Fort Worth — The Fort Worth Opera will open its 2017 Festival season on Saturday, April 15 at Bass Performance Hall, featuring two Texas-born singers familiar to—and much loved by—local audiences: Soprano Ave Pine and baritone Michael Mayes. It is the first event of the festival, which has three productions over the next three weeks: Bizet’s Carmen, the world premiere of Voir Dire, and the mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna.
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra will accompany the concert, conducted by another Fort Worth favorite, Joe Illick. The program will include some well-known arias and duets, as well as newer works, which was the specialty of Darren K. Woods, who championed both singers. Woods was unexpectedly and shockingly fired from the opera this year, after 16 years as general director.
He will be in attendance Saturday night, before taking off to Seagle Music Colony in upstate New York, where he has long been an artistic associate and has been promoted to artistic director. Mayes will perform music from Roscoe, an opera Woods premiered at Seagle in 2016.
If the word “gracious” didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented to describe the radiantly beautiful soprano. Her voice is lustrous and technically refined. She is highly praised as an actor, bringing such diverse contemporary roles as the sophisticated Anna Sørensen in Kevin Puts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night, the Angel in the opera of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America, and the cheeky feminist prototype Lysia in Mark Adamo’s rethinking of Lysistrata, a comic play Aristophanes wrote in 411 BC. She brought these diametrically opposed characters to life for the Fort Worth Opera.
She also has a stellar history with The Dallas Opera. For two seasons, she was first young artist in residence with the Dallas Opera. In addition to these locally based companies, there is a long list other important appearances both nationally and internationally.
A major international career was ahead, but in a turn of events that stunned the operatic world, Pine recently announced her retirement from the opera stage. This concert will be her farewell.
We are all mystified, but that vanished after recent phone conversation with Pine. Once you hear her explain her motivation, in the cheerful and forthright way that we have come to expect from this Texas-born and Texas-educated woman, it all makes sense. It even has a touch of inevitably.
“I am going to get a masters of science in nursing, and then continue with doctoral studies in the specialization of psychiatric and mental health, toward the eventual goal of becoming a nurse practitioner in the mental health field,” she says.
This is a huge undertaking, but hearing her describe the challenge, there is not a scintilla of doubt that she will accomplish it just as she says.
“The life of an opera singer is not all the glamour people think. It is a series of hotels in different cities and one production after another,” she says. “When any Marriott Residence Inn felt like home, I knew something weird was going on. I need a home, and I even bought one in Fort Worth as a promise to myself. It is rented out now, but I will certainly end up there.”
Once a Texan, always a Texan.
Born in Galveston, Pine, comes from a very artistic family.
“My mother is a visual artist, painting with oils, and dad is a courtly country-western singer. He goes under the name of Doc Mason,” Pine says with a laugh.
She laughs a lot—and it is infectious.
She moved to Fort Worth to pursue music at Texas Christian University. “My career started in the Metroplex and I first sang many of my signature roles here as well,” she says.
Sharing the program with her is another Texas native, the ruggedly handsome baritone Michael Mayes.
“Michael and I have similar backgrounds as Texans, and as musicians,” Pine says. “Actually, we were in Texas All State choir together 1994. Getting in is a major accomplishment.”
Mayes was born in the small town of Cut and Shoot, Texas. This is a proto-city of covering 2.7 square miles near Houston and boasts a population of 1158 stalwart souls. Actually, that population number shows some remarkable growth. When the data was first gathered in the 1970s, Cut and Shoot reported a population of 50. (There are a couple of rival theories, equally colorful, about the origin of the name.)
“It was wonderful. I grew up in a trailer in the woods,” Mayes says. “I have always worn my heritage on my sleeve and it hasn’t always been easy to do so—being from Cut and Shoot and all that. Some opera people try to appear highfalutin, but I just can’t do that. I was raised in a trailer in the woods. It was wonderful.”
He concurs with Pine about the one drawback to an opera career.
“I am on the road all the time: It’s tough,” he says. “One time, I did six roles in six months and four were brand new. At one point, I sold my house, put what I needed in the trunk of the car and me and my dog, Pete [a pit bull], went on the road.”
Now, he lives in Lyons, Colo., with his wife, mezzo-soprano Megan Marino, who sang Rosina in Fort Worth in the rollicking production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in 2016.
Mayes, however, has some competition for the title of most outstanding Cut and Shoot native.
One is Roy Harris, a local heavyweight boxer (now retired), who brought his hometown of Cut and Shoot some worldwide attention when he battled Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title in 1958. Although the fight took place at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, the whole town turned out to watch it at the drive-in theater in Conroe, via a closed-circuit movie hook-up. Even though Harris eventually lost that fight, he put on a hell of a show, even knocking Patterson down in the second round, but he took more than his share of time on the canvas. (His corner tossed in the towel at the 13th round.)
“I went to junior high school with Harris’ grandson, Robbie Lane, who also was a boxer, Golden Gloves,” Mayes says.
Mayes’ musical transformation happened because of an injury. Since it sidelined his football hopes, he joined the choir instead and it was music from there on. He graduated with a music degree from University of North Texas.
It was his portrayal of the lead in Jake Heggie’s opera, Dead Man Walking that catapulted him to fame—he has played it in Washington D.C., Tulsa, Denver, New Orleans and elsewhere. In Fort Worth, he played a leading role in Tom Cipullo's opera Glory Denied. He also appeared with Pine singing the role of Kinesias in the FWO’s noteworthy production of Lysistrata. In Dallas, he played the stereotypical buff opera singer who is always eager to take off his shirt in TDO's world premiere production of Heggie’s opera Great Scott.
“I wasn’t always like this. I lost 50 pounds for the first time I sang Dead Man Walking and had to keep it off because I sing the role so many times,” he says. “I had to keep in shape.”
On May 5, he will sing a major role in the repeat production of TDO’s commissioned opera, Everest, by British composer Joby Talbot. This will be a special “in concert” production as part of the Opera America conference in Dallas. As it turns out, Mayes has some experience climbing mountains.
“My dad and I climbed three 14000 peaks in Colorado. Dad was 67,” he says. “He was in good enough shape to get up to the peaks and back down again.”
No doubt, both Mayes and Pine will scale operatic heights in Saturday’s concert. But don’t cry for the one making an operatic farewell.
“I am drawing the curtain for me but his is only opening wider,” Pine says.