Arias for All

Opera never truly belonged to the people until the Italians began religiously dedicating it to the masses a century ago. In Rome, it's not unusual to see almost nothing but families basking in the cool, autumn air and the melodies of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, surrounded by the ancient baths of Caracalla and oblivious to kids throwing popcorn and smooching couples who never come up for air. But Houstonians rarely indulge in opera as wholesomely as they do an Astros game. So it was a little surprising to see such a family-oriented community of opera lovers, with children as young as three, turn out for an exceptional concert of popular arias by Houston Ebony Opera Guild at the Riverside United Methodist Church last Sunday afternoon. A serious, high-minded musical event? Yes -- but at the same time, it was a relaxing social occasion where friends, who definitely outnumbered strangers, had plenty of moments to gossip and catch up with each other when the performers were off-stage.

Making her Houston debut, featured guest soprano Geraldine McMillian nearly stopped the show as the love-torn slave Aida, who sings a heartfelt plea for God's pity in Giuseppe Verdi's aria "Ritorna Vincitor." A regular with the New York City opera, McMillian was stunning as the young girl who is torn between loyalty to her mistress, love for an Egyptian captain and love for her country. When the crowd stopped clapping, every soloist still to come was in danger of being overshadowed. Since the Guild's repertoire is so varied, no singer was disappointing. As a matter of fact, for a choral group that's not a household word in this city, these folks are amazingly good.

Soprano Melissa Givens and mezzo-soprano Marsha Carol Thompson were the first to follow McMillian, with an impressive rendition of Leo Delibes's well-known duet "Viens, Mallika ... Dome Epais" from Lakme. In the aria, Lakme, daughter of a Brahmin priest, and Mallika, her slave, sing about their friendship as they break through the bamboo fence that surrounds the temple. The only disappointment about this number was the lack of an encore. And the duet was especially delightful because it was Thompson's second solo. Her first came earlier in the program, a version of Georges Bizet's "Habanera." This is a number recognizable to anyone -- most likely from radio or TV scores, certainly not from dozens of sittings through Carmen. Thompson, in a solid performance, definitely returned the aria to the stage, where it belongs, looking wonderfully flirtatious as the long-haired gypsy.

Robert Hughes, one of two tenor soloists in the company, managed to build upon the frenzy of delight created by Givens and Thompson in their Lakme duet. He played an outstanding Nemorino, the country bumpkin from Gaetano Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, overcome after realizing the wealthy Adina he so cherishes actually returns his love. Although it's hard to tell who are the real actors in the Guild until you see a full-blown operatic performance, Hughes revealed a stage presence that's likely to take him far. LaTonia Moore, Guild apprentice and student at the University of North Texas, followed the tenor with an exciting impersonation of the radiant Louise singing Gustave Charpentier's "Depuis le Jour" from the opera Louise. Moore sounds like a professional. The Guild definitely expects great things from her. At the age of 19, she's hardly a novice and is probably one of the company's strongest sopranos.

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Complementing Moore was another featured solo, by guest artist Randall Gregoire. Gregoire, a bass baritone, was a masterly Germont reminding his son in "Di Provenza il Mar" of the beauties of their home in Provence as he begs him to return to it. This performance, from Verdi's La Traviata, concluded the entire show of solo arias, ending what guest soprano McMillian had started during the program's second half. Gregoire comes to the Guild as a seasoned player of Germont, having played the same role earlier this year with the Lake George opera.

The concert also featured unusual arias by the Ebony Opera Guild chorus. It was unfortunate that much of the audience's view of the female chorus was partially obstructed by the pastor's lectern. This proved to be the biggest drawback of the church as performance hall. Even without catching sight of the sopranos' faces, you could still feel the magic and musical range of this group. After a moving "Bell Chorus" from Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, the chorus suddenly transformed -- my, oh my, did they ever -- capturing in body and soul the spiritual rhythms of "Mary and Bob Are Friends," by African-American composer William Grant Still, from his Highway One, USA. (There's no doubt, if this choir sang at my funeral, everyone there would forget why they came.) The chorus also chimed in during the company's grand finale, in which seven of the soloists sang a deeply moving piece from Jacques Offenbach's Tales of Hoffman. In this song, Hoffman despairs that his heart has been deceived again.

There's no question that the inspiration for this staggering finale, which brought a long standing ovation, was company conductor and artistic consultant Willie Anthony Waters, who serves during the better part of the year as music director of the Connecticut Opera. Waters is as close to an artistic director as the company has had since its founder and artistic director, Robert A. Henry, died two years ago. Until the company can find a resident music director, Waters serves as opera director during the few weeks out of the year that the company stages opera performances.

Waters explained that the Guild was founded by Henry as a choral group in 1989, but his great love for opera caused him to begin steering his company toward operatic performances five years ago. Since then, the troupe has performed several full-scale operas and sees itself as a place where budding classical singers can develop their craft. "We have a lot of local singers who do solo work," Waters said. "I like to put them in front of audiences. I'm developing them, to build them up professionally." He also plans to expand the company beyond Houston by bringing in more outside vocalists like McMillian and Gregoire. Currently, the Guild is grooming three apprentices in their twenties, all of whom sang in Sunday afternoon's concert.

Local Guild members are also committed to fostering a love for classical music and opera in local schoolchildren. For many in the chorus, the Guild is a second career. April Sloan Hubert, who sang the popular "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca, by Giacomo Puccini, wants her Woodson Middle School music students to love Puccini as much as she does. "It's like pulling teeth at first. You have to start them off with a story to get them interested. Once they understand the story, they start to like it," Hubert says. When she can get them to come watch her, she makes it a point to take them backstage to meet the whole cast.

Right now, the Guild relies heavily on volunteers to make the community aware of its programs. Advisory board member Ellena Stone Huckaby is pleased that the Guild regularly attracts audiences as ethnically diverse as the one that turned out last Sunday. "We're trying to raise community awareness of the talent in this group as well as the contribution of African-Americans to a variety of music genres -- not only jazz, but opera, spirituals, rhythm and blues and even the controversial rap," Huckaby says. Apparently, the board has been successful in spreading the word. Two Guild fans, pointing out the diversity of the crowd, said you could count the number of whites in the audience on one hand, five years ago.

Unequipped to perform a full season of opera, the Guild plans to take a fall break after finishing its summer opera program and before its regular choral season next February. Next week it presents Puccini's Suor Angelica and William Grant Still's Highway One, USA in a double bill at Miller Outdoor Theatre.

Houston Ebony Opera Guild will perform Suor Angelica and Highway One, USA at 8:30 p.m. on August 28 and 29, at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, Hermann Park. For more information, call the theater at 284-8352.

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