April 21, 2023: Two National Events Dramatically Connected.

Around the first of April, two local events received national attention. President Walter Wendler of WTAMU cancelled a scheduled March 31 charity event drag show that sparked large, noisy student demonstrations, all of which made headline news. On April 8, Federal Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk rescinded FDA approval of the abortifacient Mifepristone, that catalyzed a sequence of legal rulings and precipitated Pro-Choice rallies across the country.

Sandwiched twixt these news makers, and right in the middle of all of the action, Bull in a China Shop, embodying elements central to each current event and written by Bryna Turner, was staged at WTAMU to appreciative audiences from March 29 – April 2.

The play revolves around the real-life forty-year relationship between Mary Emma Woolley, President of Mt. Holyoke College, and Jeannette Augusta Marks, a professor of English at the same institution. Bryna Turner, a Mt. Holyoke alumna, used the all-but-forgotten correspondence between Woolley and Marks to craft the play.

The temporal span of the play, from the late 1800’s to the late 1930’s, embraced a veritable maelstrom of change on several levels. Consequently, the play has three different story lines: the personal interaction between the women; the professional striving for opportunity and equality in academia; the agitation for social change and justice involving women’s suffrage and women’s rights. The playwright interwove these strands in such a way that the audience came to know and appreciate these two women in a special way.

Thanks largely to the efforts of Woolley, Mt. Holyoke, the first of the so-called “Seven Sisters,” transitioned from a private female seminary to a fully accredited college. The character of Mary Woolley, not surprisingly, was driven, no-nonsense, imperious, and iconoclastic as she crashes through the glass ceiling: hence the “Bull in a China Shop!” She never wavered from her efforts to make Mt. Holyoke a first-class institution and to insure that the school’s graduates were known for their intelligence and competence. Finally, she was tireless in her commitment to level the playing field, so that women, both at the ballot box and in the workplace, enjoyed equal opportunity.

Jeanette Augusta Marks provided a vivid contrast to her partner. An English professor who was also an author, Marks was volatile, mercurial, vulnerable and spontaneous.

Portraying such distinctly different characters, Victorian women who refused to conform to Victorian notions of womanhood, posed challenges for both the actresses and director.

Director Callie Hisek chose B. Herring as Woolley and Angelica Pantoja as Marks through a process that involved filling out a detailed Disclosure/Disclaimer form which involved signing off on the play’s language, emotional and romantic scenes, and costuming. The language, for instance, was hardly Victorian. Bryna Turner took liberal artistic license, generously contemporizing the dialogue with modern expletives, which the ladies delivered without restraint.

Hisek also struck the right tone and balance for the displays of affection, just enough to give credibility to the lovers. She also exhibited a deft touch for pacing, as the entire narrative flowed seemlessly, even though it covered a span of forty years.

Two other characters deserve mention. Sanai Lowe played the phlegmatic Dean Welsh, the cautionary tale, the conscience, and in the Greek sense, the chorus of the play. She becomes the voice of the “others,” “people” and “they,” relating the rumors and gossip surrounding the two women, while at the same time, trying to make the best decisions for the college.

It is Dean Welsh who warns that donors and benefactors to the college are continually threatening to withdraw financial support unless Woolley and Marks cease and desist. Similar rumors swirled around the planned, then cancelled, then restaged drag show at WTAMU.

And, it is with Dean Welsh that President Woolley has a truth session about the board’s decision to terminate Woolley’s employment in favor of a married man with children, who more properly reflects the values of the college. “Family Values;” “Protect our Children!” A familiar current litany, to be sure.

Then there is Pearl, the student opportunist, who, acknowledging her gender afinity early on, aggressively seeks, with some success, to woo Marks away from Woolley. As played by Signe Elder, Pearl is authentic, and unapologetic about her feelings for Marks.

Woolley and Marks would find a way to repair this rift, as well as find common ground throughout their decades together as they retained their own identities. That story is universal in relationships: modify and adjust; acoommodate and compromise.

A nice inclusive service was the signer for the deaf who was present for the matinee, a practise that the drama department has maintained for the past two years.

Though a period piece, the professional, personal and political challenges faced by Mary Woolley and Jeannette Marks are as real and relevant as a century ago. The battles for women’s rights, equality and inclusion continue, even as the Supreme Court curtails women’s choices and Republican-led state legislatures across the country have advanced hundreds of anti LGBTQ measures.

At post time, the attendant dramas framing this timely play are themselves playing out. The country awaits the ruling of the Supreme Court on Mifepristone: will the court sow chaos or calm the waters so violently stirred by the Amarillo judge?

And, the faculty and staff at WTAMU have this week engaged in a vote of no confidence over President Walter Wendler’s handling of the drag show and the ensuing national fallout.

Our gratitude to the WTAMU Drama Department and Director Callie Hisek for producing this very fitting and provocative play.

That such challenging works on the stage are common here in the Comancheria, we offer our gratitude and proudly declare:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

April 7, 2023: Amarillo’s Opera Orgy!

Curtain Call for Rigoletto: Amarillo Opera, April 1, 2023

Amarillo had the rare privilege on April 1, and this is no joke, of indulging in an opera orgy! Not one, but two Verdi operas were performed live: one in HD and the other in-person. Falstaff was shown at the Hollywood 16 in an HD live broadcast by the Metropolitan Opera while Amarillo Opera delighted an in-person audience at the Globe News Center.

