Grand Opera: The Life, Languages, and Teaching of Miriam Ellis

325 pages, 2020

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Miriam Ellis was born in New York City in 1927, the child of Jewish immigrants who left what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While the family struggled financially in the Depression, Miriam’s route to the world of language and interchange was laid out from an early age. As she puts it, “Our house was always open to immigrants, and so they came with all kinds of languages: German, Russian, Polish, or Hungarian, and I don’t know what all else.” 

Miriam fell especially in love with French language and theater through a program that was offered during WWII by the Free French government in exile; it was designed to preserve and promote French language and culture while France was occupied. When she was twenty-one, Miriam went to France for the first time to volunteer in a postwar displaced persons camp, serving refugees who had been driven from North Africa and parts of the Middle East by fascist occupation and war. After the war, she came back home with her first husband, a veteran of the Royal Air Force. With kids in tow, in 1955 they drove across the country and set up a new life in Southern California. 

In the forties, Miriam had completed high school prior to going overseas, but hadn’t been inspired by a brief stint in college at the time. As a mother of three, she picked back up and started taking night classes in 1957. She then spent the next twenty-two years gradually and steadfastly working through a series of degrees. She also kept up her passion for theater in these years and acted in regional productions. Miriam secured a bachelor’s degree (summa cum laude) and master’s degree from CSU Northridge (then San Fernando Valley State) by the mid 1960s, when she was in her late 30s. Miriam had a special passion for connecting and working with international students, and soon added another responsibility to her list: she joined the staff at the university as director of the Office of International Programs. 

In 1971, she came north to UC Santa Cruz as a PhD student studying primarily French and Spanish literature. In time, she and her husband divorced; Miriam found herself on a young, still-forming campus—it was just six years old at the time—where two of her children also went through as undergrads. They were all part of the incredible spark of the original UCSC experiment. 

Miriam has stayed ever since, and has left an outsize mark on the campus. She completed her PhD and her twenty-two-year journey as a so-called “re-entry” studentin 1979, at age fifty-one. Miriam was also a key figure in building up theater at UCSC, especially outside of the English language. She also became a protagonist in the story of opera at UCSC, working as stage director for the Opera Workshop in the 70s. From her labors for French theater to co-founding the Santa Cruz Opera Society, Inc. (SCOSI), Miriam has brought town and gown together and has been an all-around champion of the arts—launching productions, hosting talks, bringing in world-class performers, and initiating community outreach programs—including performances of theatrical and operatic selections for local schools and nursing homes. 

Her primary official role at UCSC has been as a longtime lecturer. She started teaching while still a grad student, and then carried on as a lecturer after her PhD in ‘79 and clear through the early 2000s. Since then, she has continued to teach classes for UCSC and for the campus’ Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, most recently in 2018, when she was ninety. Along the way, Miriam has taught courses on opera, literatures across multiple languages, and many other subjects; her most consistent offering has been her French classes. She has been beloved as a teacher by generations of students, and has been an important figure in advocating for language program over the years, including helping secure six-figure National Endowment for the Humanities grants; she has also put in volumes of sweat equity in a variety of teaching, service, and leadership roles. In recent years, mostly since her nominal retirement, Miriam has remained dedicated to working for a multilingual UCSC, a place where language study is valued, and where perspectives across lingual and international borders are welcomed and celebrated. In 2001, Miriam founded what was then called the International Playhouse, a capstone for her decades of language theater work on campus. In the Playhouse, held annually, language students act out scenes and short plays in the language they are studying before a town-gown audience. It’s an expression of Miriam’s philosophy of the pedagogical power of theater. The International Playhouse was renamed the Miriam Ellis International Playhouse in recognition of her contributions.