris, and New York Metropolitan opera companies. She also received instruction from Margaret Armstrong Gow of the Harvard Musical Association, and others, and gradually became a leading soprano in the Boston area. One of her most prominent recurring performances was a regular weekly recital at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. She sang at many of Boston's better known churches.

Although she devoted more hours over her long life to the production of opera than to her own singing career, and though she was eventually better known as a teacher, conductor, and director, she always considered herself to be a singer first. During her many years of opera work, she always devoted time in every week to her voice students, and to her own vocal performances.

Gained performance experience

She gradually gained experience in stage acting. One of her earliest acting credits was a minor local production called Aunt Emma Sees It Through (performed January 24, 1936 ). She played soprano roles in many Gilbert and Sullivan productions in eastern Massachusetts. She and her husband performed a consistent Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire professionally for various women's clubs under contract to "Flora Flame" of Boston in the 1950s.

When the faculty of Wheaton College (Massachusetts ) formed its own Gilbert and Sullivan troupe in 1945, she became a perennial female lead. In about 1961, after having been operatic director of Chaminade for two years, Louise also became director of this Wheaton affiliated group.

She gave regular solo performances of arias in Boston and elsewhere. She performed in many area churches and other venues as a classical soloist in oratorios, light opera, and mixed programs. She sang at Old South Church, Trinity, St Paul's and many others.

Boston Opera in Crisis: the late 1950s

The great Boston Opera House that had been built by Parkman Haven and Eben Jordan (who also built nearby NEC's Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, and other great Boston buildings) was sold to Northeastern University in 1958. NU promptly levelled it, making it a parking lot. It had stood at 343 Huntington Avenue, between Symphony Hall and the Museum of Fine Arts, near to New England Conservatory, Boston Conservatory, and the 'Handel and Haydn' Society (see Walter Muir Whitehill's "Topographical Boston" ).

At about this time (circa 1958 ), Sarah Caldwell started the Opera Company of Boston, and Louise Pettitt started the Chaminade Opera Group (first performance: 1959). Caldwell had been a protege of Boris Goldovsky for several years prior, and of course their efforts were under the shadow of BSO's great Serge Koussevitsky, the European impresario who attracted so many great artists and performers to Tanglewood and Boston. Louise sang many times at Tanglewood over the years, and sent her daughter to study under Goldovsky in 1961.

The loss of the Opera House was a great blow to the Boston Opera scene, and put the efforts of Goldovsky and the others at great disadvantage. For about forty years afterward, the perennial fulfillment of Boston's operatic aspirations was accomplished by under-financed, under-accommodated devotees in shifting and uncertain circumstances. Until the restoration of the great Washington Street theatre in the 21st century, Boston opera was without a truly great and grand opera house. And over the forty years, dedicated enthusiasts striving to produce opera in Massachusetts found themselves in dire straits at nearly every turn.

Founding of Chaminade Opera Group

In 1959, Mrs Pettitt founded the Chaminade Opera Group in Massachusetts, which commenced its first season with Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. From her first Chaminade Opera season to her last, Mrs Pettitt served simultaneously in three roles always: orchestra conductor, vocal director and dramatic director. She may have been the first American woman to simultaneously accomplish those tasks, and probably did so for a longer, unbroken period than any other American woman.

Much later, the Taunton Daily Gazette wrote that "Long before Sarah Caldwell in Boston or New York's Beverly Sills directed opera companies, there was Louise Pettitt in Attleboro" (Taunton Daily Gazette, Sat Feb 23, 1991, by Nancy C Doyle ). This praise was perhaps over-reaching. Caldwell had become an assistant opera director at Boston University circa 1953 under Boris Goldovsky. And in Chicago, beginning in 1954, Carol Fox was running the Lyric Opera and engaging artists like Maria Callas. But few women in the US were running opera companies when Mrs Pettitt took the helm of Chaminade, and the consistency of her multiple responsibility is notable. Caldwell herself often did not conduct the orchestra in her independent productions. Perhaps no other woman in America so consistently and enduringly performed both as conductor and director as did Mrs Pettitt.

There were few opera companies at all in the United States in the 1950s providing full orchestration and full staging. Of those, there were few founded by women, and of those, there were fewer still with a woman serving as both conductor and dramatic director. She was certainly a leader, and a pioneer.

The New England Conservatory's alumni notes claim that Caldwell was "the second woman ever to conduct the New York Philharmonic (1974), and the third woman ever to lead an American opera company" (see Caldwell alumni profile). Certainly the foundation of a successful opera company in the 1950s by an American woman would have been highly unusual.

The works chosen by Mrs Pettitt for her first four seasons did not stray from the standard canon of favorites. After Hänsel und Gretel, a well known piece then - with which she and her audience were familiar - the next three seasons were devoted to Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti, Magic Flute, and Marriage of Figaro.

