Opperman Alto #121 uprightOpperman thumb mechanism

George Opperman
Alto Flute in G; Serial # 121; South Bend; 1957-58; 60/40 brass body, soldered; sl 793mm; 868g; .030"h .031"b



Universal Disclaimer: The following is informative if not definitive, largely based on recollections of a conversation with flutemaker George Opperman on October 8, 2000.

Opperman topsideBest known for his piccolos and bass flutes, George Opperman made his first instruments before he ever even set foot in a flute shop.  He studied flute performance very seriously but hadn't yet accumulated much professional experience when he went into the military for WW2.  When he came out of the service, flute players were a dime a dozen in NYC, he didn't double on other instruments, so he had very limited opportunity to work.

Times were tough from 1946 to 1954. He set up a studio and taught flute; he started doing instrument repairs and teaching other musicians how to fix their own horns.  George began making his first piccolos without ever going through the apprenticeship system -- after all, he couldn't afford to feed his family on what Boston makers paid their starting craftsmen.

Opperman undersideWith two of the biggest jobbers in the industry backing him, Opperman left his original NYC shop in December of 1954 and moved to Elkhart to set up a new business.  This enterprise didn't work out, but he stayed and took advantage of the opportunity to learn more about larger scale instrument production.  He worked for Selmer, Gemeinhardt, and Armstrong.

George says that in 1955-58 Armstrong had a very nice plant with the best working conditions he had encountered.  There he worked with several members of the Moore family including a kid named Jack Moore, who was about 14 years his junior and later went on to make Armstrong's better instruments.  But in the latter 1950's the nature of the business was starting to change, along with the balance between quality and production.  Competition pushed them to search for new products, and attention turned to alto flutes.

When Opperman first arrived in Elkhart his advice was often requested.  Armstrong had on hand alto flutes made by Haynes and Rudall Carte, and they asked George his opinion on which flute to pattern after.  He preferred the Rudall Carte, whose smaller bore gave its sound the nicer core and center.  When Armstrong ignored his advice he became discouraged.  He went home for lunch and discussed this with his wife.  She knew he wanted to make his own instruments, so with her encouragement he went back to the shop that afternoon and told his foreman he would be leaving at the end of the week.

He opened his own shop, and started by making alto flutes with a mechanism of his own design.  He based his dimensions on a Powell alto flute which the Boston Symphony was using.  Powell and English makers used smaller bore tubing, so he used 1/32" thick 1" outer diameter 60/40 brass alloy.  He still has his original prototype.

Opperman tone holeVisually this flute has a solid, "made to be played" look to it.  Elegance takes a back seat to getting a reliable flute built with minimal tooling, which has a certain appeal of its own.  Still looks in the prototype stage, posts attached to the body with fairly short straps (1" - 2") serving 1 or 2 posts instead of straps running the length of the body.  (If I had to scare off a mugger with a flute, this is the one I would use.)

Opperman gave some of these altos to a dealer in NYC, Leon Russianoff, Drucker's clarinet teacher.  One belongs to Glenn Miller's tenor player Al Klink (who also played with Goodman, Dorsey, and Armstrong).  #121 is also one of these, fully handmade (George didn't have any production alto tooling at the time) around 1958 or 1959.  The lathing marks are still visible on the soldered toneholes.  Due to demand he later "expanded" to larger diameter tubing.  He recently worked on one of these, #171, which he changed from open to closed G#.

RH keywork post doubles as D# touch stopGeorge made his first bass flute in 1963 using the same mechanism design he came up with for the alto flute.  Hubert Laws has one of these, which is showcased on a CD in an arrangement of the Theme from Love Story.

Since I have a Haynes concert flute originally made for Frederick Wilkins, I asked Opperman if he knew him from his New York days or the story behind the Wilkins Model Artley.  Yes, George knew "Freddie Wilkins" and said the Artley Wilkins Model was indeed a copy of Freddie's Powell.  At the time a flute teacher commented that now his students could pay for an Artley and play a Powell.  George said no, but they could "play on Partleys."

Opperman's favorite concert flute is a 3000 series plated Bonneville.  He has taught at Indiana University South Bend and Notre Dame.  One of his current projects is designing and making an Eb alto flute.

Opperman back-connector modificationMODIFICATION:  The set screw between the back connectors is not original.  This central section between the left- and right-hand keywork steels was originally spring-loaded. I speculate that at some point an unsuspecting technician unfamiliar with the mechanism took the flute apart, and the spring-loaded bearings shot across the shop, never to be seen again.  He therefore permanently mounted a bearing at one end, trimmed the other end of the tubing back, tapped threads into the key shoulder, and mounted a threaded bearing that could be snugged up once the back connector was in place.  He soldered on a set screw receiver to keep the bearing from turning.  Not as elegant as the original design, but at least it works!



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