At the end of the Young Artists Program’s first season, General Director Speight Jenkins wrote a thank-you letter to Seattle Opera board member Gertrude Sprenger. It started out My Dear Gertie and went on to say, among other things: You should take a large part of the credit for the success of this program for without your constant support, we would never have come this far.
Sprenger has, in fact, been one of the driving forces behind the Young Artists Program: Her first act when Jenkins took over in 1983 was to discuss with him the Education Department’s dream of a young artists program.
Active at Seattle Opera for more than thirty years, Sprenger has been a volunteer, a board member, and evenduring the economic crisis of the ’80sdirector of the Education Department. They were going to eliminate the Education Department, she said in a recent interview, in order to save some money. I wasn’t about to let them do that. I grew up in a family that respected music and education. So I said, ‘Well, I’ll do it.’ And do it she did: Sprenger directed the department full-time, without pay. I am a worker, she said, and I enjoyed working for Seattle Opera.
One of the first programs Sprenger worked on at Seattle Opera was Seattle Opera in the Schools (known then as S.O.S.). Volunteers and guest artists visited schools and introduced students to opera. There was always some way you could turn on the kid in the back row who was thinking, ‘Opera? Yuck!’
When one hears Sprenger tell the story of her own first exposure to opera, one can readily understand how she managed to connect with her studentseverything about her reflects an irrepressible enthusiasm for life. The story takes place in the wilds of Alaska, where her father, a civil engineer, built railroad bridges eighty years ago. Her family followed the bridge-building crew, pitching their tent in the woods or in the mountains, living in what Sprenger calls the real Alaska. Opera, then, was to her excerpts played on a portable wind-up gramophone. The Victor Red Seal 78 rpm records were ordered from New York and much anticipated as they made the long journey across the United States to Seattle, up to Alaska by steamship, and into the wilderness by train.
Rosie Gaynor, a Seattle Opera staff member, is deputy editor of Seattle Opera Magazine.