The two operas, besides having the same composer, had much in common, as well as much to contrast. Falstaff was Verdi’s last opera. He defended his writing of a comedic work, saying, “After having relentlessly massacred so many heroes and heroines, I have at last the right to laugh a little!” He also wondered if he’d live long enough to see the opera staged, which perhaps helped him die with a smile on his lips.

Falstaff was much anticipated, whereas Rigoletto, often considered as the first of Verdi’s masterpieces, was shrouded in secrecy, due, in part to the gauntlet of Austrian censors, as Austria still controlled northern Italy. The cast was given all of the music only a few hours before opening. The next morning La Donna e’ mobile was heard from the streets and canals of Venice!

The comparisons proliferate:

One was world-class in every respect, with a world-wide audience of over 350,00. The other, a regional production, played to an audience of around a thousand, with what can only be described as world-class artistry!

Both plots featured male leads: one a fool who thought himself irresistible to women; the other who hid behind a comedic mask by pretending to be a fool. One was set up by others and made to look the fool while the other contrived his own plot of revenge and foolishly lost his only love.

Both operas were staged in performance halls built by Amarillo donors: the Sybil B. Harrington (from Amarillo!) Performance Hall in NYC, for the Met, while the GNC was built from fundraising spearheaded by Caroline Bush Emeny.

And, while local professionals formed the pit orchestra for Rigoletto, at least one Amarillo native helped make music for Falstaff: Katherine Fong as Acting Assistant Principal Second Violin. Artsy Amarillo is happy to help rasie the cultural bar in the Big Apple.

In addition, the connections formed by Mary Jane Johnson, General and Artistic Director of Amarillo Opera from her years singing with the Met would prove critical in the staging of Rigoletto.

Both operas had foreign conductors: Italian Daniele Rustioni conducted the Met; Jorge Parodi led the musicians for Rigoletto, though coming to the High Plains of Texas from La Pampa province in Argentina seems like the same universe. Gauchos and cowboys are just cousins who wear different pants and hats.

One opera had elaborate stage sets, with an army of professional stage hands who choreographed the scene changes with the precision of the Bolshoi Ballet. The other minimalized minimalism, having just two platforms, with risers behind for the chorus.

The directors for the Met chose creative costuming from the 1950’s Betty Crocker feminine ideal: big skirts, big hair and layers of Revlon. And Amarillo Opera? Well, this is cowboy country, so Levi’s topped off with pearl buttons and Stetsons seemd de rigueur for these parts. All of those boot-scootin’ cowboys and cowgirls singing perfect Italian? You just had to be there!

There was method to the Amarillo madness. Mary Jane Johnson wanted a complete audience focus on the music, without the distraction of elaborate sets or period costumes. Director Ellen Schlaeffer concurred, and her decisions on blocking, action/reaction and emotional pitch provided the perfect chemistry and drew the attention of the audience like a magnet and made the stageplay of the singers seem natural.

The leads have interesting back stories. Michael Volle as Sir John Falstaff, is better known as the god Wotan in the Wagnerian operas. Foolish comedy is not his musical metier. Yet he performed with a twinkle in his eye: he laughed at the buffoonery of Falstaff even as he played the character.

Baritone Todd Thomas is one of the most experienced Rigoletto’s in the opera world, and his singing the role at the Globe News Center is pure good fortune. The singer originally cast landed with a cold, then informed Mary Jane Johnson he had Covid. She, went to her extensive Contacts Directory, and dialed up Todd, who said he could arrive the Tuesday before Saturday’s performance! Yet he quickly mastered the blocking and delivered what was surely one of his best performances as he owned the stage!

The other leads complimented Thomas’s Rigoletto. Alisa Jordheim, as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, transfixed the audience by the ethereal ecstasy of her coluratura, which evoked a particular poignancy as she interacted with her tormented stage father. The pair seemed very real as protective father and sheltered daughter. Thomas related in one interview how being the father of two daughters informed his role, although his anguish at Gilda’s death was especially wrenching.

Local fav Eric Barry played the duke, a character comfortably living at the casual apex of impunity, most revelatory when he kicked back in a chair to declare, with absolute sincerity, La donna e’ mobile, like it was only natural to trifle with women’s hearts. At the conclusion, with Gilda dying in the arms of Rigoletto, the duke’s voice could again be heard from backstage almost flippantly singing the aria: self-indulgence contrasted with self-sacrifice with the innocent paying the ultimate price.

Shout-outs go to locals Sean Milligan as Monterone the “curser” and Chancelor Barbaree as Marullo the kidnapper, along with Colorado-based Griffin Hogan Tracy as Sparafucile the assassin. The strength of their voices will soon see them on bigger stages.

Finally Sarah Saturnino was convincing as a sultry, yet vulnerable Maddalena who goes along with Sparafucile’s plan because of her love for the duke, even thought it brings unintended consequences.

Thus, for one day, Amarillo was the epicenter of the Verdi universe. The Met audience, opera afficionados and habitues saw a dazzling performance whether in-person or via HD, and left comparing this performance with other incredible offerings of the Metropolitan Opera.

The audience at theAmarillo Opera, exited more Italian than when they entered, with Verdi in their hearts and La donna e’ mobile on their lips drawled in a Panhandle patois, that carried from the streets to the open plains beyond.

