Tribute to Harry Opel

June 17, 1921 to January 2, 2002

by Bruce Carlson and Bill Wahman

Harry Opel, one of the greatest forces in serious (Covenant) music since the sublime A.L. Skoog himself, died at age 80 on January 2, 2002. Opel was born in Chicago and soldiered in Germany during World War II. His jeep was hit by a shell, overturned, and then, reflecting on this brush with death and after a visit to J.S. Bach's St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, Opel decided to dedicate the remainder of his life to Christian service in music. In 1948 he was engaged by Minnehaha Academy to direct its various choirs which he did with great success for the next 38 years. All this time, he ran the music program at First Covenant Church, Saint Paul, at the very highest level, with his beloved pianist/organist wife, Bonnie.

Recently, a memorial concert was organized by one of Harry Opel's former students, Philip Brunelle, at First Covenant Church Minneapolis. Bill Wahman, a gifted tenor and Minnehaha alumnus, returned from the Bay Area in California to sing at this event. He reports as follows:

Philip chose Dubois' Seven Last Words of Christ because he thought it was the piece most Minnehaha Singers would have performed under Harry sometime during their years at the school. He was right. It came together fast. People remembered it and Philip masterfully put it together in about three hours. Our hosts fueled us with lunch before the rehearsal and dinner after and we performed the concert that same evening.

One of Harry's sons, Stuart, read a very touching tribute to his father, which helped create a sense of Harry's unique devotion to teaching great music to high school students. Academy President, John Engstrom, said in his remarks that the strongest memory mentioned to him by alumni of their time at Minnehaha was of Harry and the Singers. All three of Harry's sons, Ron, Stuart, and Craig sang in the concert. There was a strong feeling in the room of Harry's gift to us all, of our good fortune at having had this early exposure to Bach motets, the Bruckner Te Deum, Brahms' Requiem, Handel's Messiah, Randall Thompson, Scarlatti, and Mendelssohn. It is not often that we have the opportunity to celebrate the life work of a person who has touched us deeply (with a group of 200 singers, young and old) feeling together the impact of that legacy.

Bruce Carlson (1940-2006) was the Executive Director of the Schubert Club and Pietisten Editor of Poetry and Navigation.

See all articles by Bruce Carlson

Bill Wahman is a musician and a gardener working in the San Francisco Bay Area.

See all articles by Bill Wahman