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Michael Harrison, who led the Baltimore Opera Company, dies

Baltimore Opera Company general director Michael Harrison celebrates the company's 50th anniversary season with a production of "Aida."
Baltimore Opera Company general director Michael Harrison celebrates the company's 50th anniversary season with a production of "Aida." (Kenneth K. Lam)

Michael Harrison, the former general director of the old Baltimore Opera Company, died of colon cancer complications Nov. 21 at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 80 and formerly lived in North Baltimore.

Born John Smith in Georgia, he was the son of Oscar Smith and his wife, Helen Harrison. He spent his childhood in Augusta, Georgia, and later legally changed his name on the advice of a theatrical agent.

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He earned a bachelor’s degree at Vanderbilt University. An aunt paid for him to attend the Yale School of Drama, and he completed two semesters before being chosen for a role in the 1963 musical “110 in the Shade” on Broadway.

“His aunt was annoyed,” said James R. Williams, a friend and former member of the Baltimore Opera Company board.

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Mr. Harrison later performed in regional theater productions, once on Broadway, and was cast and performed in the role of Tony in the touring company of “West Side Story.”

Mr. Harrison went on to become general director of the Providence Opera Theatre and the Columbus Opera Company.

He became the general director of the Baltimore Opera Company in 1988 after the death of Jay Holbrook and remained with the company in 2009 after it closed due to financial pressures.

A company history said, “Harrison’s expertise in the world of theatre and opera led to a decade of unprecedented growth during the 1990′s.”

James Harp, artistic director of the Maryland Opera, said: “Michael was a complex man with a deep spirituality and a great passion for grand opera in the grand manner. ... I will always remember the unforgettable productions he brought to Baltimore that were of such high quality and supreme joy and pride.”

In 1993 he began a Summer Aria Series dedicated to works by American composers. A year later the National Arts Stabilization Fund awarded the company a grant that allowed it to run additional performances.

“His legacy is the passion for superb opera he brought to Baltimore and realized it on the stage,” said Steven White, who conducted numerous performances at the Lyric during Mr. Harrison’s tenure.

Mr. White also said: “He had a great love for the bel canto style of opera and knew it deserved to be heard in Baltimore. He also took chances with operas that were not usually performed. He knew voices well and was old school in that knowledge.”

He recalled that Mr. Harrison asked him to conduct “La sonnambula,” an 1831 opera by Bellini.

“The next year, I got a call from the Metropolitan Opera in New York on the strength of my role in Baltimore. The Met had me conduct ‘La sonnambula,’ ” Mr. White said. “Professionally, I owe much to Michael Harrison.”

A history of the Harrison years at the opera company said it continued to expand the repertoire and attract American and internationally renowned artists. “Notable productions from the late 1990s include Sherrill Milnes in ‘Falstaff,’ Diana Soviero as Madama Butterfly, ‘The Flying Dutchman’ with James Morris, Chris Merritt and Paul Plishka, and the company’s first Russian opera in 20 years, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Eugene Onegin’ starring Dwayne Croft,” the history said.

Mr. Williams said that during his tenure, Mr. Harrison assembled acclaimed productions with international conductors and performers. Among the most memorable productions were “Dead Man Walking,” with Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie in the audience, and “Norma,” attended by Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who were both opera fans.

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A 2008 Baltimore Sun article said Mr. Harrison relinquished his administrative duties and assumed the title of artistic director some months before the opera company folded.

Mr. Williams said the company was hard hit by the 2008 recession.

Mr. Harrison will be interred in a family plot in Westover Memorial Park in Augusta.

Mr. Harrison leaves no immediate survivors. His marriage ended in divorce. A son, Graham Bernard Harrison, died of acute lymphocytic leukemia in 2009 at age 15 as a Friends School freshman.

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