Opera and laughter: A good mix

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 7, 2001

Don Killelea’s familiar laugh is contagious and so his is

passion for the Natchez Opera Festival. In less than five minutes

of conversation, the retired Natchez pediatrician has broken into

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laughter three times and this is supposed to be a serious conversation.

He’s here to talk about the festival’s 2001 season and to seek

financial support for the program. As a member of the board of

directors, Killelea is among the chief fund-raisers for the program

and the early spring is, well, chief fund-raising time of the


&uot;It’s that time again,&uot; he says with a self-effacing

chuckle. &uot;You know, it gets more important every year.&uot;

With the opera festival poised to begin its 11th season in

May, Killelea is working to generate the much-needed community

support – translated as financial support – for the program. &uot;Margaret

Martin has been much more expensive than we planned,&uot; he

admits, explaining that renovating the former public school building

into a performing arts center has been a time&160;- and resource&160;-

intensive project for the opera association.

A bill pending in the Mississippi Legislature could clear the

way for the Mississippi Arts Commission to award grants for bricks

and mortar projects – such as the much-lauded rehabilitation of

Margaret Martin, he explained. But that’s in the hands of the

Legislature and, even though Killelea and several other people

from Natchez have lobbied in support of the bill, no guarantees


And then, of course, are the regular expenses associated with

the festival – hiring of an orchestra, costume rentals, performers’

salaries, lighting, staging And the list goes on. With an annual

budget of $199,000, the Natchez Opera Festival depends heavily

on its nearly $60,000 of community support each year. Those donations

come from businesses, banks, individuals. Combined with nearly

$50,000 in ticket sales and some grants — from the Mississippi

Arts Commission and companies such as Hasbro – the money funds

what is now a nationally recognized event.

It began nearly a dozen years ago as an idea, spawned over

dinner conversation. Opera enthusiasts such as Killelea – whose

mother shared her love of opera with him since childhood – were

quickly on board, supporting the project. And as the festival’s

reputation has grown in the music world, young performers and

headliners now compete and lobby for a coveted spot in what has

become a learning classroom in Natchez. &uot;These young performers

get the chance to work with stars who literally take the time

to teach and coach them,&uot; Killelea said.

And audiences – from patrons who attend the elaborate opera

performances to thousands of school children who attend the educational

outreach programs – reap the fruits of the collaborations. This

year’s lineup includes performances of &uot;Carmen&uot; and

&uot;La Boheme,&uot; as well as the Gilbert and Sullivan favorite

&uot;HMS Pinafore,&uot; complemented by plantation recitals,

concerts in Memorial Park and the popular &uot;Night of Stars&uot;

events. Budget constraints forced organizers to cut back to only

one performance of each major opera, instead of two, but quality

won’t be compromised, Killelea said.

And, as an added bonus, &uot;we found out this year is the

150th anniversary of Jenny Lind’s concert in Natchez,&uot; Killelea

said. So, the program includes what is billed as &uot;an exact

reenactment of the original concert.&uot; &uot;We just couldn’t

let anniversary pass,&uot; Killelea added with a laugh.

Stacy Graning is editor of The Democrat. She can be reached

at 445-3539 or via e-mail at stacy.graning@natchezdemocrat.com.