If they could, the walls of the Jane A. Gross Opera Center would not talk, but sing, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their dedication.
Gross, benefactor and self-proclaimed “opera mom” said her love of the Chautauqua Opera Company helped make the center — lovingly known as “the JAG” — possible. The building was dedicated in 2005, and it has since served as a rehearsal space for the company.
“I had the funds at the time and wanted to do something for opera because I’m involved in a variety of companies,” Gross said. “And I had the most fun over the summers at the Chautauqua operas, so I said, ‘Let’s do that.’ ”
Gross spent her first week at the Institution in August 1984. After that, she came for longer stays, and eventually became more involved with the opera company around the time Jay Lesenger arrived as the general and artistic director of the company in 1994. It wasn’t long before she became known as the “opera mom.”
“I love getting to know the young artists, the people who make the opera happen,” Gross said.
Gross loves the process of making an opera — seeing how the actors and singers practice, performing without the costumes, make-up or stage pieces — even more than the finished product, she said.
In the beginning, the Chautauqua Central School band room served as the rehearsal space for the artists. Lesenger also kept a small storage space in Norton Hall as his office. Overall, he and the company struggled under those conditions.
The company worked in “a literal hot box” during Lesenger’s first years at the helm. Running rehearsals with the whole company squeezed in the band room, covered in sweat, didn’t make things easy, he said. But since the Institution didn’t own the building at the time, he said, they couldn’t do much.
In 1996, Chautauqua Lake Central School District was formed, and a new school complex was built in Mayville. With help from Gross, the Institution purchased the old school building and initiated plans to upgrade the facility and repurpose it for the opera company’s use.
“I think this company has grown in many ways over the 21 years I’ve been here, and needless to say I’m very, very proud of that,” Lesenger said. “And I think the growth of our physical facility has been an aspect of that growth and a support of the artistic growth of this company.”
The idea of what to name the center came from Lesenger.
“I said, ‘What should we call this thing?’ ” Gross said, “And he said, ‘Well, if Alice Catelli could name something after herself, why can’t you name it after yourself?’ ”
Gross also worked on the name with Dottie Randall, the company’s piano coach. With Gross’ sense of humor, she was satisfied with calling it the Jane A. Gross Opera Center mainly because the abbreviated form, “the JAG,” hinted at a personal joke.
“Chautauqua was still dry at that time, and I thought it was really fun to name a building in Chautauqua after a drunken toot,” Gross said. “That appealed to my sensibilities.”
One of Gross’ biggest satisfactions with her gift is that she has been able to witness for herself the impact she has had on the opera company.
“I’m very pleased with the thought [that] I’ve enjoyed 10 years of watching people enjoy — and use, and live in, and work in — this space,” Gross said. “And I can’t imagine anything better than that.”