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Cover Story - Posted August 25, 2017 10:26 a.m.
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Photos courtesy of Amarillo Opera

Amarillo Opera

Since its 1988 founding by Amarillo College vocal professor Mila Gibson, Amarillo Opera has developed into one of the true gems of the Amarillo arts community. Within the opera world, it’s known as a Level 3 opera company, a designation that includes all organizations with budgets between one and three million dollars.

“We are the smallest community in the United States to have an opera company with a budget that size,” says General Director/CEO David O’Dell. That budget category puts Amarillo at the same level as opera companies in much larger cities like Nashville, New Orleans, Indianapolis and Fort Worth.

The wide-ranging area it serves also makes Amarillo Opera stand out. “Our mission is to produce live opera in the Texas Panhandle and to give opportunities to local artists,” O’Dell says. “In my time, ‘local’ has grown to include a huge geographical area, because we are the only opera company between Santa Fe and Tulsa, Oklahoma, and between Denver and Dallas.”

That’s a broad definition of “local,” but it befits the city’s expansive regional significance. “From the very beginning, the Panhandle has always had the attitude that no one’s going to provide anything for us,” O’Dell says. “If we’re going to have anything that’s significant culturally, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.” That pioneer spirit has carried over into Amarillo’s arts scene. “That’s why we have a symphony and a ballet and a professional opera company. We’re here because there was a generation before us that valued the arts in the region and knew that if they didn’t support it financially, it simply wouldn’t exist.”

But financial support is only half of what keeps an opera company afloat. Talent is also crucial, and O’Dell says the local talent pool is outstanding – and continually improving. “It’s exceptional, and bolstered by increasingly strong programs at Amarillo College and WT,” he says. He lists prominent local instructors like Suzanne Ramo, director of the Opera Workshop at West Texas A&M University and a veteran of the San Francisco Opera, as well as Robert Hanson, director of the School of Music at WT and the executive director of the National Opera Association.

Then there’s one of the Panhandle’s shining stars, world-class soprano Mary Jane Johnson, who now teaches at Amarillo College following an international career that spanned from the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York to televised appearances alongside Luciano Pavarotti.

“They are tremendous teachers and draw a big pool of talent to the region in general,” says O’Dell of these opera professionals and local instructors. They also provide living examples of what’s possible for aspiring singers living in Amarillo or the smaller towns of the Panhandle. “We try to draft promising artists and give them small roles in hopes that we are building careers. Our hopes are that those artists will then leave Amarillo and enter apprentice programs in Santa Fe, or go off into major careers in the arts.” After that success, O’Dell hopes to see them return again to their hometown, where they would continue to work with developing artists – perpetuating a cycle of talent, mentoring and success.

That cycle will be front and center this season at Amarillo Opera, which kicks off at the Globe-News Center Oct. 6 and 7 with Giuseppe Verdi’s classic “La Traviata”. “One of the great things about this production is it will be a mostly Texas cast,” says O’Dell. It stars award-winning tenor Eric Barry as Alfredo. A native of Sundown, Texas, near Lubbock, Barry is in the early part of what promises to be a long and successful professional career. He has recorded seven commercial opera albums and performs all across the United States (his time in Amarillo includes another October show for Friends of Aeolian-Skinner).

Joining Barry among the “La Traviata” leads is WT’s Suzanne Ramo as Violetta. “She had considerable success on tour with the San Francisco Opera and other performances,” says O’Dell of Ramo. “We’re thrilled to give her an opportunity to step back on stage in this role.” Violetta is a performance with which Ramo is intimately familiar. In early 2006, she appeared as Violetta during the opera’s first-ever show at the brand-new Globe-News Center. Rounding out the cast is baritone David Pershall, another Texas native, as Giorgio Germont. Pershall is yet another rising opera star, fresh off a 2015 debut at the Metropolitan Opera and appearances at Carnegie Hall and Austria’s Vienna State Opera.

“There’s this constant flux of Texans coming back to the region to work with our artists,” says O’Dell. “Our artists understand they have a real shot at major careers.”

February brings the opera’s staging of “Joshua’s Boots” in collaboration with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. “It’s sort of the perfect story for us,” O’Dell says of the relatively new show, which correlates with Black History Month. It tells of a young African-American man who flees the late-19th century South after the lynching of his father, then heads west to become a cowboy. The opera first presented “Joshua’s Boots” in 2012. It features young singers and will include two school performances on Feb. 2 as well as a public staging on Feb. 3.

April 5 to 7 brings a familiar and beloved musical to the Globe-News Center: “Man of La Mancha”. It stars East Texas native Ron Raines, a seasoned performer from the Metropolitan Opera who recently finished out the Broadway revival of “Annie” in the role of Daddy Warbucks. (Audiences may also recognize Raines from appearances as the dastardly Alan Spaulding during the final 14 seasons of soap opera “The Guiding Light”.) “He’s a really consummate artist and a fabulous colleague and mentor to young singers. I’ve been after Ron for eight years to come back to Texas and perform with us. “Man of La Mancha” is an ideal role for him and one he’s sung many times. He’s a natural heir to the legacy that Richard Kiley launched when he opened the show on Broadway,” says O’Dell. “It’ll be a really tremendous performance.”

The final show of the season is the opera’s now-annual “Musica Variada” on May 12. Billed as a “festival of food and song,” it highlights young Latino/Hispanic performers from WT and Amarillo College. “These are kids who have performed with the company throughout the season. They do a first half of Spanish and Latino/Hispanic songs and popular music,” says O’Dell. The second half of the show features mariachi music. The concert admission includes Latino and Mexican cuisine courtesy of food stations located throughout the Globe-News Center lobby.

From up-and-coming local singers to professionals accustomed the international stage, Amarillo Opera continues its quest to, in the words of its director, “give opportunities to artists from this big region.”

Learn more about Amarillo Opera and purchase tickets for this season’s performances at amarilloopera.org.

Amarillo Little Theatre and the ALT Academy

Amarillo Museum of Art

Saint Ann of Amarillo

Chamber Music Amarillo

Friends of Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024

Lone Star Ballet

Amarillo Opera

Amarillo Symphony

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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