"I was brought in as the stage director for the studio. I was part of the university’s contribution," he says. But Ross grew annoyed at the fact that there wasn't a full scale opera performance outlet for the regular UH students. "We had plenty of them and they needed to get on stage."
So he proposed doing so — he wanted to do four student operas as year — and as he puts it, "Fortunately, no one said no."
Over the years apparently few people at UH have said no to Ross. "It made a huge difference that I had the administration behind me and I was young enough that I was willing to put in whatever it took to make it happen," he says. He built the program from a gaggle of interested students, to a school known for doing a variety of works both classic and contemporary with plenty of performance opportunity for serious students of voice and opera as seen in the many fully costumed, full-length operas they've been able to produce.
Tuesday night, a special concert is scheduled at Moores Opera Center to celebrate and say goodbye to Ross, the founder and artistic director of the program. After 37 years, he is retiring, a departure of his own choosing. There will be video retrospectives and guest performances and the entire event is free.
Known to possess a wicked sense of humor, superb organizational skills, a lively and engaging manner in the classroom and an ambitious vision for what a university opera program can and should be, Ross says he decided last September that this school year would probably be his last time.
Several elements contributed to his decision to leave, he says. "It was a combination of a lot of factors. COVID certainly entered into it. The thought of doing another season where we had cancellations hanging over our heads, reduced ability to rehearse or shows getting cancelled primarily. I just didn't want to face that.
"I think I kind of hit a creative wall as well. I wasn't feeling terribly creative. And also the fact that I’m getting old; let's call it what it is. I’m having a harder time keeping theater hours these days. And I had a health scare about three years ago that was kind of a wakeup call. While everything's fine right now, continuing on in the kind of punishing schedule that I was doing was not wise."
He knows that some of the students, particularly the first years in the two-year program aren't happy about his departure but he points out that partly that's because they don't know who's coming in. (The announcement of his replacement has not been made yet.) "They'll forget about me quickly,: he says laughing. "I'm 67 now, not a kid. I thought I was going to wait a couple more years but it just seemed to be the right time."
The UH opera season is done for the year, the last performance in April of The Bartered Bride. In January they did Julius Caesar and in the fall they did A Little Night Music. "We ended up having to cancel a show that we had planned on doing," Ross says. Bartered Bride was originally supposed to run in repertoire with Julius Caesar in January.
"But we had too many COVID cases," Ross says. They ended up postponing it but that meant they cancelled a show The Adventures of Pinnochio they'd planned for April. It would have been only the second time the opera by composer Jonathan Dove had been done in the United States. "It bit the dust after months and months of planning and preparation," Ross says. "That kind of thing is really again what pushed me over the edge over the retirement decision."
He pointed out that despite COVID, they were able to do a full 2020-21 season. "We did one show outside and we did the rest of the performances with masks and we survived and didn't have COVID outbreaks. But this year it was a different story." The COVID outbreak in 2022 occurred, he says, "at the peak of the Omicron season," and despite everyone wearing masks.
A professor at Nebraska Wesleyan where Dyer got her undergraduate degree in Vocal Performance and Communications urged her to come to UH for her master's because of Ross, telling her: "This guy Buck Ross is incredible. If you can get in and you can work with Buck he’s just transformative."
Dyer is taking an Acting II class from Ross right now and says he keeps the interest level high in his classes — even when she took Opera Literature with him. "He explains things in a way that makes so much sense. And he does it in a way, his classes are the most entertaining classes. There's never a moment where I want to fall asleep or I stop paying attention or I want to get on my phone. "
In rehearsal, Ross expects students to come in prepared to work, having studied their material in advance. "He will not spoon feed things to you," Dyer says. But at the same time, the atmosphere is supportive, not toxic and students aren't pitted against each other, she says. Singers are encouraged to try new things and stretch their abilities, she says.
"He can always see the hope and the light in any production. He can always tell what a person needs to hear in order to do a better job.
Betsy Weber, director of the Choral Area at UH. has been a longtime colleague and friend of Ross. She says his professionalism not only benefitted students, but made the faculty better as well.
Buck has been absolutely visionary in terms of setting ambitions, high goals for his opera program and has, in turn, inspired all of us to try to keep up with him.
Buck is a master teacher. He is a hilarious human being. He is a kind and generous colleague and to say he will be missed is an understatement of huge proportions."
"One of many, many things I love about working with Buck is that he is obsessively organized. So you knew that if in August he said a rehearsal was going to take place in February from 2 to 5 o'clock for the chorus, you knew that that was going to take place. You knew that he had reserved enough time for the chorus to learn their parts. You knew that it would not go until 5:01. He's a consumate professional.
