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Opera That Touches Lives

Opera Ebony marks 15 years of opening doors for nonwhite talent

`I CONSIDER our company a major [one] ... because I think of the significant things that it has accomplished,'' says Wayne Sanders, co-founder and artistic director of Opera Ebony, the New York-based black company marking its 15th anniversary this year. ``A lot of them are personal,'' he told me in a recent interview. ``For instance, a kid from the All-City High School Chorus debuted with us six years ago in `Faust.' He had never sung opera before. And now he's on a scholarship.

``You never know who you're going to touch or what's going to open up, because I find that opera is much more than just singing notes. To me, it's a very human thing, another way of touching lives. I think that's an integral part of what's keeping Opera Ebony going.''

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Opera Ebony has kept going against the odds - and not just on the strength of its practical help to young singers; it has gained a reputation for high artistic merit and is favorably, often enthusiastically, reviewed by the New York Times and Opera News.

The company has performed a broad spectrum of music from Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly'' to Kurt Weill's ``Lost in the Stars.'' It has visited Brazil, Rome, and the Virgin Islands. It has also sung for an audience of 500 homeless people and done numerous programs for children.

It has performed ``Porgy and Bess'' at the Metropolitan Opera House, in Finland, and in the Soviet Union. And it has presented Mozart in Harlem. It has given exposure to the works of African-American composers, including the world premi`ere of Dorothy Rudd Moore's opera ``Frederick Douglass.'' This season it will visit Virginia and Florida. Next summer it will travel to Greece.

Opera Ebony Inc. was established to respond to a need. There was very little opportunity for non-white singers - not to mention composers, instrumentalists, directors, and technicians - to break into opera at the professional level. The original motivation for the company came from Sister Mary Elise - a white Roman Catholic nun and a musician herself. Sanders, a pianist, and his colleagues had been helping her with an opera project.

``One day she said, `Look around the room,''' recalls Sanders. ``We were looking at each other. And she said, `Look at all of this talent. ... You are the music director. ... And you are the artistic director.' And she said, `Now we have to name it.' And we said, `Name what?' She said, `We've just formed our company.'''

The name Opera Ebony was contributed by Benjamin Matthews, a bass-baritone who has become an internationally known recitalist. Since its inception, Matthews has been one of the company's driving forces.

`WE started with Verdi's `A"ida,''' explains Sanders. ``People said, `You all are absolutely out of your minds.' And Sister Elise said, `No, the Lord is with us.''' With hard work, they pulled off that production and survived.

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As they moved on, they realized they would have to deal with a seeming lack of interest in opera within the local black community. ``We knew that there was an audience out there that had not been tapped,'' says Sanders. ``We wanted to show them that opera complemented jazz and gospel.''

They made the decision to do all their major productions in English to make them more accessible. Reached by phone, Ibrahim Malek, chairman of the board of Opera Ebony, said of this decision, ``We haven't forgotten our roots. We are attempting to develop an audience who do not have this in their tradition and who need to know what is going on.''

But Mr. Malek, a long-time educator and for the past few years tutor for the children on the ``Cosby'' show, believes that opera is really not so far removed from the black experience.

``Opera is not traditionally - and, please, the operative word here is traditionally - part of the African-American experience in this country,'' he says, ``but it is an art form which, in many ways, combines all the things that we've experienced as a people: It's full of emotion; it deals with real-life things; and we believe that, as black people coming from our culture, we bring a dimension to opera that is missing in many other productions that may be regarded as ... excellently produced.''

WHEN Opera Ebony did Mozart's ``The Marriage of Figaro,'' Sanders was approached by a group of Viennese visitors backstage after the performance.

``They said that they enjoyed this better than any `Figaro' they'd ever heard,'' he says, ``and they'd heard it done all over the world, including in Vienna. I was curious and asked them why. They said, `It was your sense of rhythm, your joy. You brought this alive for us; you made it not stuffy.'

There are a lot of works being written by minority composers, says Sanders. ``One of our priorities is to get a lot of those works before the public.'' But, he adds, ``we balance that with the traditional works, because we feel the singers need to work on them. The two can fit very happily together.''

Opera Ebony's next New York program will be a young people's concert Feb. 1 at the company's home, Aaron Davis Hall (133rd St. and Convent Ave.).

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