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Singer Bequeaths $3 Million Estate to Music Academy

Soprano Irene Cummings' gift will be used to endow future opera productions.

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Soprano Irene Cummings, right, bequeathed her estate to the Music Academy of the West in honor of Marilyn Horne, left, a friend and the academy’s voice program director. (Music Academy of the West photo)

Soprano Irene Cummings, whose lengthy career included regular appearances on Tennessee Ernie Ford’s prime-time variety program The Ford Show in the late 1950s through 1961, has bequeathed her 16-acre Santa Paula avocado ranch to the Music Academy of the West. Valued at about $3 million, the property will be used to endow future academy opera productions upon Cummings’ passing.

“We are exceedingly grateful to receive this extraordinary legacy gift,” academy board Chairman James Davidson said. “In appreciation, we are pleased to establish the Irene Cummings Endowed Opera at the Music Academy of the West, which will ensure that the academy is able to mount opera productions indefinitely.”

Cummings, who is married to Ventura County pulmonologist and internist Theodore Hostetler, attended the Music Academy in 1951, studying with John Charles Thomas, Richard Lert and Lotte Lehmann. She later befriended celebrated mezzo-soprano and Music Academy voice program director Marilyn Horne, in whose honor Cummings made the gift.

“I want to help other singers as much as possible, and to this day I have very strong feelings for the Music Academy,” Cummings said. “Marilyn has said she wants to make sure there will always be opera at the Music Academy. Through this gift, I am doing my part to make Marilyn’s wish an enduring reality. Thank you, Marilyn, for being the catalyst for all of us to support the Music Academy.”

“What an incredible gift to the Academy,” Horne said. “I couldn’t be more grateful.”

Cummings is a longtime supporter of the Music Academy, each year funding a full scholarship for a Music Academy Vocal Fellow. According to Davidson, her latest gift is especially significant in that it will enable the academy to permanently defray the costs associated with its annual opera production, thus eliminating the fiscal uncertainties that have occasionally bedeviled such productions. The academy was unable to present an opera from 1991 to 1996 because of budget constraints.

A native of Ventura County, Cummings grew up in Santa Paula and Saticoy as the daughter of third-generation ranchers. After receiving operatic coaching from Ernest St. John Metz at an early age, she attended the Music Academy for one summer, but returned repeatedly to observe vocal masterclasses, through which she met Horne. Cummings subsequently toured with the Charles L. Wagner Opera Company before spending three years as one of the “Top Twenty” singers and dancers on NBC’s The Ford Show. She also appeared on CBS’ The Danny Kaye Show and in numerous Cabrillo Music Theater productions in 1970 through 1978.

“It gives me a great deal of satisfaction to leave this property to the Music Academy of the West,” Cummings said. “I can’t imagine a more worthy cause.”

Cummings’ gift is the second significant donation announced by the Music Academy in as many days. On Thursday, Santa Barbara philanthropists Shirley and Seymour Lehrer announced plans to donate $3 million in support of ongoing programmatic and facility upgrades at the academy. That gift includes a $1 million challenge grant that will help bring the academy’s recital hall renovation fundraising campaign to a close by year’s end.

Tim Dougherty is communications manager of the Music Academy of the West.

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