Raves / Her 70 years as fan make it time to sing the praises of opera

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I was there almost from the beginning of the Pittsburgh Opera.

I never really gave it any thought, as over the years opera was just there to anticipate, participate in and enjoy. Then I received the 2013-14 Pittsburgh Opera schedule, accompanied by an announcement that this season would celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opera in Pittsburgh.

The announcement also included regrets for the death of Virginia Byerly Kerr, the daughter of one of the Pittsburgh Opera founders in 1939. She had grown up around opera singers and would sneak out of bed to watch rehearsals.

My own musical history is more plebeian, although the piano held a place of esteem in our living room on Fisher Street in the city's Mount Oliver section. Mother played well, and Dad, though he couldn't read music, could pound out some creditable ragtime.

We children made up with enthusiasm for what we lacked in talent. It was a Christmas Eve ritual that gifts could not be opened until a recital and song fest were completed, which made for some swinging carols.

My first visit to the opera came in fall of 1943 or spring of '44, for Georges Bizet's "Carmen." I was all of 18, among a group of gals just out of high school -- the boys were all overseas, or about to go. It was for me another adventure, another first.

My friends and I were all employed at Bell Telephone Co., earning our first paychecks and anxious to taste the joys of living in technicolor after surviving the black and white of the Depression. Life had opened up new experiences: football games at Pitt Stadium, lunch at Angelo's Downtown, horseback riding at South Park or Riverview Park.

Streetcars took us to all those exciting venues -- three tokens for a quarter, including transfers. The circle of friends came from all different ethnic backgrounds and communities: Penn Hills, Sharpsburg, East End, West End. All had the same zest for embracing the future.

Five or six like-minded co-workers shared that Saturday afternoon performance of "Carmen" at the Syria Mosque in Oakland. It was the first of many exciting events for me at that impressive concert hall, long before it was replaced by a parking lot.

The anticipation was heightened that day by a delay. The train carrying the scenery and other necessities for the production had been halted to allow for a troop train to pass through. No problem. We were still psyched.

And then, finally, the orchestra was tuned and set to go. The conductor raised his baton. The curtains parted, and the magic began.

I will not pretend to be able to identify the principal performers that day. Suffice to say that Don Jose was short and rotund and, as I remember, a powerful voice. Carmen was a tall, buxom blonde who would have made a memorable Brunhilde.

When they embraced passionately, Don Jose sang to Carmen's bosom. She was hardly the seductive, sensuous coquette I've since learned to anticipate in "Carmen" performances, but no matter -- I was hooked by the music and singing and the land of make-believe before my eyes.

I returned with friends in 1945 for another performance. Opera lovers are like Velcro -- we attract and attach. For the production of Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," we had front row seats close enough that we could have embraced the orchestra.

Those beginnings nurtured a lifelong passion for the music, the artists and those who work behind the scenes. It's a passion that has spanned the years, encompassing travels north and south, east and west. I have been to the Met in New York many times, as well as the Seattle Opera's Wagner Ring Cycle and many more.

The Pittsburgh Opera has had me as a season ticket-holder for more than 20 years, and I immensely enjoyed the performance there of "Aida" on a recent Sunday.

I owe a belated and sincere thank you to Virginia Kerr and her mother and the like-minded music-loving ladies who banded together 75 years ago to establish a professional opera company in Pittsburgh.

Looking back, I can easily say opera has helped provide me with fulfillment and appreciation of what really matters in life.

Dorothy Brecht Wagner lives in South Park.

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