FARGO — The Fargo-Moorhead Opera recently had to cancel the remainder of its season due to the coronavirus outbreak, but if it weren’t for David Martin’s leadership from the early 1970s to the mid-'90s, many believe the organization would have closed for good decades ago.
Martin’s dedication to the company and his love of opera have been remembered since he died on April 16 at the age of 82.
“He certainly was the driving force behind the opera and moved it towards what it is today,” says David Hamilton, FM Opera’s current general director. “It was barely a startup when he became the music director. It was really quite remarkable the productions that were done at that time.”
Martin took over as musical director at the opera in 1971, and through 1996 he left his mark on 72 productions, also serving as a singer and artistic director.
“David was a bigger-than-life, dramatic figure. He had a magical way of bringing you into the opera world,” says longtime FM Opera singer Peter Halverson, who first studied under Martin at Concordia College.
“He was always a character, but what an opera fan,” Halverson says, remembering visiting Martin’s house and marveling at more than a dozen different recordings of just “Rigoletto.”
Lucy Thrasher also took vocal lessons from Martin when she moved to town in the early 1980s. She says his persona was big, even when he wasn’t on stage.
“He was a total character,” she says. “He believed the conductor was part of the show. He’d be in the pit conducting wearing costumes.”
His outfits got him noticed by the audience, but it was what he said that got the attention of artists.
“He was not shy about offering his opinions and he had very strong opinions,” Thrasher says. “He was confident in his opinions. He was overbearing and could be intimidating to some and he liked that.”
While he could be a lot for some musicians, Thrasher took Martin in stride and would end up singing for him in dozens of productions.
“He was an old-school opera impresario. He did it all for FM Opera,” she says. “He conducted, he selected the chorus and worked with them. He gave voice lessons, even to the visiting artists. He made the decisions. It was all on him. The buck stopped there.”
In addition to making stars of Thrasher and Halverson, Martin’s best-known student was Elizabeth Holleque, who started performing with FM Opera in 1974, bringing the organization to new heights in what some called “The Elizabethan Era.” The two would marry, but ultimately split. She would go on to international fame, singing the title role in “Tosca” opposite Luciano Pavarotti.
Martin had four children with his first wife, Patricia.
While Martin is credited with bringing FM Opera to a new level, by the mid-1990s the organization struggled for a few years, but Martin’s will to produce opera overcame limited resources.
“He sustained it and kept it going at times when the budget was thin,” Halverson says.
That all ended when the organization announced it was canceling its 1998-99 season. After that, Hamilton was brought in.
“He created this legacy that endures today. I question if without him FM Opera would even exist today,” says Hamilton.
“If it wasn’t for David Martin, FM Opera wouldn’t have lasted,” Thrasher says. “If it wasn’t for his crazy passion, it would have died out. He was able to keep it going by sheer force of his personality.”