Growing up, my aunt and grandmother restricted the music that my cousin and I could listen to in the household.
My eldest cousin, Lisa, was an excellent violinist, and I, too, for a short time dabbled in playing the violin before switching to the piano, of which I have a shell left of my former talent. But I fell in love with singing when I saw my first opera on PBS–Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” with the late superstar tenor Luciano Pavarotti in the starring role–while trying to find something to watch one evening after completing my homework. I was immediately enthralled with the music, the drama, the foreign language that was translated into English, the whole nine yards. From there, I began researching (this was before Google, before YouTube, before iTunes, if you can believe it) operas, opera singers, and composers in the local library where I became fascinated with singers like Maria Callas, Leontyne Price, and Samuel Ramey.
This really has developed a lifelong interest in the operatic art form that ensures I attend at least a couple of operas a year. While in D.C., I was a regular at the Washington National Opera where I was able to see Kiri Te Kanawa, Denyce Graves, and Dolora Zajick amongst others. When I moved here to Memphis, I was so elated to discover that the city had its own opera company in Opera Memphis, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. The company can boast having brought such opera luminaries as Beverly Sills and Jerome Hines when Memphis was a regular stop of the Metropolitan Opera’s tours around the country. But something has to be said for a company that has lasted as long as Opera Memphis has, and I was curious to find out what was its secret by attending the 60th Anniversary Gala this Saturday.
The gala was held at the wonderful Clark Opera Memphis Center, which was the perfect venue to host an intimate evening of song. (Seriously, the venue is wonderful and had my mind swirling with what other events could be hosted there.) The evening started in the martini lounge before heading to the lobby to review decades of opera posters, pictures, and costumes from past and current productions. It definitely was a walk down memory lane, and I soon found myself telling my guest about some of the most memorable singers and story lines of some of the works.
The evening started with three of the resident artists singing, including a spectacular rendition of ‘Glitter and Be Gay’ from Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” and the showstopping ‘Ah! Mes amis, quell jour de fete!” with its nine high Cs! But the highlight of the evening had to be Memphis’ hometown diva, Kallen Esperian, offering of two pieces. I first became acquainted with Ms. Esperian as the centerpiece of the Three Sopranos–the higher tessitura equivalent of the famed Three Tenors. Ms. Esperian has by the company’s account a 30 year relationship with Opera Memphis, and it’s clear she still enjoys high regard by the patrons by their response to her rendition of Tosca’s aria ‘Vissi d’arte’ and an Andrew Lloyd Weber piece.
Another favorite moment for me had to be the sweet singing of a Viennese, song sung by the soprano who sang Violetta in the company’s first offering of Verdi’s “La Traviata” in their first season! The rest of the night, we were serenaded with French songs sung by Marie-Stephane Bernard, which was such a delight.
All-in-all, it was a great night to get out and about and celebrate Opera Memphis. I met some of the most delightful and engaging folks at our shared table, two of which offered to take me to experience the area’s best barbecue. If you haven’t gotten a chance yet to check out a production from Opera Memphis, make sure you check them out next season. You’ll be glad that you did.