A Dixieland Celebration at Opera Pacific

Led by a stomping Dixieland band, nearly 500 supporters of Opera Pacific spilled from the ballroom at the Westin South Coast Plaza on Wednesday night and marched to the Orange County Performing Arts Center to attend “Porgy and Bess,” the first performance in the opera company’s premiere season at the Center.

But not before they enjoyed a gala that was Southern-fried right down to its Cajun martinis, Tabasco-hot cuisine and “Catfish Row” decor.

And not before they were introduced to special guests Anna Ashjian of Los Angeles--representing her brother, Gov. George Deukmejian; entertainer Sammy Davis Jr., who played the devil-may-care Sportin’ Life character in the 1959 film version of “Porgy and Bess,” and Velma Sun, a founder in 1962 of the Laguna-based Lyric Opera Assn. that became Opera Pacific.

“It’s wonderful to be invited out to enjoy a social evening with you,” said Davis, after being introduced by David DiChiera, general director of the opera company. “But from the look on people’s faces when we walked in, people didn’t know we were invited!


“It was odd to drive two hours (via chauffeured limo with wife Altovise) from Beverly Hills and have somebody look at you with a ‘Whadda you doin’ here?’ ” The crowd had given Davis looks of shocked recognition. “And as for the man who’s going to play Sportin’ Life tonight,” Davis said, staring into the audience at tenor Larry Marshall, “well, he’s twice my size. And here’s the real dirt. Next season, I’m doing ‘Aida!’ ”

Said Marshall earlier: “Mr. Davis is an idol of mine. People have been asking me tonight if I was nervous about performing. And I’ve said ‘No, but I’m nervous about meeting Sammy Davis Jr.!’ ”

Davis was particularly anxious to see the Tony-award winning Marshall play the character, he said, because “every director looks at Sportin’ Life differently. Otto Preminger told me he was Mephistopheles, an evil person. And that’s the way I played him.”

Sitting at the same front-and-center table with Davis was Ashjian, attending with husband Noubar and Vera Johnson, special assistant to the director of the California Arts Council. “Gershwin is the governor’s favorite composer. In fact, he had so much Gershwin played at his inauguration that he stood up and explained he was partial to the composer. George and I were raised with music in the home. Our mother was a singer, and George has a very fine singing voice.”


Attending Fund-Raiser

Ashjian said the governor was unable to attend because he was attending a fund-raiser.

After receiving a bouquet of roses from DiChiera for her efforts on behalf of opera in Orange County, Sun (whose grandfather-in-law was Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen) spoke privately of why she had helped ignite the operatic spark in Orange County: “I came here (to the Anaheim area) from China in 1962. And I’d been reading about all the good (musical) things that were happening in the United States. But when I arrived, I saw that those things were not happening. I would go and watch wonderful musicians playing their hearts out and see only 20 people sitting in the audience.

“I wanted Orange County to have opera because I am a person who knows music well. Opera provides a psychic relationship, something that comes to you through your nerves and creates a psychic thing. . . . You develop a specialized relationship with it.”


DiChiera agreed: “Especially today, with our mechanical, ultra-computerized world, people need an art form that speaks from the basic emotions. That’s what musical theater is about. It reaches down into emotions that you don’t usually experience in everyday life. That’s the glory of it. . . .”

The event marked the first public party appearance for newly married Thomas Kendrick, Center executive director and bride Judith O’Dea Morr, Center general manager. Flashing a diamond-centered filigree ring, Judith whispered that she and Kendrick soon would leave for a “sort of honeymoon” in the Caribbean.

After the performance, members of Opera Pacific’s newly formed Impresario Circle (donors who give $5,000 annually) convened with Impresario founding-chairman Floss Schumacher, her husband, Ed, and the cast in the Center’s Black Box Theater for a champagne reception.