With profound gratitude to all who made this harmonic Verdi convergence possible in this unlikely place, we say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

March 19, 2023: Hsiang Tu, Piano Grace Hamilton Piano Festival

Fanfare magazine cited Dr. Tu’s “Chameleon-like ability to move between composers.” Fanfare’s observation provided an apt overview for his guest recital entitled “Ivory Menagerie: Music Inspired by Animals” at West Texas A & M University’s Northern Recitsl Hall, February 24, to inaugurate the Grace Hamilton Piano Festival.

Taiwanese-born, but receiving graduate degrees from Julliard, Dr. Tu, who serves as Assistant Professor of Piano at the University of Florida, has become an extraordinary keyboardest of international repute.

A lucky Panhandle audience was indeed fortunate to hear his intuitive, nuanced style, which teases rather than pounds sound from the keyboard. And, those in attendance heard one to three selections about animals from a menagerie of twelve composers, ranging over a span of three centuries.

A sampling of the composers and their works will have to sufice.

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764), though noted for his super-saccharin Versailles court music showed a flar for flippancy and humor in his Le Rappel des Oisueaux. The introduction announces right-handed glissando sequences in a happy, spring-morning manner, which become the theme throughout. The left hand offers only an occasionial contrapuntal echo. In nature, as in music, the upper-level songbirds get the nmost attention.

Perhaps the composer, tiring of all the bewigged, cosmetically-caked pomposity of the Versailles court, wrote something just for his own fun. And, that is exactly how Dr. Tu player it: light; airy and avian.

Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843-1907), a late Romantic composer, created Papillon as the first of his Opus 43 lyrical pieces in 1886. The work begins with a cascade of arpegiations, an image of a gentle brook with butterflies dancing, an image sustained throughout the work. Forceful and assertive are not adjectives applicable to Lepidoptera, as they add an element of graceful, unpretentious beauty to life.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) composed St. Francois d’Assise: La predication aux oiseaux, his Sermon to the Birds, in 1863, one of two legends he wrote for the piano and then orchestrated. This piece referenced a legend of St. Fancis, who, traveling with companions, came to a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. According to the narrative, he told his fellows to wait for him as he preached to his sisters, the birds. Not one bird took flight during his homily.

The work is in A major, which Liszt used for his religious works, and is one of the few times he utilized the keyboard for onomatopoeia. Under the deft touch of Hsiang Tu, it worked!

As with the Rameau and Grieg, the opening features righthanded arpeggios and two-note trills bookended by left-handed glisandos: bird-soing at its most pleasant. Variations persist until 3:30, when the left begins a simple melody, obviously the saint speaking. According to the legend, he told the birds that they had much for which to be thankful, so that they should praise God with their song.

At 4:50, the melody shifts to both hands playing a reverent, liturgical line which increases in strength, soaring like a heavenly vision. At 5:30 the work alters, and we hear the desultory response of a few of the birds, perhaps the Passeriformic version of “Amen, Brother!” A soft monophonic suggest Francis has resumed preaching.

At 7:00 the line broadens and becomes more dramatic, emphasizing the conviction of the saint, whereas the former emphasized his compassion and kindness. Francis, in the mind of Liszt, was a dynamic preacher, whether to lost human souls, or to the pure souls of animals, all getting the same message, Assisi-style.

At 8:05, after a tapering off, the piece becomes reverential, reverting to the simple left-handed monophonic message alternating with brid chirp, ending with a soft avian nattering that resolves in a single note.

This work epitomizes the enigma that is Franz Liszt: sinner and saint in unequal measure. He abandoned his life of immoral anarchy after the deaths of two of his illegitimate children and turned his thoughts heaven-ward. This was when he composed St. Francois, a work in which he, contrary to his former demonic hubris, shows great humility, standing in awe of this great saint and asking his listeners to do the same.

The piece is surely one of Liszt’s greatest works, and Hsiang Tu actualized its potential magnificently!

To conclude, Dr. Tu played two works by William Bolcom (b. 1938), former professor at the U. of Michigan and winner of both a Pulitzer and a Grammy. For California Porcupine Rag think Scott Joplin, then think a chorus line of porcupines doing a happy dance. A stretch-well, the music will prick your imagination and make you smile.

For those interested in more playtime with the animals, Dr. Tu has all of these works, and more on his recently-released Bestiary on Ivory. Go to Hsiangtu.com.

What a rich evening in the arts, and to think it was free and open to the public! Such events are common here in Cowboy Country, and for this we say, with gratitude and pride:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

February 20th: “If/Then” at ALT Adventure Space

Curtain Call: If/Then; ALT Adventure Space

Feb. 11, 2023

We’ve all walked down memory lane wondering, at those pivotal movments of life, about the consequences if we’d made a different choice. If/Then explores that possibility in such a way that audience members are left to reflect on the crossroads of their own lives.

The Broadway play, with lyrics and book by Tony and Pulitzer-Prize winner Bryan Yorkey and Music by Tom Kitt, opened in March 2014 and ran for over four hundred performances. The Amarillo iteration was performed at ALT’s Adventure Space, February 9-12.

The plot is a minefield of antipodes: big city realities vs. the white picket fence; career and duty vs. family; autonomy vs. commitment; comfort zone security vs. vulnerability; change vs. status quo; certainty vs. complications. All of this plays out against the shifting social, personal, demographic and architectural landscape of Manhattan.