Her choices later become more daring and ambitious.

By 1964, Mrs Pettitt was able to incorporate members of the Boston Ballet company into her production of Song Of Norway, an opera about the famous European composer, Edvard Grieg (Providence Journal, November 8, 1964).

Her later productions still included works by Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti,Johann Strauss, in addition to Offenbach, Bizet, Lehar, and Britten. But as her confidence and appetite grew, and emboldened by applause, she gradually opened the repertoire to less familiar composers, like Boito, Smetana, Massenet, Gounod and others. And this opening of the repertoire mirrored groundbreaking work happening across the world of opera in those years.

And her ability to draw bright young talent grew.

The Roaring 70's

After more than a dozen years of experience, the Chaminade Opera Group was reaching new heights in the 1970s, recruiting well established professionals and receiving praise in the press. Turnout was often standing room only, and the group was forced to add extra performances to accommodate the rising interest (Attleboro Sun Chronicle, December 7, 1973). The frequent participation of a photogenic young "Miss Massachusetts" - Deborah O'Brien - in the mid 1970s may have also drawn some of the additional interest.

In 1977, Greater Boston's Patriot Ledger newspaper compared Mrs Pettitt's production of Mephistopheles favorably to those of Sarah Caldwell (The Patriot Ledger, Wednesday December 14, 1977 ). Critic Sue Cromwell wrote that "Sarah Caldwell fans, presumably waiting patiently for the Opera Company of Boston's new season to begin, missed the kind of performance that is their meat and drink," adding that "Sarah's seasoned fans would have torn the house down." John Bates, of Caldwell's "Opera Company of Boston" served as Pettitt's young "Wagner" in the Chaminade effort. Cromwell noted that "...the same kinds of strengths and weaknesses appear to prevail with both the professional Caldwell company and the semi-pro Chaminade."

Peter Feldman, who had toured six times with the Goldovsky Institute (see Boris Goldovsky), played the title role in Chaminade's Mephistopheles, and personally translated his entire role from the original Italian libretto for the Chaminade production. Prior to that, he had also appeared on radio and television. Mr Bates served in several Caldwell and Pettitt productions.

1990: Pettitt takes mantle from the faltering Caldwell

In 1990, when Sarah Caldwell's ill-fated opera company was in the process of folding up in Boston due to profound financial difficulties (some might say 'mismanagement'), Mrs Pettitt's company - a more enduring artifact - found itself thriving there (see "Sarah Caldwell, Indomitable Director of the Opera Company of Boston, Dies at 82" article by Anthony Tommasini, New York Times March 25, 2006 ). In January of that year, the Boston Opera Company (not Caldwell's "Opera Company of Boston") featured Mrs Pettitt's production of Bizet's Pearl Fishers in the Strand theater in Boston. Among the professional performers onstage was Deborah Sasson (see Boston Globe Jan 20, 1990 p11 ). Deborah was born in Boston, and having worked with Mrs Pettitt and Seiji Ozawa, she has moved on to become the toast of Europe.

In the narrative of Boston Opera history, this may have been the highwater mark for Mrs Pettitt and her Chaminade group. But she continued using Boston singers in her productions for many more years, and continued to draw on the Boston Opera community for talent, ticket sales, inspiration, and collaboration.

Not only did she and her Chaminade Opera Group continue staging operas long after the folding of Caldwell's company, but they also established a broad repertoire of oratorio works, including Mendelsohn's Elijah, Karl Orff's Carmina Burana, and many famous and lesser known requiems and masses. Her favorite requiem was that of Brahms (aka the German Requiem) and Chaminade Opera Group singers performed it several times as an oratorio piece under the direction of Mrs Pettitt. They also founded an opera scholarship.

Perhaps it was her longevity or reputation - or successes - that finally brought a representative of the New York Times to review a night of her work, toward the twilight of her sixty years in musical performance. But the Times was really unprepared to measure her pioneering efforts and her service to the popular propagation of high culture in America. Nor were they even prepared to review the creative and artistic innovations of her career. Anthony Thomasini - the great New York Times expert - who literally wrote the (best-selling) book on opera - reviewed a belabored production of hers in the 1990s and found it charming, and warm, but riddled with weakness. The semiprofessional tenor had a weak high range. The woodwinds seemed "under-rehearsed." Mr Thomasini could not recommend that particular show to his readers, and evinced incognizance of both her early role as a pioneering woman and her long regional importance in fostering generations of experienced singers.

