In the world of opera, this man rocks!

'The heartbeat' of PORTopera since he helped launch it in 1994, Jack Riddle is being honored for his efforts in a big way — in the Big Apple.

by Bob Keyes, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram

Jack Riddle's mom believed in rewarding good behavior. When young Jack asked for tickets to the opera, she obliged.

"My mother tried to keep me off the streets by following up on my interests. So she bought a subscription to the old Met," Riddle recalled. "I went to my first opera at age 9, 'Hansel and Gretel.' I went every Friday until I left home to go to college."

Jack Riddle

He grew up in a single-parent home in suburban New York. Music in general and opera in particular eased his passage through youth. Now 73, Riddle combined his expertise in business with his passion for music when he helped launch Portland's opera company, PORTopera, in 1994. He has remained its strongest advocate.

On Friday, Opera America, the national service organization for opera, will honor Riddle by giving him one of its National Opera Trustee Recognition awards. It's one of the highest honors in the opera field, bestowed on trustees of U.S. companies for their leadership and audience-building efforts.

Riddle, who moved to Portland in 1981 and worked as a marketing consultant until his retirement a few years ago, is known locally as opera's biggest booster, eager and willing to build an audience one fan at a time. He'll even come to your house and host a Tupperware-style opera party, in which he promises to debunk all the myths about opera and demonstrate why you and your friends should give it a chance, and maybe even become PORTopera supporters.

Friday's awards, which will be given at an exclusive private dinner in Manhattan, will recognize three other trustees: Lynn Wyatt of Houston Grand Opera; Eleanor Caulkins of Opera Colorado (and a summer resident of Maine and PORTopera subscriber); and Jackie Lockwood of Dayton Opera in Ohio.

PORTopera is by far the smallest of the opera companies winning recognition.

"We like to model good behavior, to hold up examples of excellence for others to reflect on," said Marc A. Scorca, president and CEO of Opera America. "Jack embodies the characteristics of an exemplary board member."

Usually, the big awards go to the stars. In this instance, the big awards go to the people working the board rooms and dinner circuits. These are the folks willing to ask the tough questions, stand behind a budget and have the guts to go to friends and strangers alike for money.

"A lot of people have a hard time asking for money. I might have a hard time asking for money for a fire engine, but not for opera," said Riddle, who lives in South Portland with his wife, Bonnie. "Opera is something I can talk about."

Along with a small cadre of friends, Riddle began what then was known as the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre in 1994. They built the company slowly, offering one production each summer, first at the State Theatre and at Merrill Auditorium since its renovation.

From the outset, they were committed to high-art interpretations, and refused to settle for anything less than what they thought the composer envisioned.

The company still offers just one main stage production each July. But it has earned its reputation for artistic excellence. Over its 16 seasons, PORTopera has hosted about 30 singers whose careers have included appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Riddle's spiritual home.

PORTopera's annual budget is a modest $340,000, about half of which comes from ticket sales to the summer show. It gets a lot for its money. It has a successful training program for emerging singers and an opera-in-the-schools program through an association with the University of Southern Maine.

It has never been easy. Riddle was among those asking the tough questions when PORTopera decided against staging a big show two summers ago, offering instead a greatest-hits style concert. The risk was too great in a down economy, and Riddle and other board members chose prudence over risk.

At a time when opera companies are failing, PORTopera continues to look ahead with ambitious plans. Despite many stops and starts along the way, Riddle remains resolutely committed to a long-held dream of turning Portland into a regional destination for summer opera — not with a single production as is the case now, but with the full menu of a festival spread over multiple weeks and weekends at the Merrill.

For hope, he looks only as far as the Glimmerglass festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"Portland is the perfect location. We have a hall that is beautifully designed for opera, and we are smack dab in the middle of a place that millions of people already visit every year," he said. "We just don't have the money."

Friday's award will give Riddle the chance to do what he does best: rub shoulders. He plans to use his national audience as an opportunity to pitch PORTopera.

His strategy is simple: invite people up to see the show.

This year, it's "La Fille du Régiment (The Daughter of the Regiment)" by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), directed by Stephen Lord and starring Maine's own Ashley Emerson in the title role. It will be July 28 and 30, and Riddle sees it as the best showcase for opera in Maine.

In retirement, Riddle has made time for other interests in his life, including a serious pursuit of landscape painting. But his one true artistic love has always been opera.

That first production of "Hansel and Gretel" at the old Met captivated Riddle. He remembers waiting for hours for the doors to the old building to fly open. He burst into the theater eager for the spectacle about to unfold.

The passion drives him today.

"He is the soul of our company. He is the heartbeat," said Dona D. Vaughn, PORTopera's artistic director. "He is what keeps the energy going."

View photos on Facebook of the Special Serenade held in Jack's Honor >>
View photos on Facebook of the Opera America 2011 Trustee Award Dinner>>

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