In a multi-layered plot a divorcee, about-to-turn-40 Elizabeth returns to NYC to begin anew. There, by chance, she meets two friends: Kate, who is a lesbian and calls her “Liz,” and onetime lover Lucas who now identifies as bisexual, espouses Progressive housing causes, and calls her “Beth.” There the plot line bifurcates under the two names with two paths forward.

But, consider the lyrics that bookend the musical. From the first number: “Once every day your life starts again. No one can say just how or just when.” Or, as the heroine sings, “If I’m flirting with 40, there’s no time to wait. And I can’t help but feel that I might be too late!”

Or, from the Finale: “you know that everything changes, and there no turning back!” What if? Then what?

In one narrative Elizabeth gets married, becomes a mother, then becomes a war widow. In the other, she gets pregnant by Lucas, has an abortion, then possibly espies Mr. Right at the end. The audience can’t be faulted for getting confused. The plot lines, each with their own subplots, intertwine but clarify at the end.

Annika Spaulding, whose kaleidoscopic talents have spanned roles from comedic (Young Frankenstein) to LGBTQ serious (Fun Home), brought all of her dramatic attributes to bear portraying the complex Elizabeth. Kissey Cummings is believable as gay super-teacher Kate, who juggles mending hearts while seeking her own true love. Brett Spaulding, Annika’s real-life hubby, gets to play Josh, who becomes Elizabeth’s stage spouse until killed while on deployment. Joshua Gibson-Roark is credible as Lucas, who weaves in and out of the action like the warp to Beth’s weft.

The show is complex in the extreme, with twenty-two singing numbers and intense dialogue. The success of the production resulted from the quality of the actors, as well as the deft direction of Jo Smith, who allowed allowed the talents of the principals to achieve critical mass. A shout-out also goes to Music Director/Conductor Jennifer Akins, who has become ALT’s secret weapon in mounting any musical production. The ensemble sang with confidence and clarity.

Yorkey’s work called to my mind an OU coed who came home one weekend to her small Oklahoma town in Sept, 1944, and who was guilted by a friend to go on a blind date with an officer from Altus Army Air Corps Base. He proposed on the first date; she accepted on the third and my parents were married 43 years!

The play is very relatable. Audience members can’t help but review those pivotal watershed moments that informed their course of their own lives, and leave the theatre asking themselves, “If……….Then?

Amarillo is extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to see edgy, adult-level Broadway plays performed by such quality local talent. We urge our Thespians to keep “breaking a leg,” and to all let’s

KeepAmarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!

February 7, 2023: Fedora – Met Opera Live in HD

On January 21 an Amarillo audience was privileged to see Umberto Giordano’s much maligned and underperformed opera Fedora, live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera. In fact, this was only the sixth staging of this opera, dating back to the first in 1906.

That performance paired the incomparable Enrico Caruso with the flamboyant, beautiful vocal mediocrity Lina Cavallieri. Their passionate love duet and protracted kiss during Act II was encored! The rigidity of Victorian morality apparently didn’t apply to either the Met stage or the audience.

This diva personified verismo, the Italian operative style emerging in the 1880’s for a two decade run including France and Germany. This genre, which framed Fedora, coupled the consequences of the roiling social and political tensions of the day with over the top personal drama to an art form.

Sometimes the ensuing plot, artistic license notwithstanding, is a hard swallow, like putting down one of Amarillo’s Big Texan’s 72 oz steaks in a hour. Therein lies the chief century-plus criticism of Fedora.

Consider: fiance (Princess Fedora Romanov) happily contemplating married life when her intended is brought to her mortally wounded. At his death she vows revenge on the killer, but then falls in love with him, but only after outing his political renegade of a brother to the police. The brother dies in police custody, the killer, now lover, reveals that he caught her late fiance with his own wife, and that he killed the unfaithful fellow in self defense. No word about the bad wife.

As Fedora learns that her scheme for revenge has succeeded too well – the mother of her lover and his dead brother has died of grief, she does a volte face and says “My bad,” and asks her lover whether he could forgive the woman who did this to him. When he says “Heck no!” she takes poison and dies in her lover’s arms, at which point he does his own volte face and forgives her.

Two-fingered down-the-throat yack!

The palsied plot notwithstanding, Fedora has three factors that make this production probably the best in its long history of deliberate snubbing.

The two stars almost make their bipolar characters believable. Bulgarian Sonya Yoncheva’s voice of liquid gold captures the mercurial princess’s capacity to immediately switch gears from pure love to pure hate. Rigoletto’s La Donna e’ Mobile in the extreme. Polish tenor Piotr Beczala credibly portrays a different pain set, with the betrayal of his wife, the murder of her lover and the deaths of his brother and mother. The torment crescendos to forgiveness with a dying Fedora in his arms.

The stage sets definitely set the mood and color of each act. Act I is set in the doom and gloom of Russia, the muted lighting apparently congenial to the darkness of theRussian soul, as described by Dostoyevsky. Act II brings up the lights in La Belle Epoque Paris, and is full of life and color, and a measure of comic relief afforded by the narcissistic Olga. Act III rests in Switzerland’s idyllic Alpenscape, where all is joy and peace and love, until it’s not. It is in this bucolic fantasyland where good Fedora learns the results of bad Fedora’s plot.

The historical context of the opera was spot-on as the premier was in the twilight of the Romanov’s and the subtext of the plot must have made Russian ex-pats squirm. The drama’s narrative unfolded in the police state of Czar Alexander III, who overturned many of the reforms of his progressively-inclined, but assassinated father, Alexander II. Political activism and anarchism were considered the ultimate in political incorrectness in this reactionary rule.

