Pensacola Opera’s Seventh Annual Jukebox Gala
By Gerald Burwell
Blend the sophistication of opera and musical theatre with the spirited charm of a live jukebox and it makes for a magical one-of-a-kind event. This past September, my wife and I were invited to attend the annual Jukebox Gala hosted by Pensacola Opera. Founded in the early 1980s and having celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2008, the Pensacola Opera had humble beginnings but now finds its home in the beautifully restored, historic 1800-seat Saenger Theatre in downtown Pensacola. I had never been to the gala before—or any opera for that matter—and since I had always been interested in going to the Pensacola Opera, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get my feet wet.
I have seen my fair share of fund-raising dinners. The premise is usually the same: a donation to attend, a silent auction to bid on some personal luxury one might take pleasure in, a cocktail and/or dinner to enjoy while talking to fellow patrons, a live auction for some big ticket items, and then depart. One might leave the event feeling good because the money spent was hopefully going toward some good, charitable cause.
Walking through the doors of the New World Landing in downtown Pensacola on Saturday, September 19, 2011, everything appeared to be standard operating procedure—check in, peel and paste the nametag, find the table, and then mingle. It was a large meeting room: on one side of the room, at least thirty eight-person dining tables with attention focused on a small stage, and a gorgeous black Steinway grand piano nestled into the center of the mix; on the other side of the room, a long, undulating train of cloth-covered tables displaying the silent auction items. Again, aside from the fact that the auction items were songs, nothing appeared that unusual.
I seemed to be the only one without the inside information. I would soon find out why this was no ordinary fund-raiser.
But there was something different at this fund-raiser. The other patrons appeared unusually happy for attending a fund-raiser; they had a look in their eyes like they were actually looking forward to the evening’s events. It seemed like everyone in the room knew something really great was about to happen. I seemed to be the only one without the inside information. I would soon find out why this was no ordinary fund-raiser.
The Jukebox Gala, now in its seventh year, is Pensacola Opera’s signature fund-raising event, where, over a gourmet wine dinner, opera stars serenade guests tableside with well-known opera and musical theatre hits. All proceeds go toward supporting the nonprofit organization’s mission to enrich the culture of Pensacola and Northwest Florida by producing professional opera performances, educational programs, and other opera-related community events for people of all ages, interests, and backgrounds. Our gracious hosts for the evening were Dr. Ruth Orth and her husband, Rick Harper. As longtime supporters of the Pensacola Opera and Gold Record Sponsors of the event, they understand the importance of art enrichment.
It is called the Jukebox Gala because guests determine the evening’s musical lineup as they bid on popular selections from opera and musical theatre. With over sixty songs to choose from, the atmosphere was intense with friendly competition as each guest hoped their bid would be tops. Fifteen minutes before dinner, an announcement was made that the bids were closed. As if putting a coin in the slot, the jukebox was now in play.
The guests were all seated for dinner. I looked about the room in anticipation of what was about to take place. The enjoyable salad in front of me helped to distract me from my anxiety. It was one of four delightful courses that evening prepared by Chef Nick Farkas of 600 South. The first of many of the dinner’s elegant wines, paired to each course by Premier Beverage, began to pour.
Before long, gala chair Anna Bertolucci and gala vice-president Andrea Arnof welcomed guests, thanked them for coming, and declared that the evening would not disappoint. And, to get the ball rolling, a three-set operatic preview was introduced. Suddenly, two people stood from different dining tables within the room and took strategic positions among the seated guests. The piano began to play and, within seconds, their powerful voices were belting out an amazing performance of La traviata by Verdi.
The attractive woman with regal posture sitting next to me stood up from her seat, took a few steps toward the grand piano, and, with a heavenly voice, sang an impressive selection from Madama Butterfly. She then took her seat as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
I was amazed—and frankly somewhat shocked—at what I had just witnessed. My first operatic experience was not in the anonymity of a large, darkened theatre with a few thousand people, but at an intimate wine dinner. Still somewhat bewildered, I almost didn’t even realize what unfolded next. The attractive woman with regal posture sitting next to me stood up from her seat, took a few steps toward the grand piano, and, with a heavenly voice, sang an impressive selection from Madama Butterfly. She then took her seat as if nothing was out of the ordinary. It’s hard not to take notice of someone at your dinner table after something like that. Of course, I had to learn her name—Sewell Jeter Griffith from New York City. I humorously thought: She didn’t have to go through all that just to get my attention. The usual run-of-the-mill introduction would have worked. The third and final set of the preview was a stunning quartet from Rigoletto performed by artists Jane Redding, Elise Quagliata, Tyler Smith, and Kenneth Overton.
And, so the night continued. During the salad course, the main course, and on to dessert, some of the best operatic voices in the country obliged and amazed. Just as the wines were paired with each course, so were the song selections. From the classic “The Impossible Dream” to the lively “My Favorite Things,” there was something for every music connoisseur to enjoy or novice to discover. Hearing these powerful and smooth vocals in such an intimate setting was literally a feast for the senses—all of them.
It was interesting to learn that several of the artists performing were actually married couples, some of whom are local residents. Husband and wife Howard Reddy and Hanan Tarabay of Gulf Breeze were two of my favorites of the night. Mr. Reddy sang an incredibly moving performance of “Danny Boy,” and Ms. Tarabay a powerful rendition of “Habanera” from the opera Carmen. They sang other greats beautifully, performing some together, including “I Have Dreamed” from The King and I. Other featured artists from the event included: Sheila Murphy, Betsy Uschkrat, Roderick George, and Blake Riley, who played the piano.
From my experience, the Jukebox Gala is not just another fund-raiser. I was completely blown away. It is a cultural experience and a privilege to be savored. This year’s gala, sponsored by Appleyard Agency, raised $40,000. Many in attendance, including myself, gained a newfound appreciation for opera. No matter your background, you are sure to enjoy it. I know I did. And, I am looking forward to placing my bid at next year’s event.
On January 20 and 22, 2012, Pensacola Opera will produce Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, performed in Italian with English supertitles. Tickets are $25 to $100. To purchase tickets or for more information, call 850.433.6737, or visit www.pensacoloaopera.com.
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