Mrs Pettitt was by then in her late seventies, and American opera was no longer the desolate wilderness of so many years before. The catalogues of companies, stars, venues and repertoires had become lengthy, surfeited. She had always provided probative opportunity on evidence of good faith where she witnessed promising talent in league with high enthusiasm. In the case of Sasson and others, the opportunity was well requited. On a budget of almost zero, working long hours for no pay, in a nonprofit, in the interest of promoting unproven ability, it would be inappropriate to judge her efforts by the performance standards of the Metropolitan Opera, or La Scala. And yet, having pioneered the introduction of fully staged opera into the mainstream of civic life in America, and having done so without supportive academic incubation (like by Boston University for Caldwell) or prolonged mentoring (like Goldovsky for Caldwell) during a time when American women were effectively barred from leadership in all fields, Mrs Pettitt found herself finally surrounded by the field of well supported competitors she had always sought to engender (the same is true for Goldovsky, who made such a case in his memoir: see Boris Goldovsky), and still refused to deny opportunity to the unproven, and the unfinished. Mr Thomasini sought to judge her narrowly, within the facile intellectual confines of mere technical pedantry. He was truly unqualified to take her measure.

Although age and illness (particularly that of her lifelong love George Arthur Pettitt) gradually began to affect her productiveness in the new millennium, she maintained an incontrovertible optimism and resolve. Her teaching and rehearsal schedules exhibited the same relentless diligence as previously. On the day she died, she was awaiting several voice students, and was three weeks into a six week schedule for an upcoming choral concert (supporting Chaminade).

She died on March 25, 2006 at her home in Massachusetts, about ten weeks after her partner of 65 years (Boston Globe obituary, April 2, 2006). She outlived Sarah Caldwell - a very similar woman - by exactly two days. An archive of her work and that of the Chaminade Opera Group is being assembled under the auspices of Wheaton College, Norton Massachusetts.

Her conducting credits with Chaminade include the following:

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, The The Magic Flute by Mozart, Cosi Fan Tutte by Mozart, Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II, Eine Nacht in Venedig - A Night in Venice by Johann Strauss II, The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, La Perichole by Offenbach, La Traviata by Verdi, Otello by Verdi, The Pearl Fishers by Bizet, Carmen by Bizet, The Gondoliers by Gilbert & Sullivan, The Mikado by Gilbert & Sullivan, Turandot by Puccini, L'Elisir d'Amore by Donizetti, The Merry Widow by Lehár, The Bartered Bride by Smetana, Manon by Massenet, Mephistopheles by Boito, Faust by Gounod, The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore, The Merry Wives of Windsor by Carl Otto Nicolai, The Song of Norway by Robert Wright and George Forrest (see Grieg), Hansel & Gretel by Humperdinck.

Chaminade Actors include

Deborah Sasson Deborah was born in Boston and studied at Oberlin Conservatory. She sang with the New York Metropolitan Opera early in her career. She had her Broadway debut in Showboat. She was apparently introduced to the Hamburg Staatsoper by Leonard Bernstein, and as her website says: "Das war der Beginn ihrer deutsche Karriere." She has sung at Vienna, in Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles and Venice, inter alia; She sang with the London Symphony Orchestra.

She has appeared in numerous European television specials, alongside Jose Carreras and others. Among the highlights of her career, she mentions performing in Japan with Seiji Ozawa, and performing Mahler's 8th Symphony under his direction with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York.

Jack Bates of Caldwell's Opera Company of Boston;

Peter Feldman. Peter toured six seasons with Boris Goldovsky of Goldovsky Institute; He studied at Boston University's opera program 1957-1961. He performed under stage direction by Sarah Caldwell and Boris Goldovsky. He performed at the New York City Opera, among others. He received a positive review from the New York Times in May 1964.

James Van Der Post, who is reportedly working with the Mexico City Opera;

Randall Kulunis. Randall studied at the Boston Conservatory Opera Department under legendary mentor John Moriarty, and at New England Conservatory under Boris Goldovsky. He and his brother at one point recovered the plans of the old Boston Opera House, and reportedly intended to rebuild it.

Deborah O'Brien (a former Miss Massachusetts and an associate of the Opera Company of Boston);

Sarah Pelletier, and others.

Michael Duarte, a longtime friend and collaborator of Mrs Pettitt's, and a lead in several of her productions, is expected to take her place within Chaminade Opera as director.

Reviews and Articles include:

  • Patriot Ledger, Dec 14, 1977 review of "Mephistopheles" by Sue Cromwell
  • Providence Journal-Bulletin review of "Otello" by Roberta Furie
  • Providence Journal-Bulletin review of "Tales of Hoffman" Jan 5 1979 W5
  • William Miranda's review of "Otello" in The Jewish Advocate, Thur Jun 30, 1977
  • Sun Chronicle review of "Mikado", Wed Dec 9, 1992;
  • Boston Globe article concerning the Pettitt's Boston production of Bizet's "Pearl Fishers", by Richard Dyer, Sat Jan 20, 1990.
  • Providence Journal preview of 'Song of Norway' November 8, 1964 by Gertrude McBrien.

The Sun Chronicle and Providence Journal reviews are too numerous to fully list here.

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