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Memories of SSU

Peggy Donovan-Jeffry

Professor of Music

Opera Singer


What!  Opera In Rohnert Park!

            I am sure that when the SSU Music Chair, Fred Warren, hired me in 1964 to start an opera program, he didn’t envision the needs of opera on the campus. There was no place to perform, no stage, and no “tech” crew to handle sets, costumes or props. However, there was NO problem in attracting singers. They came from all the local communities just to have an opportunity to learn roles and perform. I decided that the first major production would be the Christmas opera, “AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS.” 

After a considerable search, the best place was the Cotati Veterans Hall in Cotati. We agreed on a Friday night performance and two Saturday matinees in early December 1964. Every thing went smoothly. The soloists were to dress in a small room off the main hall and the chorus in the kitchen. All agreed to do their make-up before coming and only needed to put on costumes at the hall.

            Friday night arrived, the show time was 8 p.m. I arrived two hours in advance to make sure all was in order and was met with a HORRIFYING sight. Unbeknownst to us, the Veterans of Foreign Wars had scheduled their annual venison dinner for that evening and the kitchen, where the chorus was to dress was a mess: dirty pots, greasy dishes and cooking utensils everywhere. Our performance hall was smack in the middle of the kitchen and the room where the eating was going on!!! What to do? I thought Fred Warren was going to have a heart attack on the spot. However, thanks to my helpful manager Lou Dallara (who helped me through many near disasters), we managed to calm both Fred and the veterans. We persuaded them to stop running back and forth to the kitchen, covered the worst of the kitchen mess with towels, and had the cast dress in the small room that was to have been for the soloists. The Veterans cooperated and were mostly gone by the 8:00 hour. The performance went on to a sold-out house, all of whom, I am sure, were unaware of all the backstage drama. The two Saturday matinees were sold-out. We had children sitting on the floor and even under the piano! Opera at Sonoma State was off to a great start.

            Future major productions took place in the Rohnert Park Junior-Senior High School auditorium where we did several performances of “DIE FLEDERMAUS,” Poulenc’s “LA VOIX HUMAINE” and other 20th century opera works. Minor performances were held in Stevenson 1003 or in the Darwin Theater.

            In 1967, after three years of waiting, the Music Department moved into its new home, Ives Hall. With a few nudges from me, the chairman got the contractors to make the Choral Rehearsal Hall, now Warren Auditorium, into a theatre venue. However, we still had a small stage, tiny backstage areas, no way to “fly” scenery and the orchestra had to play on the floor below the stage. However, we had a main curtain and stage curtains and that was enough for me—for the time being!

            In Warren Auditorium we presented such major works as Purcell’s “DIDO and AENEAS,” Mozart’s “THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO,” Rossini’s “L’OCCASIONE FA IL LADRO,” Humperdinck’s “HANSEL AND GRETEL,” Ravel’s “L’ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES,” Bernstein’s “CANDIDE,” and even a musical, Sondheim’s “A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.”

These were all performed with an orchestra under the direction of David Sloss. We performed for 23 years in Ives Hall until 1990 when a fantastic new university theatre became a reality, thanks to the generosity of many community leaders, especially Evert B. Person.

            However, a little bit of information that the public and the campus population were unaware of concerning the new theatre was the “flap” over the construction of the hydraulic lift in the new theatre. The architects had designed the theater with no plans of lowering the front part of the stage to make room for an orchestra or other performing group. They said it could be done manually! This would have taken the technicians two days of hard labor and they did not agree with this. When I heard, I gathered the music department chair, the theater arts chair, and the center for performing arts chair and the technical staff and asked for an appointment with President Benson. I explained to him that if the building were going to be constructed without a proper hydraulic lift, which could be activated in a matter of seconds, the new theatre would be a “White Elephant,” no good to most performing organizations. He replied that it was his understanding that the water table was too high to permit the additional digging that a hydraulic lift would require. Besides, it would cost an additional $25,000 to do a survey. However, he said he would investigate further. This he did. He enlisted the financial assistance of several local businessmen (one of whom was Gene Benedetti, a generous supporter of SSU) who underwrote the cost of the survey. The results were positive and, at last, the hydraulic lift became part of the structure and the auditorium had a proper “pit.” Unbeknownst to me, my colleagues had a plaque made that reads “PEGGY’S PIT.” It hangs in the lower level of the pit.

            Many exciting events have taken place in Person Theatre over the past 19 years and there will be more in years ahead. As I look back to the first opera production in the new theatre (1990) I still remember the tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched the SSU Opera Theatre production finally being performed in the space for which it had been waiting for so many years.