A Personal History of the Opera Buffs

by Frans Boerlage, stage director

THE OPERA BUFFS! It seems we have always been there. We helped by paying for gowns, tuxes, air tickets, head shots, coaching- sessions and …if necessary, for food. All this occurred if the need was great and the singers showed unusual talent and a possible career. Yearly thousands in cash, given by donors and earned from performing at concerts (and an occasional gala), went to the young, talented singers. How did the Buffs start? I can tell you, for I was present at the birth of this venerable institute: a meeting of two enthusiastic lovers of this art: Rena Cohen and Le Somers. They were the nucleus.

At a dark flat in Brentwood, filled with her husband’s paintings, Rena Cohen had invited Le Somers and added Nathalie Limonick and me (the heads of the USC OPERA), because our school had the good singers who were attracted to our program. The word spread and a lot of excellent voices dropped into our laps.

Rena chose USC because she had recently witnessed an entertainment by this young, up-and-coming institute, where the Papageno/Papagena duet was interpreted by two couples, performing simultaneously and precisely synchronized, in a long-stretched hall, for all to see up close. Rena had liked the show and asked to speak to – no, demanded to lecture — the performers about behavior at private parties after the performances. I was stunned, but she made sense.

Thus started the love affair Rena/USC, which blossomed out into a group of people, led by her indomitable character, who were willing to work, organize, give up their time and open their purses for the talented, often starving students by arranging performance possibilities for them. She did all the ground work to get the right people to execute her plans. Le Somers mostly provided the places, where we could get enough paying people to show our scenes or entire operas, often in private homes. Never to be forgotten: The Pearlfishers’ duet, finishing off with one of the singers taking a dive into the swimming pool, belonging to a Polish countess. Many wonderful memories emerge, too many to start mentioning.

Going through the old programs, one meets the names of people, singing in scenes or shortened versions of operas, who now fill the world’s stages with their knowledge and savvy, their gifts of talent making it possible for them to get scholarships at summer institutes and/ or apprentice programs, after they had finished their basic training with classes such as ours. Very often these training institutes were made possible through generous assistance from the coffers of the Opera Buffs.

Have I given you the history of the Buffs? I doubt it, but these short anecdotes might be more telling than a long list of what and where and how we, Opera Buffs, helped to advance the careers of the stars of the future.