It all started in 1980 with a modest production of William Walton's The Bear, paired with Barber's Knoxville Summer of 1915. Conducted by Marita McClymonds in the atrium of Kensington's Unitarian Church, that first performance seemed heroic more than thrilling.
Richard Goodman, a professor of Geological Engineering at UC Berkeley, was also an opera singer who had studied voice with Frederick Sharpe at the Royal College of Music in London and Janet Parlova and Lenoir Hosack in San Francisco. Tired of commuting to Palo Alto or Santa Rosa to sing operatic roles, he founded Berkeley Opera so he could sing closer to home. In over three decades the company has grown to become what one critic called "one of the more interesting small companies in the nation" with unique and high quality presentations.
In the early years performances were at the Martin Luther King Junior High School auditorium, Julia Morgan Theatre, the Maybeck-designed Hillside Club and Grace North Church. In 1996 the company settled at the Julia Morgan Theatre for fourteen years, then in 2010 moved to its present home, the new state-of-the-art El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater.
The present Music Director, Jonathan Khuner, first came to Berkeley Opera as Director of Berkeley Chorus Pro Musica, the chorus in the 1984 production of Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love, and soon returned as the resident conductor. He became Artistic Director in 1994 when Richard Goodman retired and served in that capacity through 2009, when Mark Streshinsky joined the company as Artistic Director.
From the beginning Berkeley Opera has included many lesser-known operas in its repertoire mix, including such works as Menotti's Amelia Goes to the Ball and The Old Maid and the Thief, Ibert's Angelique, Vaughan Williams's Sir John in Love, Britten's Albert Herring, Barber's Vanessa, Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, Dvorák's Kate and the Devil and Rusalka, Lortzing's Zar und Zimmermann, Flotow's Martha, Moniuszko's The Haunted Manor, and many more.
None of these works were even remotely in the American opera repertoire at that time, and in choosing them, Richard Goodman set the company firmly upon its path as an alternative opera company in an alternative type of city.
In recent years productions have included the brilliant and witty adaptations by David Scott Marley of Berlioz's Beatrice and Benedick, Johann Strauss, Jr.'s Die Fledermaus (Bat Out of Hell), Rossini's Italian Girl in Algiers (The Riot Grrrl on Mars), Charles Lecocq's La Fille de Madame Angot (Madam Georgetown's Daughter), Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann, Bizet's Carmen and Puccini's The Girl of the Golden West.
The repertoire mix has ranged from the Baroque (Handel's Acis and Galatea) to the contemporary (two new commissions - John Thow's Serpentina and Clark Suprynowicz's Chrysalis) and has included radical condensations (Legend of the Ring, a one-evening condensation of Wagner's Ring Cycle) and innovative productions utilizing kinetic art and projections (Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle and Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilčges among others).