OPERA HOEDOWN – COWBOYS SINGING HIGH C’S

The event of the season – up in the Valley anyway – was Opera in Blue Jeans. This was the brilliant brainchild of Fred Sidon – by day, the mild-mannered board president of Opera Santa Barbara, and by night, the wild-and-wooly pull-out-the-stops impresario.

Basically, this was an operatic hoedown – a staging of the highlights of Puccini’s opera, “La Fanciulla del West” (Girl of the Golden West) in Brooks Firestone’s Crossroads Barn. It provided the perfect ambience for the opera, which is set in a wild west saloon, and one end of the barn served as the proscenium.

The sold-out audience of some 300 people showed up, duded-out in formal cowboy finery for the late afternoon-early evening event. Among the crowd (most driving “all the way up” from Santa Barbara) included Bruce and Ida Rickborn, Marilyn Bernstein, Mary and Doug Hampson, Bruce Arden, Mary Penny, Clyde Thayer, John and Helen Free, Andy and Dolly Granatelli, Lynn and Phillip Kirst, Terry and Marilyn McGowan, Roger and Nancy Davidson, Esther and Hans Brand, Joan and Robert Egbert, Monika Ryker, Suzie Lockheed and fiancé Mark Tautrim, Lori and Gary Woods, Mary Rose and Frank Artusio. As we entered the ranch, and checked in, we were each deputized with a silver star (hey – everybody else is running for sheriff these days).

A Santa Maria-style barbecue was glowing over the grill outside the barn, and we feasted between acts. (Need I remind you about the tasty appropriateness of serving thick chocolate brownies with ripe strawberries for a climatic third-act culinary conclusion?)

Brooks Firestone served as the narrator to connect the scenes. We thrilled to the trills of Paula Goodman-Wilder as our heroine Minnie, the Girl from the Golden West with the golden voice). Baritone Ken Smithfield (as Sheriff Jack Rance) we’d previously heard as Sciarone in “Tosca.” The magnificent tenor Antonio Nagore was the villain Dick Johnson, aka bandit Ramerrez. I know a bandit shouldn’t be a glorious tenor, but he falls in love with her, and straightens out in the end, which is why he gets to be a tenor.

I admit it seems culturally confusing to hear high opera out on the open range, and Italian would not seem to be the language of the land of lassos. But you’ll have to take that up with Puccini, who is having his day in the sun for an entire year with Opera Santa Barbara. (Come to think of it…maybe he inspired the later Spaghetti Westerns?)

Then, theatrical invention. “Cowboys” came in to sing “Shenandoah” and one befuddled attendee exclaimed, “I didn’t know Puccini wrote Shenandoah?!” They looked suspiciously like local ranchers and other Valley cowboys, but hey, they had a remarkably good sound and a very nice blend. Some terrific talent hidden under those Stetsons.

Reenacting the Wells Fargo gang, or a sheriff’s posse bringing in the operatic villain to justice were members of the Rancheros Visitadores. This was quite cool. When the scene called for the Wells Fargo guys, a group of Rancheros in costume went racing on horseback by the open end of the barn, with the pastoral setting of farmland as the backdrop – rolling hills and trees and acres of green grass. Later they rode up with the bad guy.

In act three, Firestone – The Narrator – continued with the plot. It seems the bad guy Ramerrez was being reformed by his love for our heroine Minnie. She wanted to protect him from the lawmen and hid him in her house. There he stayed overnight… “in chaste sleeping arrangements,” Firestone quipped.

Firestone next announced that the cowboys were returning from the gold mines to the saloon, “where they sang a sad cowboy song.” The Ranchero group solemnly sang, “the Streets of Laredo.” A few had their hats off, out of respect for the fallen comrade cowboy…and gazed down in the brim (where I think a few crib notes for the lyrics were maintained), as they sang. It was a hoot.

In the end – the guy gets the girl who rescued the guy from the gallows. After the wild applause, cheers and whistles, the enthusiastic audience crowded the piano for an impromptu sing-along, which put cowboys out on the high C’s.

The verdict? This should be an annual fundraiser with featured cameo surprises.

Chic Sheiks and Sheikas, and the Sultans of School Fundraisers

The other blowout bash of a theme party was Marymount School’s “Arabian Nights – Welcome to the Casbah,” brought to you by the powerhouse performance of a triple-threat of auction tri-chairs.

Laurel Margerum, Kamela Parris and Laurel Barrack were the force to be recognized, as they made an Arabian night at the Montecito Country Club. They had a really well-organized committee and subcommittee. Everything was thought through, and it showed in both flow and performance.

But the fun fun fun was how the theme was carried out and infused and reinterpreted at every level. The décor was dripping with delightful decadence befitting the sultans of school fundraisers. Golden lamps, and jeweled strands and potted plants and flowers and ferns set the visual stage and ambience.

The invitation and materials kept a flying carpet motif or elements of Arabian opulence. There were exotic dancing girls (no no, not those kinds) and an outrageous band called Naked Rhythm (don’t go there either). This was sort of world music running on high octane, infused with a disco beat. These were enormously talented musicians – the singers, the guitar players, the reed player were from all over the world and managed to find each other in LA. But they added to the spirit and the flavor of the evening.

Very best were the costumes. The crowd got into the mood – some folks hit up eBay and found authentic Arabian wear. The gals looked chic and the guys looked sheik. Females flirted with belly dancer garb to sparkling elegant to dramatic drapes, and the men were outfitted in outrageous headgear, terrific turbans (Cas Stimson, where did you find that number?) and even the latest falchion fashion.

The 76-paged auction booklet was a work of art. Not only the usual info and ads, but beautifully produced and bound, with keepsake quality photographs of families and classrooms and kids. (Major kudos to Mo Chambers, Jan Gomez and Diana Vestal – you go girls!) Oooh, another thing. The school video was exquisite, a veritable documentary on the “family atmosphere” of Marymount School, with moving music underscored and produced by parents Sandy Shields and Renee Gignac.

I guess the abundance of emirs influenced the atmosphere on behalf of education. Parents and friends bid generously on the auction items, garnering nearly $300,000 at the oral auction alone.