Fort Worth — Opera galas are usually predicable affairs. They feature outstanding singers performing an array of sections from opera and Broadway. But this usually predictable event rose to new heights on Saturday night in Bass Hall when the Fort Worth Opera, accompanied by the Fort Worth Symphony under the inspired baton of Joe Illick, opened its 2017 season.
Before it even began, the evening was overshadowed by two events that could not be foreseen when the concert was originally scheduled. One was the sudden ousting of longtime General Director, Darren K. Woods, in February. This man transformed this company; but the board has cited fundraising as a weakness. Surprisingly, Woods was in attendance and was his usual jolly self. (He’s moving to upstate New York with his husband Steven Bryant in a few weeks; Woods is now full-time at Seagle Music Colony there.)
The other event in this operatic confluence was the equally sudden announcement by soprano Ave Pine that she would retire from the opera stage to go into medicine. Jaws dropped all over the Metroplex. Pine was a local discovery and one of the city’s treasures. We cheered her success in the hard-tackle world of professional opera and reveled in how she maintained her down home attitude as she began to make her mark in the major opera houses of the world.
Thus, this concert was suddenly turned into a bittersweet farewell event for both Woods and Pine. When Pine first appeared on the stage, there was an ovation born of the gratitude of the audience for all the magic she brought to her performances. Many of us wondered how opera in Fort Worth would change by these two retirements at the same time. We will just have to wait and see.
The only reference to Woods in the actual concert was an oblique one. Evan Mack’s song “A Little More Perfect” was written for the occasion of Woods marriage to Bryant, which was announced in the New York Times. The words were drawn from Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in the landmark case that said that the government has no business sticking its nose into our most private decisions by telling American citizens who they can or can’t marry.
For all its success, which was considerable, the concert seemed to be operating under an ill-fated star. Much went wrong…well, at least not as planned. But before we get into that topic, let me say that none of the snafus detracted from the concert. In fact, thanks to Illick, they were all handled in an endearing aw-shucks manner. So nothing took away from this magnificently planned and beautifully performed program.
But, stuff happened.
Just before the festivities were to begin, a massive power outage put Bass Hall in the dark. A performance can survive almost anything except a power shut down in the theater. Fortunately, it was repaired, but only a few hours before the event was to start.
As the concert progressed and Illick started “The Impossible Dream” from the Broadway show, Man of La Mancha, the orchestra sounded a little thin. This was because it starts out with a guitar solo and the guitarist was not there. We heard that he arrived, but thought it was on the following night and someone yelled from back stage, “He went home.” Pianist Shields-Collins Bray saved the day by playing the guitar part on the most unlikely of instruments: the twinkle tinkle of the bell-like celesta. (It gave it a completely different feel, to say the least.)
Then, even stranger, when Pine started her chosen farewell number, a lush arrangement of “Over the Rainbow,” written for the occasion, unbelievably, she forgot the words. Pine said something like “this has never happened before,” gave a hearty laugh and started again. It proved to be the emotional highlight of the evening, once she got in the groove.
The singers for the evening were from the cast of the upcoming production of Bizet’s Carmen and other friends of the FWO, such as Pine and the phenomenal baritone, Michael Mayes. Many of the young singers were discovered by Woods.
The first half of the concert was all opera and the second half was all Broadway. But the actual selections were of little importance. Considering the exceptional talent assembled, any of the excepts could have been replaced by similar selections. What made the evening so special was the joie de vivre that permeated both the audience and the stage. For once, such an evening really earned its designation: gala.
» The Fort Worth Opera Festival opens with its opera productions this weekend: Carmen on Saturday, the world premiere of Voir Dire on Sunday, and the area premiere of the mariachi opera Cruzar la Cara de la Luna next weekend. The festival runs through May 7.