Opera Guild launches show, piques interest and raises funds
Gazette Arts Editor
He's sung with Pavarotti, Domingo, Sutherland and Sills in the world's great opera houses.
Now he's coming to Billings to launch the Billings Opera Guild's first major production.
Pablo Elvira will sing the title role of Figaro in "The Barber of Seville" in a lavish production at the Alberta Bair Theater for a pair of shows next Feb. 12 and 14. Elvira hopes to make opera lovers out of the ranchers in the area who, he says, "usually love opera once they get to know it."
Elvira comes to town from his Bozeman home under the auspices of the Billings Opera Guild, billed by its founder Morry Matson as "the country's newest opera company."
After several years of trying to procure the fallow Babcock Theatre for its venue, Matson decided to follow Elvira's advice and book the ABT for his endeavor. He hopes the guild will produce at least two operas per season and will follow "Barber" with a more modest autumn production in the fall of 1999 with plans for something truly spectacular in 2000. Elvira hopes to produce and appear in other great operas in the next decade in Billings endash possibly "Carmen," "Madame Butterfly," "La Traviata," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "LaBoheme," and maybe even the grand "Aida," which demands the deep stage he never had in Bozeman.
"With the Alberta Bair we can do almost anything," he said excitedly. The operas will be produced in their native tongues, with subtitles, which has been successful in Bozeman. "The first few years, we'll do the war horses. Then we'll be more adventuresome," he says. "In 10 years, we'll do Mozart."
The guild is a fully incorporated, non-profit organization thanks to the volunteer efforts of Billings lawyers and arts buffs Jim Thompson and Larry Martin. Elvira begins a series of fundraising meetings in the Billings area Monday, visiting bankers and businessmen to launch the guild's $100,000 fund drive. ("Barber" has a budget of $70,000.) The Guild is also selling $30 memberships, which include a regular newsletter and rehearsal privileges.
Although he has been commuting for several months for meetings with Billings opera lovers, Elvira plans to rent a small house or apartment in Billings this winter when rehearsals begin. He has donated his time and expertise and usually pays his own gas and hotel bills, since the organization has virtually no money yet. An orchestra of about 30 musicians will be recruited, along with a 16-voice chorus. They will rehearse for several weeks, but the principals -- all professional singer friends and colleagues of Elvira's cultivated through his international career -- will fly into Billings for only about a week's intensive rehearsal before the premiere. Each will receive a stipend of $2,000 for the stint, modest by touring standards which sometimes demand $10,000 or more per performance.
Elvira's will be artistic director and board member "with the goal of steering the guild into a first-rate, nationally acclaimed opera company." Besides procuring the singers, he is using his contacts to obtain attractive rentals on lavish sets and costumes and says the Metropolitan Opera Company is following the evolution of this newest fledgling guild with great interest.
The Guild has hired a professional fundraiser and is going after both corporate support and matching grants, Matson said. Elvira is looking for commitments of $5,000 and up, but Matson says the $30 memberships are also needed and welcome. Elvira says he is looking for "angels" such as the Jim Taylors in Bozeman, whose largesse has endowed the Museum of the Rockies and many other endeavors and was critical to the survival of Intermountain Opera.
"You'd be surprised how many ranchers love opera," Elvira says. "It will happen here, too."
Matson, 27 and a Billings Senior High and University of Montana graduate, was bitten by the opera bug when he toured Vienna and sat in the $1.50 seats four nights running. He is not a vocalist but has a degree in music and toured with one of the Navy bands as an oboist.
He now works on embroidery in the sportswear department of Sutton's -- "sportswear by day and opera by night."
He hopes to get 1,000 basic memberships for the guild within the next few years, which would raise $30,000 toward the budget. Elvira, with fundraising under his belt from the Bozeman operation, is going after the bigger fish. "We had a couple rough years, but we were in the black from the beginning," he said. "And the tickets sell out now in three days. In the beginning, we were told it was a risky business."
Robert Stivenelo, son of Elvira's old friend, Anthony Stivenelo, will produce the opera.
Elvira will continue his touring, including stints as one of the "Three Baritones," patterned after the popular "Three Tenors" and "Three Divas." He has sung with all of the three tenors, including Placido Domingo in "Manon Lescaut," and Luciano Pavarotti in several productions including his debut in "Rigoletto" with Lyric Opera of Chicago, for which he earned a standing ovation.
He has played the world's great opera houses and sings occasional galas in San Juan.
He envisions the February production as "a huge event -- we need volunteers on every level -- costumers, dressers, beauticians, people to donate car rentals for the performers and ladies to make casseroles for the rehearsals.''
The return to the ABT has an emotional appeal to Elvira because he sang the final concert in the old Fox Theatre in 1985 before the building closed for a nearly $6 million renovation and reopened as the ABT.