By JOHN DeMERS
The landscape of HIV/AIDS has changed mightily in the past 15 years, but not so much or so fast that Houston-born opera soprano Camille Zamora feels any inclination to stop “singing for hope.” In the 15 years since she, a young college graduate volunteering for Bering Omega Community Services, helped her best friend from HSPVA die in peace and dignity, her lovely voice has only grown stronger.
In performing arts terms, Zamora’s annual “Sing for Hope” concert surrounded by other local, national and international opera stars, may be a little off the beaten path. It is essentially a fundraising event, not presented by any typical arts group. When I first attended some years ago, it was held in Zilkha Hall at the Hobby Center, but by last night the show had grown enough to take a decent stab at filling the Wortham’s Cullen Theater. The audience had seemingly grown in diversity as well: diversity in gender, age, income and ethnicity. That more and more people should gather here around Zamora and her friends, around major sponsor Shell Oil and around this cause is clearly a wonderful thing.
In an additional nice turn, this year’s cast seemed to have more links to Houston than we remember from past Sing for Hope evenings – the most important being a fondness for alums of and singers currently in the Houston Grand Opera Studio program, a kind of farm-team system that has given our world some remarkable artists indeed. Joining Zamora on stage for a wide variety of opera and not-so-opera numbers were two Studio grads: baritone Liam Bonner (beautifully showcased with soprano Hanan Alattar from Houston in “What a Manner, She’s So Gracious” from Johann Strauss II’s Die Fledermaus) and soprano Laquita Mitchell (who shined in Italian from Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani and Il Trovatore before becoming Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess).
If those artists weren’t “Houston enough,” they were joined onstage by current HGO Studio singer Catherine Martin (who enjoyed lovely operatic moments throughout the evening before wowing the crowd with the Gershwin boys’ toe-tapper “I Got Rhythm”) and popular bass- baritone Timothy Jones, who currently teaches voice at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. As the show neared its conclusion, all the artists were assisted impressively by the Chorale (mostly juniors and seniors) from our own High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Something told me there were lots of proud parents in the Sing for Hope audience, some for the very first time.
As a performance, there is enough to love about Sing for Hope to keep me coming back forever, at least until the removal of HIV/AIDS from our lives has made the whole thing seem unnecessary – at which time, as Zamora assured the audience, she’d keep coming back just to celebrate. For one thing, the evening’s breakdown into opera arias and art songs makes for, delightfully, two shows for the price of one. The singers are rightly more formal in the first half, dressed in evening attire but still managing a fun-loving (and thoroughly affectionate) romp through some of opera’s greatest hits.
They pick up, play with and usually leave behind a moderate number of props during this portion, keeping their “blocking” to what they can master during the 48 or so hours they gather in Houston beforehand to work things out. And by the way, such simple acting is not as “simple” as they made it look – which demands a nod of thanks to stage director Andrea Dorf, along with lighting designer Devlin Browning.
One singer who seemed to especially enjoy the format was baritone Luis Ledesma, another veteran of HGO and other opera performances all over the world, who managed to be icy-imposing as Count di Luna from Il Trovatore and Don Giovanni from Mozart’s masterpiece and to knock Carmen’s “Toreador Song” out of the park, while also having the time of his life goofing through the comedy numbers. Zamora herself was impressive in “S’io non moro a questi accenti” from Idomeneo, as was Kirstin Chavez as a superb Carmen in the infamously seductive “Seguidilla.”
For the evening’s second half – somewhat deceptively described as “art songs” – the cast draws from Broadway, pop, rock, folk, gospel and whatever else they feel like singing, in some cases downright stealing the show. This certainly was the case when tenor Michael Slattery walked onstage with a small box that revealed itself to be a weird musical instrument (sounding like a cross between an accordion and Celtic bagpipes) and then proceeded to stop all breath with his rendition of the old Joni Mitchell number “Both Sides Now.”
The American songbook served up two of its finest moments as the show’s conclusion, first touching everyone with Carousel’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sung by Page with mezzo Chavez and the HSPVA chorale, and then ending with a deliciously nuanced medley from Porgy and Bess. Page and Mitchell were incredible in this, working their way lovingly through hits like “I Got Plenty of Nothin’,” “Summertime” and, of course, my all-time favorite love duet in the English language, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
According to Camille Zamora and her friends who gather from the far corners of the opera world once a year, as long as there’s singing, there’s hope.
Photo: Camille Zamora (left) at a Sing for Hope event.