In 1978, a group of Charlottesville musicians, led by Priscilla Little, began to present chamber performances at the home of President James Monroe, Ash Lawn-Highland. These performances became the Ash Lawn-Highland Opera Festival, which grew dramatically after Judy Walker became the General Director in 1987. At that time, the festival began performing full-length operas and musical theater productions in the historic home’s boxwood gardens. Over the years, with the support of Ash Lawn-Highland’s owner, the College of William & Mary, the festival grew and flourished. In 2002, the Ash Lawn Opera Festival Foundation was independently incorporated with the mission of performing opera and musical theater, developing young artists and administrators for professional careers in opera, and providing educational programs in opera.
In the summer of 2009, Ash Lawn Opera relocated its performances to The Paramount Theater on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, allowing the company to grow even further artistically and professionally. With the hiring of Michelle Krisel as General Director in 2010, complete with over thirty years of experience in the national and international world of opera, including 14 years as the Special Assistant to Plácido Domingo at Washington National Opera and seven years as the Director of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, the Board of Directors set a goal to become one of the finest small opera companies and summer opera festivals in the United States.
In recent years, the company has partnered with a number of other local arts groups, including the Oratorio Society of Virginia, the Wilson School of Dance, the Virginia Consort, the Virginia Festival of the Book, and Charlottesville Ballet. Not only that, but it has expanded its season to include winter and spring performances. In 2015, the company further expanded its professional staff to include Kevin O’Halloran as Executive Director with Michelle Krisel continuing as Artistic Director. O’Halloran brings more than 20 years of fundraising and nonprofit management to the team.
In 2017, in honor of its fortieth anniversary as the area’s premier opera company, Ash Lawn Opera became Charlottesville Opera. The new name signals our dedication the local community and recognizes the distance it has come. Martha Redinger, President of Charlottesville Opera, said, “We’re proud of our heritage, and we thank all those who built and supported Ash Lawn Opera through the years. We’re pleased to be able to signal our progress and professionalism with our new name: Charlottesville Opera.”