Marjory Halvorson began singing in grade school and she always knew she wanted to make singing her profession.
Her family, however, wanted her to become a teacher. The long-time voice teacher managed to combine opera and teaching, and she has shared her inspiration and dedication with local music students since 1972.
“I just don’t know how many students I’ve had. It’s probably thousands by now,” Halvorson said, sitting outside her Gonzaga University office. Educated in the United States and Germany, Halvorson had her own opera career before she founded Uptown Opera in 1986 with her husband, Bill Graham. That company evolved into Spokane Opera.
“As a singer myself, I knew there weren’t that many opportunities for young singers to perform here in Spokane,” Halvorson said. “I created the opera so they would have opportunities to grow.”
Tonight, at the Bing Crosby Theater, many of Halvorson’s students are returning to pay tribute to her at a free concert.
Halvorson was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and she said she only has a short time left to live.
“I obviously have very mixed feelings about this concert,” Halvorson said, hesitating. “I am looking forward to it, at the same time as I know I won’t live much longer.”
She said pancreatic cancer often is not diagnosed until it’s too late to treat it.
“It’s a silent killer,” Halvorson said. “There just isn’t much they can do for me.”
A private person, Halvorson has not shared much about her health problems until recently.
“I guess that sent some of my students into sort of a tizzy,” Halvorson said, smiling.
One such student is soprano Heather Parker.
Parker was 15 years old and involved in musical theater when she said Halvorson found her.
“She said to me that I had a voice and I should consider doing something with that,” Parker said.
Halvorson introduced Parker to opera in the late ’80s at an Uptown Opera production called “The Power and Passion of Puccini.”
“Marge got me there to turn pages, probably hoping I’d fall in love with opera and I did,” Parker said.
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Halvorson has taught at North Idaho College, Whitworth University and is still teaching full time at Gonzaga University. She has also performed many times with the Spokane Symphony.
She was the YWCA Woman of Achievement in Arts and Culture in 1996, the same year she received the Westminster Church Music Leadership Award. She was also honored with the City of Spokane Arts Commission Leadership Award in 2003.
Yet it’s not the accolades and awards that have kept her going.
“My favorite moment as a teacher is when the student has an ‘aha moment’ when they suddenly get it,” Halvorson said.
And it’s clear her heart is with Spokane Opera. The company is not currently putting on any productions because it lacks funding.
“It’s a tough time to be in the arts,” Halvorson said, “but I don’t think the arts are going to go away. Art is way too important.”
Parker said concert organizers have one goal for tonight:
“I want to fill every seat in the house. I want people in Spokane to see the impact Marge has had on the lives of young people in here and I want them to see what her students can do.”
Thanks to Spokane Opera, Parker and many of Halvorson’s other students were able to gain the professional experience needed to catapult them on to big opera stages around the world.
“The woman is brilliant. She is a dedicated and selfless person who would do anything for her students,” Parker said. “What she has done for the arts in this town is immeasurable. I’m so thankful for her.”