Contrast that with the funfest of France, which had finally divested itself of monarchy and embraced democratic rule. Factor in Impressionism with its splendid variegations, along with the Can-Can and a perfect counterpoint to the oppression of Mother Russia appears.

More relevant historical trivia: Sara Bernhardt starred as Princess Fedora in the Sardou play when it premiered in the US in 1889, and famously wore this hat, which was adopted by the suffragettes. Ultimately it crossed over the gender divide, so that no self-respecting adult male in the 50’s and 60’s would go out in public without his Fedora on top.

Finally, the Amarillo audience rejoiced in seeing their own Katherine Fong, Assistant Principal Second Violin, to the right of Conductor Marco Armiliato, and all of this taking place in the hall built and named-for Amarillo native Sybil B. Harrington!

That we here in Cowboy Country can see, and take some credit for such amazing opera, is but one more reason we say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!

December 27, 2022: The Amarillo Master Chorale Christmas Concert

The Amarillo Master Chorale Christmas Concert

Dec 1, 2022: St. Paul Methodist Church

“Echoes of Joy” was the title Dr. Nathaniel Fryml, conductor of the Amarillo Master Chorale, gave to this concert. What the audience heard, however, were the glorious sonds of the spirit of the season, which echoed in listeners’ heads long after the actual concert ended.

The Chorale sang in five languages: Yoruba; Ukrainian; Renaissance Spanish; Latin; English. And the songs, hardly a part of the standard Christmas repertoire, evoked the Magnum Mysterium, the joyful mystery of the season, though musical hints of reformatted popular carols emerged, enhancing the “Echoes of Joy.”

A few of the selections are noted.

Betelehemu is a Nigerian carol, sung in Yoruba. The composers are Via Olatunji and Wendell Whalum. Olatunji was an exchange student at Atlanta’s Morehouse College where Whalum was choir director. It is uncertain whether the song was an original by Olatunji or taught to Whalum.

Regardless, it has achieved a certain popularity, recorded even by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And typical of African singing, body language is just part of the score: stand still and sing just don’t cut it!

The men begin by chanting “Betelehemu,” with a soft answer from the women. Halfway through, however, it starts romping, with all bodies swaying to the rhythm in a manner that a Nigerian audience would have applauded. In fact, the world-famous Stellenbosch University Choir, which has gained a mighty reputation for singing African spirituals, would be hard-pressed to eclipse this performance from a chorale in the Comancheria!

In a musical nod of solidarity to the Ukraine, and their fight to endure as a people, as a culture and a nation. the MC sang the traditional Carol of the Bells (Lastivka Kolyadka) in Ukrainian! Lidiia Bova, Ievgenila Bova and Nathaiel Fryml were credited with pronunciation and additional text.

Prior to the song the audience met Glenda Moore, owner of Kind House Ukrainian Bakery, who first went to the Ukraine as a missionary, but fell in love with the people and decided to fund aid to them through a bakery. For years she operated out of her home, but now has a store front on South Western St. in Amarillo. No items are priced, and all purchases are treated as donations for non-military aid. She has made fourteen trips to the Donbas, giving humanitarian aid and rescuing over two thousand Ukranians from war zones and moving them to places of safety, often in other countries. Sounds like the sort of activity which earn folk a CNN Hero of the Year nomination!

So, in song, and in deed, Amarillo is saying Slava Ukraini and Heroyam Slava!

Riu, Riu, Chiu has become one of the most recognized songs from the Renaissance. It is part of a category of songs known as Vellancico a popular poetic and lyrical form in the Iberian peninsula from the 15th – 18th c, becoming a Christmas carol in the 20th century.

The basic theme, according to many scholars, is birdsong, has been elevated to apply to the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation as well as the angelic annunciation.

The work has eight verses, with a chorus after each, which meant eight soloists. The piece is robust and pulses with lyric energy. And, it is sung in Renaissance Spanish, which treats the “s” as a “z.” Quality singing of a song from another age: not bad for a bunch of singers from Cowboy Country!

Three of the selections embody a profound and deep spirituality: O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen; Goria by John Rutter; Echoes of Joy by Nathaniel Fryml. The first two works were in Latin, and the last in English and Latin. The Lauridsen work was ethereal, synonymous with the”Great Mystery.” The second was majestic and complex, requiring brass and percussion accompaniment. As this chorus recently performed Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, the singers were more than equal to the challenges posed by the Rutter.

Echoes of Joy opened with a cascade of choral whispering which shaded into the traditional and beautiful “There’s a Song in the Air.” The concluding section becomes an intricate melange of songs and carols that ends with the triumphant assertion that “Jesus is King!”

At all points in the concert, the Fryml touch was evident, which lent a newness and authenticity to what is generally offered as standard repetoire. Not only did he compose two major works which the chorus performed, but interspersed the program with his arrangements of the Prologue and three Reflections,

Jim Rauscher on piano and organ, as well as Evgeny Zvonnikov on violin rendered yeoman service in accompaniment as well as the performing the smaller accent works, as the Chorale prepared for another number.

Thanks to Nate Fryml and the talented singers of the Master Chorale, the Amarillo audience heard a concert that was both national class and unique!

