Opera Ring Theater Collection

Finding aid created by Museum of Performance and Design, Performing Arts Library staff using RecordEXPRESS
Museum of Performance and Design, Performing Arts Library
2200 Jerrold Avenue
Suite T
San Francisco, California 94124

Descriptive Summary

Title: Opera Ring Theater Collection
Dates: 1954-1967
Collection Number: 990.27
Creator/Collector: Opera Ring Theater (San Francisco, Calif.)
Extent: 5 Boxes. 3.5 linear feet.
Repository: Museum of Performance and Design, Performing Arts Library
San Francisco, California 94124
Abstract: The Opera Ring Theater was in operation in San Francisco from 1954 to 1967. Founded and directed by Irma Kay, the theater was intended to produce operas in English and in-the round in order to reach out to and educate audiences unfamiliar with traditional opera production. It received early success through productions by Gian-Carlo Menotti, Kurt Weill, and John Latouche. From there, it found a niche in the classical musical comedy genre. Other performance elements were added including concerts of chamber music and dance of the Renaissance, as well as shows intended for children, “melodramas,” and dramatic productions. Productions were commonly held in the round and in repertory. Renowned artists occasionally were seen on stage such as Morgan Freeman, Diane Berman, June Purviance, Donna Petersen, and Marty Balin. In 1967, the theater failed due to the declining popularity of musical comedy. This collection consists of material collected by Irma Kay documenting the history of the company including programs, press clippings, staging diagrams, promotional materials, production photographs, photographs of the theater itself, scrapbooks, awards, blueprints, sketches, lighting plans, costume and set designs, correspondence, and some administrative records.
Language of Material: English


Entire Collection is open for research.

Publication Rights

Reproduction of these materials can occur only if the copying falls within the provisions of the doctrine of fair use. Copyright varies by item.

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item]. Opera Ring Theater Collection. Collection Number: 990.27. Museum of Performance and Design, Performing Arts Library

Acquisition Information

The body of the Opera Ring Theatre Collection was donated to SF PALM in early 1990 by Irma Kay, the director and founder of the Opera Ring Theater.

Biography/Administrative History

Irma Kay, founder and director of the San Francisco Opera Ring from 1954 to 1967, had a broad-based background in the performing arts before arriving in the Bay Area in 1952. Trained as a pianist, she had derived additional inspiration from her brother, Hershy Kay, a composer, musical arranger and conductor. When Irma joined Hershy in New York, she studied dance with Martha Graham and worked at the Neighborhood Playhouse and off-broadway's Provincetown Playhouse. After a time in Los Angeles, Irma came to San Francisco where she founded the Opera Ring Theater. Irma Kay's vision was to produce operas in English and in-the round in order to reach out to and educate audiences unfamiliar with traditional opera production. She rented space at the Theatre Arts Colony building on Washington Street. The Opera Ring Theater Company opened to good reviews with a production of Gian-Carlo Menotti's The Telephone and The Medium, in July 1954. Irma managed to secure a lease on a warehouse with adequate auditorium and stage space at 123 South Van Ness Avenue. A Board of Directors was formed to manage the Opera Ring Association. There, the West Coast Premiere of Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, opened on September 21, 1955. In June, 1956, John Latouche's The Golden Apple, music by Jerome Moross, played a three month run. Kurt Weill's Street Scene and Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate followed. The 30 productions of the next decade would all be from the classical musical comedy genre, i.e. Finian's Rainbow, Carousel, Lady in the Dark, Oklahoma, Guys and Dolls, to name a few. Other performance elements were added including concerts of chamber music and dance of the Renaissance. Children's productions such as Hansel and Gretel, and Heidi, were produced between the main staged productions. Saturday nights at midnight there were "melodramas" complete with olio acts. Productions often alternated, one playing Thursday and Friday, another on Saturday and Sunday. The Opera Ring had as many as 85 singers, actors and dancers working on several productions at the same time. Can-Can (1959-1961) and West Side Story (1960-1962) each ran for two years. There were revivals of The Golden Apple, Threepenny Opera, Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls, and Little Mary Sunshine. Dramatic productions such as Dirty Hands by Sartre, and Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth were presented under the banner of the Theatre Ring. Although the casts were primarily composed of local performers, there are renowned artists that came to the Opera Ring. Morgan Freeman was with the O.R. from 1960-62 and appeared in Once Upon a Mattress, West Side Story, and as the street singer in revival of Threepenny Opera. Diane Berman was a leading lady in several O.R. shows as was June Purviance. Donna Petersen of the San Francisco Opera appeared in early Opera Ring productions, as did Marty Buchwald, aka Marty Balin who went on to create SF Sound and the Jefferson Airplane. Opera Ring's demise was due to two things: the golden age of musical comedy was coming to an end, and there wasn't new material of a like-kind to choose from. The final production was Weill's Lost in the Stars, critically acclaimed, but poorly attended, in the summer of 1967. Earlier in the year, a Familiar Faces benefit for O.R. gave two performances of scenes from earlier productions with as many of the original players as could be assembled. The Opera Ring closed in February, 1967.

Scope and Content of Collection

The greater part of the Opera Ring Theater Collection, 1954-1967, consists of materials on paper, collected by Irma Kay, which document the history of the company. Included are programs, press clippings, staging diagrams, promotional materials, and production photographs. Included in the historical material are two company scrapbooks, and some framed awards. The architectural materials include blueprints for the theater building, sketches and photos of the lobby, and lighting plans. There is a small group of costume and set designs, but the costumes themselves are not a part of this collection. Included in correspondence files are letters, drafts of speeches and some congratulatory telegrams. Other than a permit and union contract, there are few administrative records.

Indexing Terms

Balin, Marty
Berman, Diane
Buchwald, Marty
Freeman, Morgan.
Kay, Hershy
Kay, Irma
Latouche, John
Menotti, Gian Carlo, 1911-2007.
Moross, Jerome, 1913-1983
Petersen, Donna
Porter, Cole, 1891-1964
Purviance, June
Weill, Kurt, 1900-1950

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