THERE'S NO DENYING that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has been good for Portland State opera.
University productions of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (2000) and Don Giovanni (2003) received first-place awards from the National Opera Association. This past spring's lively production of Così fan tutte attracted not only top-notch reviews, but also a major challenge gift that will shape the Opera Program's future for decades to come. The Jeannine B. Cowles Challenge for Opera Endowment will match $1 for every $2 raised over the next five years—up to a total of $1.5 million.
If Mozart looks like Portland State opera's lucky star, Jeannine Cowles is its guardian angel. Her support for the program stretches back more than 20 years, and includes landmark gifts to establish the Music Department's largest scholarship fund as well as the Jeannine Cowles Distinguished Professorship in Residence, which has brought such opera luminaries as Marilyn Horne, Sherrill Milnes, and Martina Arroyo to campus to coach students in the annual production.
Cowles sees her latest gift as the next natural step in her PSU involvement.
"I definitely hope that the challenge will establish this Opera Program, in perpetuity," says Cowles. "We have the scholarship fund and the professorship in perpetuity, those were the first steps. But none of it is any use unless you also have funding—permanently—to actually do opera."
A native Virginian, Cowles trained at Philadelphia's celebrated Academy of Vocal Arts. After many years of singing in opera and Broadway productions, she moved to Portland and launched a successful business career. She is highly regarded as a generous friend of arts organizations throughout the area, including at Portland State. "Jeannine is the reason PSU opera has national recognition," says Trish Trout, director of development for the School of Fine and Performing Arts.
Portland State offers the only college-level program in Oregon that stages a full opera production complete with orchestra every year. Notably, undergraduates dominate the casts—university opera usually revolves around graduate students. This opportunity gives PSU undergraduates an immense advantage and many leave school "stage ready"—launching careers immediately.
Tito Capobianco (pictured at left with Jeannine Cowles), internationally renowned stage director and founder of the American Opera Center at Juilliard, returned this year as the Cowles Professor in Residence. Under his tutelage, the cast of Così fan tutte experienced the entire process of opera production. He schooled the students in the tradition of "opera buffa," drawing performances that garnered solid reviews and enthusiastic audiences.
The Cowles Challenge will ensure ongoing funding for the annual production, which generally costs between $60,000 and $100,000 to stage. Once the endowment reaches the $1.5 million goal, its earnings will provide these funds in perpetuity. In the interim, a grant from the James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation will partially support the annual opera production for two years as endowment fundraising gains momentum.