But such outstanding quality is what we in the Amarillo Arts Scene have come to expect. That’s why we say, in the Spirit of the Season,

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

November 22, 2022: Clybourne Park at ALT Adventure Space

Cast of Clybourne Park taking a curtain call in Act II costumes: ALT Adventure Space, Nov 13, 2022

Ever take a trip down memory lane and, returning to the present, realize that though outward appearances have changed, basically things are still the same?

That thread connects the two acts of Clybourne Park, a 2012 play by Bruce Norris that would win both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony, and which a lucky Amarillo audience saw performed at the ALT Adventure Space, Nov. 10- 20, 2022.

A spin-off of Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, the play bookends by acts the issues of segregation, material priorities, gender roles and social change in the years 1959 and 2009. Overriding each is the inability or refusal of people to listen to one another, verbal pretense to the contrary.

Bruce Norris’s play is an acerbic satire which holds a mirror up to our faces and tells us, “Houston, we have problems!” Long before Woke and the Critical Race Theory conspiracies of the Far Right, this play revealed unresolved attitudes and outlooks endemic in the collective American psyche.

A message that shouts throughout the play is that of pretense: everyone mounts a behavioral facade. And, all households and their humans contribute to a cloak of camouflage until reality pulls the cover off and forces the revelations of true feelings as well as bringing skeletons out of the closet. Human nature is always the great leveler in the human condition.

The play is an aggregation of antipodes: Act I is about 50’s segregation; Act II is about white exclusion. The Act I focus is to keep the neighborhood white. That of Act II is to maintain the ethnic character of the now black Clybourne Park. Act I is about the perceived threat of upwardly-mobile blacks while Act II the danger derives from opportunistic whites.

Insinuated throughout both acts is an elevated self interest which doubles down on the inevitable change taking place. The only resolution comes at the conclusion from the audience and Dan the Plumber knowing the terrible secret held in this house and neighborhood.

A contrapuntal identity also typifies the characters, who play different individuals in each act. For instance, Jenny Whisenhunt makes her ALT debut as Bev and Kathy. Bev is a cross between June Cleaver and Edith Bunker, a parody of the 1950’s homemaker who puts a smiley face on everything. Lawyer Kathy emerges as an in-your-face advocate first for her clients, then for herself. Jenny’s vivid and distinct characterizations portend future ALT appearances.

Jay Hayes and Brandon Graves play the black couple in both acts. The playwright starts them from different positions in both acts, but they ultimately arrive at the same place of distrust and animosity.

Brooks Boyett showed his versatility by playing a pastor in Act I and a gay lawyer in Act II.

One actor whose persona, that of “Dispicable Me,” didn’t change was Zach Oehm. If you’ve ever known someone who doesn’t know they don’t know, and who can’t come to the point and doesn’t know when to shut up, then meet Karl and Steve. Zach said that the redeeming quality in his characters was he made the others look good. And his wife in both acts, played by Lilly Green, rendered Zach’s portrayals realistic, especially since in the first act Betsy is deaf, and she just smiled at his histrionics.

An especially strong performance was given by Shad Tyra, who played Russ and Dan. Russ, in Act I, is Bev’s husband, and is a come-to-the-point sort of guy who believes in seeing things for what they are and calling a spade a spade. He also believes, as did men of that era, in keeping your problems to yourself.

As Dan, he is a working man’s working man, devoid of social graces and intent on completing the job. This happens to be construction of a new utility line since the city sees the trend towards upscaling in Clybourne Park. Sound familiar to Artsy Amarillo where red lines determine which areas receive new and improved services and which have to just make do?

In his digging, he unearths the dirty secret: Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth’s army uniform with his suicide note. Loud, oafish Dan becomes pensive and focused as he reads, doing Kenneth the courtesy of listening to him in the silence of death.

In a flashback, Kenneth appears in his dress greens. When mother Bev asks why he’s dressed so early, he responds that he has a job interview. The play concludes with Bev saying, “I really believe things are about to change for the better.”

At all points of the play the deft direction of Stephen Crandall is evident. His choice of actors was spot on, and their interaction, under his guidance, made the play work. Nowhere is Stephen’s touch more evident than two challenging scenes in Act II where all six actors are talking simultaneously, each one grandstanding from their own soapbox without hearing what anyone else is saying.

It’s no wonder that all of the characters, even the married couples, turn on each other.

Out of a smorgasbord of takeaways, this one stood out: our increasing polarization as a people basically stems from not listening to one another. Paraphrasing the character played by Brandon Graves, “If we could all just sit around a big table, have a meal and listen to one another.”

A noble wish for this upcoming Thanksgiving.

Our thanks go to the playwright, and ALT’s cast and crew of Clybourne Park, for doing what good theatre to do: yank us out of our comfort zones and suggest that there is another and better way forward.

The fact that we can attend provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatic theatre in this unlikely place, is all the more reason for us to say:

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

November 12, 2022 – Amarillo Opera – “The Barber of Seville”

Amarillo Opera: Barber of Seville; Globe News Center; Amarillo, Texas Oct 8, 2022

Think Three Stooges. Then think of opera. Then think of Mo, Larry and Curly performing the vocal pyrotechnics of opera as they slapsticked through their shtick. A stretch? Most likely. But that is, in essence, what an Amarillo audience witnessed and enjoyed Oct. 8 at Amarillo Opera’s production of The Barber of Seville at the Globe News Center.

If this opera reigns at the summit of Mt. Opera Buffa, then the chronicle of the production has traction on the slopes. Rossini crafted this two-act work using an Italian libretto by Cesare Sterbini, as well as the first part of a three-part series from Le Barbier de Seville by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais. Mozart grabbed part two for Das Hochzeit des Figaro.

