Killelea reminisces about life of music

Published 3:06 pm Saturday, May 3, 2008

For Dr. Don Killelea, music was not a choice but a part of his everyday life. His family moved from New Orleans to Wichita Falls, Texas, when he was about 7 years old. His mother was a pianist with a love for opera, and she lectured all around North Texas accompanied by her “audiovisual man.”

Killelea proudly points to two framed cardboard posters displaying handwritten titles and notes and describes his role as one similar to that of the placard bearers in the Natchez Pilgrimage tableau.

“She would tap the poster on the easel and that was my cue to change posters,” he said with a smile.

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He was also in charge of winding the Victor to play the samples of arias, which she used in her lectures.

Killelea’s father frequently went to New York City on business, and his mother would accompany him for an opportunity to pursue her opera passion at the Metropolitan Opera House. Killelea had joined the Army and was assigned to a hospital ship whose home port was New York City. In 1946, he returned to his home port completing his last assignment and was met by his parents who took him to his first opera. He can’t remember which opera it was, but he does remember that it was at the Metropolitan Opera House, a place he would return to many times in the future.

In medical school at Tulane University in New Orleans, Killelea attended opera with his uncle and cousin whom he describes as “opera fanatics.”

He attributes much of his opera knowledge to them.

Following medical school, Killelea moved to Natchez, and said he didn’t see opera for a long time except for a traveling group that came through the area.

This group of four people presented a performance of “La Boheme” at Margaret Martin High School, now Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center.

Eventually, Killelea returned to New York City and the Metropolitan Opera House. He planned to attend medical meetings in New York City during opera season and satisfied both of his passions: medicine and opera.

He has an extensive collection of books, videotapes, audiotapes, 78 records and other memorabilia. His 1912 edition of “The Victor Book of the Opera” which had belonged to his mother, listed catalog prices for albums at 75 cents for some, as much as $4 for others.

His mother was president of the Jackson Opera Guild and the Louisville Opera Guild. She was a patron of the Metropolitan Opera Guild. And, she continued to teach opera. She even went weekly to share her knowledge and the music of opera at Whitfield Hospital.

But Killelea’s own musical talents are limited, he said.

“I can only play the radio, and that’s if it works,” he said.

His ears always worked just fine though, he said, and his favorite operas are “La Traviata” and “La Boheme.” The first act duet in “La Boheme” is, in his opinion, the “epitome of all operadom.”

It was 1990 when Killelea’s involvement with the Natchez Music Festival began. He attended a meeting with Dr. David Blackburn and Ron and Lani Riches at Monmouth Plantation.

The outcome of that evening was the formation of the Natchez Opera Festival and the beginning of many years of service to the pursuit of bringing opera to Natchez by both Killelea and his wife, Katherine.

Now, the Killeleas delight in reminiscing over performances, performers and special guests who have graced Natchez as a result. It wasn’t always easy, he said.

In the first year, Blackburn had to “scour” the streets of New York City to find performers to audition. Now, there are more performers to audition than there is time to hold the auditions.

And fundraising is always a challenge. When Killelea asked others to contribute to the Opera Festival, he was sometimes met with comments such as “The opera, isn’t that something they have in Tennessee?” he said.

Killelea believes that having opera in Natchez elevates the culture of Natchez. The Natchez Music Festival brings in out of town visitors, even those from Jackson and New Orleans who have their own opera seasons.

Killelea said he has heard many praise the productions presented in the sometimes limited Natchez venue.

In the future, he would like to see more improvements in the opera house including a proper orchestra pit and more and more experienced singers. He would like to see a return to one of the original Natchez Opera Festival goals — including more opera.

And, finally, he would like to see a production of “Il Trovatore” in Natchez.

Killelea is being honored by the Festival of Music this year for his service.

The Festival of Music began last week and will continue throughout the month of May. The Alcorn State University choir will perform at 7 p.m. today in a free concert at St. Mary Basilica.