On Nov. 30, 1957, a 32-year-old singer named Irene Dalis made her broadcast debut from New York's Metropolitan Opera House, where she would reign for 20 years. Before the performance -- beamed live from the Met's stage to a national radio audience -- announcer Milton Cross asked Dalis how she would like to be introduced.

"Well," she replied, "you'll have to tell them that I'm from San Jose."

Now 88 years old, sharp as a tack and still the motivating force behind Opera San Jose, which she founded 30 years ago, Dalis sits in her office and reflects on that story and on her life since. She is retiring. On June 30, she will let go of "my baby," as she calls the South Bay opera company, ceding her position as general director to Larry Hancock, her hand-groomed successor.

Irene Dalis is 88 years old, sharp as a tack, and still the brains and motivating force behind Opera San Jose, which she founded 30 years ago. But the the
Irene Dalis is 88 years old, sharp as a tack, and still the brains and motivating force behind Opera San Jose, which she founded 30 years ago. But the the Grande Dame of the arts scene, a San Jose native, is about to retire -- a major event in the South Bay. She lit up the lobby of the California Theater in San Jose, Calif., Thursday, April 10, 2014. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

"But I'll be around," she warns, raising an eyebrow. "I'll be watching. The hardest thing for me now is to keep my mouth shut."

The grande dame of the South Bay arts scene, Dalis grew up on Delmas Avenue in downtown San Jose, the daughter of a Greek hat maker, whose frugal ways and can-do ethos have remained in her bones. And she isn't kidding when she says that her Metropolitan Opera career -- singing with Franco Corelli, Leontyne Price and Plácido Domingo -- was merely a warm-up for what she calls "my life's work, coming home to build this company."

Smartly dressed, with dramatically coiffed hair and tapered nails polished chocolate brown, Dalis still cuts the figure of a diva. Colleagues call her a fireball. Nothing if not direct -- "I'm half Greek, half Italian; most people know what I'm thinking before I even say it" -- she is known to be loyal, self-deprecating and at times intimidating.

In the company's early days, Hancock recently remembered, laughing, "She could turn on that Lady Macbeth laser beam at any moment, and you just had to be able to bear the storm."

Most of all, she is known for her tenaciousness: "When she sets her mind on something, she makes it happen, and obstacles are simply excuses to get creative to overcome them," said Linda Riebel, Dalis' biographer. Next month, Riebel's "Irene Dalis: Diva, Impresaria, Legend" will be published by Print and Pixel Books.

And Saturday, Dalis will be honored at the California Theatre during the Eighth Annual Irene Dalis Vocal Competition, a face-off involving 10 of the nation's top young opera singers, competing for $50,000 in prize money. This time, the contest may be overshadowed by the tribute to Dalis, the ex-mezzo soprano who sang not only at the Met, but at San Francisco Opera, London's Covent Garden and Germany's Bayreuth Festival. Numerous former resident singers from Opera San Jose will fly in to fete her, though Dalis has been begging them to keep the focus on the company itself.

Not infrequently over the years, she has pushed against a reluctant board of directors while setting forth her vision for Opera San Jose. Largely as a result of her vision and drive, the company owns its own scenic and costume shops, a spacious rehearsal hall and free apartments for its resident singers. The sum total is unique for regional opera companies in the United States, though Dalis simply modeled her baby on the small German companies where she trained in the 1950s.

"She is so amazing, and those of us who have known her the longest are the most amazed," said Hancock, Dalis' right-hand man since she retired from the Met in 1977 and established an opera workshop at San Jose State. In 1984, that workshop grew into Opera San Jose.

What she hasn't been able to control is the economy and the increasingly challenging environment for opera companies and arts organizations in general. For more than two decades, Dalis -- who minored in math at San Jose State College and famously keeps her eye on the ledger -- ran the company in the black. But the 2013-14 season, the company's 30th, has proven to be its most challenging, with a $700,000 projected deficit, cushioned by a $3 million cash reserve.

"It's serious," she said. "We can cover the gap. We're not going under. I don't want anyone thinking this company is in any kind of danger. We're making payroll. We're OK. But the next three years will be difficult."

Asked to define her legacy, she answered, "Honey, we've survived." She added, "A lot of our former singers are out there making a living. They may not be stars at the Met, but the percentage who are out there singing is amazing."

As a child, Dalis played violin and piano, her first love. She majored in music education at San Jose State College, graduating in 1946 before further music studies in New York and operatic training on European stages.

She was born Yvonne Dalis and dubbed "Irene" by Metropolitan Opera general manager Rudolf Bing, who thought that name had a dramatic ring. Even now, in moments of reflection, "I talk to Yvonne," who is a solitary person and terrified of performing, she said. "I don't talk to Irene," who "had no fear. Yvonne could not have done any of these things that Irene did."

Conversations with Dalis typically land on a discussion of luck: She feels that she has simply managed to be in the right place at the right time throughout her life. But she also acknowledges the flip side of luck: the necessity of pushing through one's perceived limits.

During a voice lesson in New York in 1947, her teacher, Edyth Walker, coaxed her to sing higher and higher than Dalis thought possible, as well as lower and lower. From that moment, Dalis has extrapolated the lesson that limits in life are made to be broken.

Case in point: In 2010, an SUV barreled across three lanes of Interstate 280 and totaled Dalis' car as she drove to work. Her right ankle was mangled. At age 85, she had a long hospitalization. While issuing directives to her team at the opera, she went into rehab and was told she would never walk again. But Dalis is now driving with a left-foot accelerator and has begun walking with a cane in her living room.

"I'm not ready to do that in public, but I will," she said. "I will not let it stop me. That's all. I don't think it's so remarkable. What I regret is that the person who caused the accident is not a multi-billionaire -- because then I wouldn't have to worry about this company."

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

Eighth Annual Irene Dalis Vocal Competition

A fundraiser for Opera San Jose
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose
Tickets: $50 ($25 tax deductible)-$150 ($75 tax deductible); 408-437-4450, www.operasj.org. For students 25 and younger (with valid ID), $11 at the door, starting 90 minutes before curtain