However, one of Rossini’s rivals, Giovanni Paisello, had written his own version, and on opening night at the Teatro Argentina, he larded the audience with his supporters, who jeered the entire performance. It didn’t help that one of the leads fell face-first on the stage and had a copious nosebleed, or that an errant cat wandered onto the stage showing no evidence of stage fright.

Remember, this is Italy, and they take even comic opera seriously!

Not an auspicious opening, to be sure, so Rossini stayed home the next night. That performance was a success, and a happy crowd marched to his home to give him quite literally, a standing ovation!

But the comedy of errors didn’t conclude with the opening night. Rossini poached the overture from another of his operas. And, later emendations and copyists’ mistakes were transmitted to posterity as if from the pen of Gioachino himself.

Thus, what the audience enjoyed was a not-to-be-taken- seriously slice of life with all of the elements of opera: pursuit of true love; deception; intrigue; greed; disguise; unforgettable music. At the center of it is Figaro, the barber, who masterfully manipulates the complicated sequence of events to create a happy ending.

Director Fenlon Lamb’s and Set Designer Jefferson Risenour’s staging was minimalist, reminding one of Isamu Noguchi in Martha Graham’s original Appalachian Spring. But, the props were sufficient to cue the audience as to setting and sequence.

This put the messaging totally on the performers, who delivered in epic style.

Figaro’s Largo al Factotum, superbly sung by Andrew Craig Brown, set a very high bar. That level was certainly attained, and perhaps surpassed by Rossina, sung by Ashley Dixon, who revealed her character as a mistress of facades and misleading impressions.

Though this was a comic opera, Fenlon Lamb struck the right balance between hilarity and buffoonery, giving the characters mimic and ridicule latitude as they tried to foil their antagonists.

The greatest applause during the opera came after a scene which was the result of evolutionary tweaking alluded to earlier. Count Alamaviva poses as a singing instructor and gives his beloved a faux lesson. Rossini’s direction for the scene was: “Rossina sings an aria, ad libitum, for the occasion.” Thus, over the years, performer’s choices have run amuck.

Mary Jane Johnson, General and Artistic Director of Amarillo Opera cued the audience that Rossini’s score allowed what attendees would certainly recognize. Terry Stafford and Paul Fraser wrote what is, for folk here’bouts, the iconic Amarillo by Morning, which comprised the singing lesson. Rossina drew peals of laughter as she demonstrated the inability of those not fluent in Panhandle-Plains patois to properly say “Amarillo.”

Credit Conductor Michael Ching with composing this unique insertion, which marked a world premier for its part in a Rossini opera. Artsy afficionados might recall Ching, who hails from Ames, Iowa, as the creator of Speed Dating, also performed by Amarillo Opera.

And, hands really came together for Amarillo’s own Chancellor Barbaree, who played the servant Fiorello.

Kudos to cast, crew and all involved for making this production a roaring success, one which even picky audiences of the Met would find entertaining. And, a nearly full house at the Globe News Center testified to the support given by this community to this finest of the fine arts.

But wait, fine opera in the Panhandle of Texas, where the sky meets the howling wind? As anomalous as it seems, opera, and myriad other fine art forms not only exist, but flourish in this place.

That’s why we say with confidence, not hubris,

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!

October 2, 2022: Opera Cowgirls Redux

Opera Cowgirls at WTAMU – Sept 22, 2022

Think oxymoron. The English language is full of these apparent contradictions in terms used to enhance meaning. Phrases like, “only option,” “virtual reality” and “organized chaos” might come to mind. Add to that “Artsy Amarillo” and “Opera Cowgirls!”

A crowd of over two hundred welcomed the Opera Cowgirls, and their unique mashup of Grand Opera and Grand Ole’ Opry for a return engagement sponsored by “The Arts at WTAMU: A Subscription Series.” This event, which was the first of six, is a donor engagement program supporting the Sybil B. Harrington College of Fine Arts And Humanities at West Texas A & M University. Attendees got their belly full of culture and cuisine (it was fajitas).

This group’s one-of-a-kind music strips opera of alleged elitism by employing Nashville-approved vocalizations, which find a nexus in the human heart. Americanized, democratized and down-home, purists will hear the high art, and lovers of Waylon and Willie will hear the heartache. A survey of a few of their numbers will try to illustrate this oxymoronic admixture, but ‘ya jes gotta hear ‘um!”

The ladies introduce themselves in Pearlsnaps and Pearls, a reference to the buttons on western-style shirts and blouses and pearls, perhaps alluding to the “opera” strings of pearls popular during the Roaring 20’s, or just gettin’ gussied up for the Met.

The chorus, following a solo from each, intones, “You know that this cowgirl’ll take Puccini for a whirl. I’ve got pearlsnaps to go with my pearls.” All of the women, professional opera singers, demonstrate a twanging facility sure to satisfy any boot-scooter.

Founder Caitlin McKechney enjoins the full range of her mezza profunda to sing Mon Couer, Delilah’s lament from Samson and Delilah in which the seductress agonizes over finding Samson’s secret to his strength so she can save her people. A singing saw adds drama while Caitlin almost makes Delilah a sympathetic character.

