Irene Dalis, founder of Opera San Jose, will step down from the company in July 2014 after 28 years working at the opera company. At 87 years old, she says she feels it is finally time to let someone else take the lead.

Dalis originally went to school to become a teacher, but became interested in opera after she received her master’s degree in music education. We spoke with her about what inspired her to start Opera San Jose and her plans to step down as general manager.

Name: Irene Dalis
Occupation: Founder and general manager of Opera San Jose

How long have you lived/worked in San Jose?
I was born in San Jose, it’s my hometown, but I took a 30 year detour when I went to New York for a master’s degree. When I retired from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, I returned home in 1977. I left San Jose when I was 20 years old and I returned when I was 51. So I’ve been here for 36 years.

What initially got you into acting and theater work?
I really didn’t start studying seriously for a career in opera until after I had my master’s degree in New York. I received my master’s degree from Columbia University Teachers College, so even at that time I was not planning on being a performer.

Music was always a part of my life; I was a pianist. I actually went to San Jose State University in 1942-1946 and I was a piano major but I had no plan or dream of becoming an opera singer, I was going to be a teacher. I became interested in opera after I had my master’s degree in music education in New York City, so I was about 21.

At what point did you decide to stay in San Jose and pursue your career?
I returned home to retire. That was really my plan, but the president of San Jose State University appointed me to the music faculty at the university and I made it very clear that I would not teach voice. Since I would not teach voice they had to think of some way of utilizing me and so they put me in charge of an opera workshop at the university.

Our professional company grew out of that opera work shop. I always said without San Jose State University there would not be an Opera San Jose.

What inspired you to create Opera San Jose?
There was so much outstanding talent in the opera workshop that really inspired me and caused me to start thinking about where the singers go after they graduate from the university or conservatory. They cannot immediately graduate and step out onto the Metropolitan Opera stage. Where do you go to develop your own potential?

The inspiration actually came from those singers. My wish was to have a place for aspiring young performers to go and develop their craft. What we do is we pick young career entry level singers and give them an opportunity here with nothing but leading roles.

You’ve won many awards in your career, is there one that stands out and means the most to you? If so what and why?
I think the one that flattered me the most is when I received my first honorary doctorate from the University of Santa Clara and also one from San Jose State University. I have two honorary doctorates; I think they were the high points.

You recently stated that you will step down in July 2014 from Opera San Jose, Why did you make that decision and what will you do next?

I have to emphasis the fact that I came home 35 years ago to retire. I am now 87 years old and I think it is time that I actually give someone else a chance to take the company onto its next step. I don’t plan to abandon Opera San Jose. I still will be here and I still will be working for it, but I do think there comes a time in everyone’s life when they must face the facts when it is better to have someone else uphold.

What do you like most about San Jose?
Its diversity, its entrepreneurship, its climate and I like the way it’s situated geographically.

If you could change one thing about San Jose, what would it be?

I wish there could be far more interest and support in the arts; all of the arts. There are so many struggling groups here in the city and right now. My wish is that the population in San Jose would be more inserted in what we are trying to create for them here.

What San Jose event do you most look forward to every year?

There is one small group that I find outstanding and that’s the Pabard Company. It’s a group that appears at San Pedro Square. Unfortunately, I can’t go to it now because of my wheelchair but I use to go to that. It’s not a big professional company but to me has the feel of a real San Jose local, “we’ll do the best we can with what we’ve got.” That’s a little company I have my eye on.

Who is the most interesting person you know in San Jose?
The mayor. He’s not a personal friend of mine, but he is most interesting because he is trying so hard to make San Jose the important city that it could be and should be.