Thursday, November 8, 2007


If a person is genuinely lucky during the course of his life, he will encounter one or two people who help him to believe in himself and inspire him to keep working at whatever he has chosen to do. I was extremely fortunate to cross paths with three remarkable women at crucial turning points in my life.

During the late 1960s, while she was starring on Broadway in the hit musical Mame,I made the acquaintance of Angela Lansbury. Watching her perform the title role many, many times in Broadway's Winter Garden Theater (while managing to keep her performance fresh for each new audience) showed me what it meant to set high standards of professionalism and stick to them.

Offstage, Lansbury demonstrated to all who worked with her what it meant to be a good colleague and a hard worker. Angela and I began to correspond and, shortly after moving to San Francisco, I received a letter in which she wrote "With your talent, I have no doubt you will land on your feet."

Because her letter arrived at a particularly stressful time in my life, I remember being flabbergasted that a "big star" like Angela Lansbury could be generous enough to reach out and give a few simple words of encouragement to someone living in a world which must have been light years away from her daily reality. Her words bolstered my spirits during many emotionally tough moments and Angela has always been an inspiration to me: as a performer, as a professional, and as a human being. Here are two clips of Angela and George Hearn performing Stephen Sondheim's tongue-twisting lyrics from Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Another key source of inspiration was soprano Beverly Sills. Watching Beverly perform helped me to understand the deeply personal joy of making music. Thanks to her drive to highlight the achievements of young American opera singers and focus attention on America's growing regional opera scene, I devoted much of my 15 years writing Tales of Tessi Tura to covering performances on opera stages throughout our nation, from Anchorage, Des Moines and San Diego to San Juan, St. Louis, and Santa Fe.

During my career as a freelance writer I gained a reputation as the only music critic to give serious attention to the growth of regional opera throughout the United States. That's not to say I didn't attend performances at the Met, New York City Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago or any of the other "major" opera companies on a regular basis. But there were many nights when I was the only out-of-town critic showing any interest in what was happening at a regional American opera company. Here's a rare clip of Beverly as Cleopatra in Tito Capobianco's highly stylized production of Handel's Guilio Cesare -- the role which catapulted her to stardom in the fall of 1966.

And here's Beverly in one of her lighter landmark moments as one of America's great musical ambassadors -- and the woman who helped bring opera to the masses.

One of my most stalwart supporters in my operatic endeavors was Ava Jean Mears, who was then Public Relations Director and Archivist for the Houston Grand Opera. A woman with an incredible memory, Ava Jean is a writer's strongest ally (a colleague once opined that if he ever needed to find a one-legged albino dwarf who could swing upside down from a tree limb while singing all four parts of some obscure operatic ensemble in Swahili, that person probably went to school with Ava Jean).

The dozens of professional arts publicists who matured under Ava Jean's guidance learned how to be solicitous without being pushy, how to be concerned without being territorial and, above all, how to be fair when dealing with the press. When I became National Editor of Opera Monthly magazine and needed an additional pseudonym for my writing, Ava Jean's devoted golden retriever, B.J., was hauled into service. Numerous young American opera singers were subsequently interviewed by "B. J. Mears" and were grateful for the opportunity.

Ava Jean has always loves to tell the story of how one night, when she was visiting her neighbors, Inga and Bob, one of Inga's grandchildren noted that B.J. was "a very smart dog."

"He sure is," replied Ava Jean. "Why, he even wrote the cover story in this month's issue of Opera Monthly!"

"Don't be silly," the little girl groaned as she rolled her eyes. "He did no such thing! Or did you?" she asked as she looked B.J. in the face.

To Angela, Beverly, and Ava Jean my heartfelt thanks for your generosity, inspiration, and encouragement.

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