This diva delight again takes the lead in Carmen’s Habanera, and is joined by Cowgirl colleague, Sarah Beckham-Turner, WTAMU music faculty professor and Amarillo native in a langourous L’amoure duet. Then segway to Dolly, singing “Carmen, Carmen, Carmennnnnnn: please don’t take my man just ’cause you can!”

Bizet could never imagine this combination. Dare we say that Nashville not only embellishes, but enhances this piece?

Carmen offers something entirely different when Sarah, using her cello, sings Micaela’s aria, Je dis que rien ne n’epouvante. This wrenching theme is a common country trope: my true love loves another, but I promised his dying mother I’d give him her love. Angst and heartbreak: these are perfect themes for grand opera, the grand ‘ole opry and for the world!

The Cowgirls also transmogrified Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima, a favorite aria for tenors, to a female duet with even more pathos. The deep passion is belted out in M’ama (She loves me!) like a declaration of a schoolboy crush, which ends with “I could die of love!” The ladies evoked the last in lyrical death throes.

What do you have when you have two sopranos who are trying to outsing one another? Why a Bell Canto catfight. Jessica Sandidge and Sarah walked among the audience taking turns singing A Vieux Vivre, sometimes called “Juliet’s Waltz,” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet. Juliet sings that when others speak of marriage, she says she wants only to live inside her dream where it is eternal spring. That meaning was somewhat obscured in the hissing and snarks.

Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus with hand claps? Why not! These are the Opera Cowgirls, and their rendition of this iconic Christian work took nothing away from the original, but added a punch and vibe, to which everyone stood, just like George II. The monarchy, in this sense, has been both countrified and Americanized without losing any reality.

And, speaking of pure country, in Bird Song, by the Wailin’ Jennys, the Cowgirls out-wailed the Jennys, in an adaptation more layered and nuanced, but still just as folksy. In this number, Jessica played the bird whistle. Other times she played the mandolin. Sarah on cello has already been mentioned, while Caitlin strummed and plucked the Banjolele. Mila, the primary accompanist, played several instruments, but mainly the Melodica.

It all made for a sound both the stage of La Scala and the Grand Ole Opry would find congenial. Which is quite an accomplishment, and makes the Opera Cowgirls unique and special. Go to YouTube and Facebook to hear more.

And this writer still hopes to hear these artists Texanize Wagner. The Valkyries could then sing Ye Ha! in trills and runs instead of Hoyotoho Heiaha!

Their performance here on the High Plains, where cowboys and Cowgirls rule, is a reason all of us can boast with a pure Panhandle brag,

Keep Amarillo Artsy

Keep Austin Weird

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!

Beauty and the Beast: Caitlin McKechney and the author at the Opera Cowgirl’s Fete, WTAMU, Sept 22, 2022

September 25: FASO Extravaganza with Dr. Damin Spritzer

Dr. Damin Spritzer accepting the applause. FASO Concert, St. Andrews Episcopal Church, Sept 18,

Sunday, September 18, a small but appreciative audience heard a magnificent organ performance at St. Andrews Episcopal in the first event of FASO’s 22/23 season. FASO: the acronym for Friends of the Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1024, is the organization which arranges the concert season featuring the best organists on the planet showcasing the awesome potential of the AS 1024.

And the few, somewhere around fifty, enjoyed what can only be called a world-class program from a world-class artist!

Dr. Damin Spritzer is Area Chair and Associate Professor of Organ at the University of Oklahoma. Her credentials, including her recordings, ran for three pages.

As for the concert, she served up a rich array of musical pastries, akin to rich German chocolate cake with inch-thick icing! With pieces selected from the Baroque through the late 20th century, her fingers and feet, through an arduous nearly two hour program, revealed the capacity for color and texture, not to mention the sheer power of this 106 stop instrument, especially as amplified by the three to four second reverberation resonating in the sanctuary.

In fact, in her first few remarks, she stated that each piece had a story to tell. And, the AS proved an incomparable raconteur in this narration.

Two selections from Cinq Invocations by Henri Dallier, long-time organist at la Madeleine in Paris, stood out: Pulchra et luna and Elucta ut sol. It was Abbott Suger, builder of the first Gothic cathedral, St. Denis in the 13th century, who said that the light coming through the stained=glass windows became divine light, “a reflection of the greater glory of God!”

What the audience heard was a chromatic kaleidoscope evoking the divinity of the day and night time lights.

Damin played three Bach works, two being arrangements. The other was Fantasia in G, BWV 572. The actual date of the composition is of some debate, as no original signed copy of the score has been found.

The piece is actually a toccata sandwich, with a contrapuntal middle. The Fantasia begins with a high-toned patter of spring rain, which alternates between banks of keys and gradually descends registers, all sans pedals. At 1:57 the mood changes: great, grand chords come from the AS which fill the vault of St. Andrews with a stately musical progression. This ennobling by keyboards and pedals continued for fully five minutes. Then at the last two minutes, the rainfall returns, but concentrated on the higher bank of keys. Finally, at 8:33, the composer drops to the lower bank to finish the composition with an artistic whisper.

Dr. Damin Spritzer: All smiles after the concert!

All present were exhilarated by the artistry of Damin Spritzer, who delivered a world-class performance!

But, here in Cowboy Country, we’ve become all too accustomed to hearing such quality art, thanks to organizations like FASO. The large cadre of aficionados and the artists they support plan to keep that way, so we can always say……

Keep Amarillo Artsy!

Keep Austin Weird!

Keep Lubbock in the Rear View Mirror!!!!!