Gala to honor Killelea’s service

Published 12:05 am Friday, November 28, 2008

NATCHEZ — For the past 19 years, Natchez has been the host of a premier music festival.

Each May renowned singers come to Natchez to be part of the Natchez Festival of Music, and one man, Dr. Donald Killelea, has been integral in its success from the start.

His work with the music festival, as well as his personal and professional success as a Natchez pediatrician, will be celebrated with a gala in his honor.

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The evening gala, called “This is Your Life,” will be at 7 p.m. on Dec. 5 at the Natchez Convention Center.

Tickets for the event are $50 each or $500 to reserve a table of 10. They can be purchased at the Natchez Visitor Reception Center or online at

Four vocalists from the Natchez Festival of Music are scheduled to perform at the gala. Erin Murphy, Kathleen Sasnett, Wayne Line and Jim Moore will sing, and they will be accompanied by Donna Schaffer for the evening.

Rena Jean Schmeig, president of the Natchez Opera Guild, said it was necessary to honor Killelea because of all the good he has done in the community.

“He is possibly the most well liked and highly respected person in Natchez,” she said. “Everyone who knows him, loves him.”

She said it was also a way to say “thank you” for his help in making the festival a success.

But Killelea said he doesn’t feel such an event is necessary since he was only pursuing his passion.

“There are so many other people connected to the festival that have worked so hard and done so much,” he said. “Its not just me.”

Schmeig said, without the work of Killelea, the festival wouldn’t be as popular as it is.

Since the festival began, Killelea had worked with fundraising and education efforts that allow the festival to continue to grow and improve.

“When I was trying to raise money from various people, I would approach them and ask for them to donate money for a Natchez Opera Festival,” Killelea said. “One friend that I asked said, ‘Opera, that’s what they have in Nashville.’”

Since that time, thanks to the dedication and hard work of Killelea and others like him, the festival is now a highly esteemed event.

One of the most prevalent areas of change, has been the quality and enthusiasm of the vocalists that come to Natchez to perform.

When the festival began, festival founder, the late David Blackburn struggled to find quality performers willing to come to Natchez.

“They would say, ‘Natchez, where is that?’ He had to practically beat them off the streets to get them to come here,” Killelea said. “Now, when they have auditions in New York, it is a struggle to hear everyone sing.

“They are in New York for a week and have auditions from 7:30 in the morning until 6:30 at night, and it is one right after another. And they still can’t hear everyone.”

On top of having vocalists “with resumes pages long,” Killelea said great improvements have been made to the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center where many of the festivals events take place.

Killelea said he remembers a time when there were weeds growing in the windows of the building, but those times have passed.

“We were fortunate enough to have someone fund the painting of the outside of the building and to put cushions in all of the chairs,” he said. “Getting those cushions was a big thing because everyone complained about the chairs.”

And though vast improvements have been made, there are still things Killelea would like to see done.

“I would like to see Margaret Martin get a true orchestra pit and to have the stage somewhat larger,” he said. “We had to put the orchestra pit right on the floor and elevate the stage to make it look like an orchestra pit.”

Killelea said the success of the festival has also hinged on the education of the citizens of Natchez.

“There wasn’t much excitement at all about (the festival), but that was because they weren’t familiar with opera,” he said.

“It is really about the education, and it is still an educational process which will never stop.” Killelea said.

Familiarity with the vocal arts was not a problem for Killelea as he grew up in a family that appreciated music.

“I grew up in a family where music was very present,” Killelea said. “My mother was an accompanist, and I was brought up with operatic music.”

That part of his upbringing is something he has held on to according to his wife, Katherine Killelea.

“Opera — that is his life,” she said.

Though there is still work to be done, Killelea said he can definitely see a difference in the way people feel about the festival now.

“I have been somewhat — actually quite a bit — surprised about the change in the acceptance and knowledge people have now,” he said. “It will take a lot more education but that is something that can be left for the next generations.

“But I hope to see it continue to grow, grow, grow.”