Sydney Maltese | Staff Writer
The summer the Jane A. Gross Opera Center officially opened, an opera student was walking along Massey when he recognized Jane Gross herself walking toward him. He gasped before he could help himself and exclaimed, “I thought you were dead!”
The student assumed that Gross’ gift to the opera company was made in memoriam. Gross responded just as quickly, “I can’t think of a good reason why you should have to wait for me to die till your life gets better.”
Gross, ever amused by singers, found the young man’s astonishment entertaining. In fact, she has discovered that opera students are usually the most entertaining people at Chautauqua.
Someone once said to her, “I think you like the singers better than you like the music.“
“That may be true,” Gross said. “Singers are the most fun.”
A self-proclaimed “city kid,” Gross grew up in Manhattan and still lives in the city where her passion for opera first developed. Supporting opera at Chautauqua is a natural role for her.
“I could make a difference now, so why wait? I’m enjoying the benefits of the difference. It was a win-win situation,” Gross said.
Chautauqua Opera Company Artistic and General Director Jay Lesenger thought of Gross’ contributions of enthusiasm and funding.
“She just likes the people of the company tremendously,” Lesenger said.
Though not a singer herself, Gross’ fervor for opera is boundless.
“I always say that I need a T-shirt that says, ‘I do audience, and where would they be without me?’ ” she said. “I consider myself an essential part of the equation — somebody has to sit out there and like it.”
Gross’ enjoyment of the opera prompted her initial contribution to the company, which allowed for total revitalization of the opera spaces. The Jane A. Gross Opera Center, or “JAG,” took on a completely new persona from the school that once stood in the same place. It became a much larger, more suitable rehearsal space.
Gross knew her first gift to the opera was just that — a starting point.
“We didn’t do all of the work in the first go. You have to live in a space and work in a space to know what’s really needed in that space and what isn’t,” Gross said.
So she remained close to the JAG, observing how well the updated space seemed to function. Soon enough, the opera began to notice a few maintenance issues and some changes they needed to make. Gross quickly stepped in to fund the fixes.
“Jane was responsible for upgrading the space for us. What it was before was perfectly acceptable, but it wasn’t air-conditioned, it wasn’t particularly clean,” Lesenger said. “We lacked coaching spaces for our pianists to work in with our singers. We were working in the heat for 12 hours a day.”
Although the larger rehearsal space was far more functional, the need for a more advanced ventilation system quickly became apparent, as did the need for increased soundproofing.
“Things that they thought they could do without, they really can’t do without,” Gross said. “There will be follow-up, which I always anticipated.”
John Shedd, administrator of architecture and land use regulations, and capital projects manager, said Gross’ contributions help the Institution keep up with the opera company’s needs.
“She is truly committed to helping us improve the opera facilities on the grounds and has offered her generous support to accomplish some very critical work,” Shedd said. “She is a very supportive, kind and generous person, and we are fortunate to have her.”
Lesenger said he feels similarly grateful for Gross’ commitment to the project in the long run.
“There was a long list of things to get done, and now she has her own list of things she wants to help with,” Lesenger said. “She’s really made this her project. She wants to make sure that it’s done right and makes the day-to-day working of the company easier.”
The company expresses its deep gratitude to and love for Gross.
“We have rehearsal spaces that are comparable to far larger companies with much higher budgets because of what Jane did for us,” Lesenger said. “Our working environment is 3,000 percent better because of Jane’s help.”
“We managed to improve it to a place where young professionals feel like young professionals when they’re working,” Gross said.
Gross’ involvement with Young Artists includes participating in Chautauqua Opera Company’s adopt-an-artist program.
“As an opera parent, you’re really an adult contact in the community for the young artists,” she said. “It’s bragging rights. If your young artist is singing at one of the “Artsongs” and you show up with flowers, you elbow people and say, ‘That’s my kid!’ ”
This season, Gross adopted mezzo-soprano Ellen Putney Moore.
“I always get the wacky mezzo, by my request,” Gross said. “Mezzos are a special breed of people.”
Gross, whose favorite opera is Jenůfa, by Leoš Janáček, will put up her Young Artist friends in her New York City apartment when they come to audition or to compete. They jokingly refer to her place as “Chez Jane.”
“I have many in career now who have graduated out of Chez Jane,” Gross said. “My deal is I take them out to dinner, I put them up in New York. And when they’re in career, I expect comp tickets to the Met.”
Besides performances, she enjoys getting to know the Young Artists personally.
“It lowers the average age of my friend group,” Gross said.
She seizes every chance she can to support her friends in Chautauqua Opera Company by attending their performances.
“At the end of the summer, my ears flop over and I’ve had enough,” Gross said.