"He set a great example for the students but also for his faculty colleagues."
She said Ross existed "pretty autonomously " in the opera area but in some cases, the chorus part in an opera would be so substantial that he would ask Weber to be involved. "The only way reason that worked was because Buck was so very organized. I knew if he said it was going to take 27 hours of rehearsal and 12 hours of staging, I knew that was exactly what it would take."
Weber also noted that while yes, Ross had immense backing and support from the music department and the university, in someone else's hands the program "could have been a fairly modest undertaking."
Ross got his undergrad degree from Bucknell University and had a double major in music and theater. Then he went to the University of Minnesota where he got an MFA in directing. He worked with a renowned professor, H. Wesley Balk(artistic director of the Minnesota Opera for almost 20 years) "who was the leading person in the world for teaching opera students to act. There are a number of us across the country who are still teaching in that style. It had a lot to do with them hiring me. I remember during my interview Carlyle Floyd standing up and saying 'I want you all to understand who this man studied with because that's exactly what we need here.'"
When UH hired him for the School of Music Ross had been working with individual students across the country and had been freelancing in New York City. "I was doing fine but the thought of steady work was very appealing."
The program began attracting students through recruiting, but "word of mouth is huge," Ross remembers. "When students started finding out that tuition was inexpensive compared to elsewhere and they were going to have more opportunities to get on stage than virtually anywhere else, we didn't have problems recruiting people."
The UH program works with students on giving them some technique that they can rely on. "The biggest thing is giving them a method of working and then just simply having enough experience that they can learn from their mistakes.
"When students started finding out that tuition was inexpensive compared to elsewhere and they were going to have more opportunities to get on stage than virtually anywhere else, we didn't have problems recruiting people."
"We kind of throw them into the deep end of the pool right away. One of the things we always try to do is have a very large cast show in the fall so we can get the maximum number of people on stage right away. So that they can get that first one out of the way and build on that for the rest of the year."
The opera program itself typically has 22-24 master's students and a handful of doctoral students and those seeking a performer's certificate. They also have a number of undergrads they use as well. There are four fulltime professors and three adjuncts that are all teaching voice. There's a music director for the program as well.
Asked about what he considers his biggest achievements at UH, Ross says: "We became known as a place for contemporary opera and so for probably the last 25 years we’ve scheduled a relatively new opera every season, typically something that had been premiered in the last ten years. We became known as the place that major composers were coming to to have their works done."
"I think that was a huge thing that brought us national attention certainly."
Another was their Daniel Catán opera project where they did all four of the composer's operas over eight years.
And then there's the sheer number of productions. And as Ross was often quoted as saying, he made his season selections based upon what would show off his present students' talents in their best lights.
"With a relatively small program we had a very ambitions production program so that we were about to provide more stage experience for our students than really any other comparable school or practically any other school and that was the thing that we became known for in the operatic community and the thing that made the students' experience so good."
Even with retirement, opera will remain a large part of Ross' life. He plans to start on a couple of libretto projects as he begins his retirement. "That's where I want to direct my energies now more than anything. I'm not going to be reliant on that for my income so I can afford to fail, and that's a good thing."
"I still find that (opera) is capable of expressing the inexpressible and doing it on a visceral, emotional level that nothing else can do. I just find that my body reacts to it in a way that mere spoken theater doesn’t do."
He's a fan of contemporary opera — he names Ricky Ian Gordan (A Coffin in Egypt), David Carlson (Anna Karenina) and John Musto (The Inspector) among others — and says opera's subject matter is changing in many cases. An example: the Mariachi operas by Houston Grand Opera that were among the best attended by audience members new to opera. These are the kind of operas done on a scale that HGO could afford to take a chance on them, he says.
"Opera has a very peculiar reputation in this country that’s born out of so much of the standard rep being not in English and people having the mistaken notion that the only good opera is going to be done in a foreign language which is just nonsense," he declares..
"And it's a class thing as well. People think you have to know too much to be able to go to the opera which is nonsense. You should be able to go to the opera the way you go to the movies. I’ve found that new audiences because they don’t have a particular expectation for what they're going to hear are much more attuned to contemporary music so the fact that doesn’t sound like Bellini doesn’t bother them," .
Asked what he wanted his legacy to be, Ross says:
"I would say it’s really what we had set out and accomplished. I think just keeping the doors open was huge and soldiering on despite adversity. It’s given the students a sense that nothing is impossible. I think that's sort of been the biggest thing and perseverance and a certain amount of stubbornness will ultimately win out. I think the students are always astonished at what they can accomplish and that, to me, is the best gift you can give them."
A concert "Celebrating the Retirement of Buck Ross" begins at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3. Tickets are free.