It seemed fitting that Wichita Grand Opera celebrated its 10th anniversary on Saturday night — right smack in the middle of the NCAA's March Madness.
Just as Kansas is known for its illustrious contributions to the game of basketball, so is it known in the world of opera for producing some of the top stars of our day.
Three of those luminaries — all trained at Wichita State University — thrilled, beguiled and otherwise entertained a packed Century II Concert Hall on Saturday night at Wichita Grand Opera's anniversary gala.
Samuel Ramey, class of '68, Joyce DiDonato, class of '92, and Alan Held, who earned a master's degree in 1983, used their powerhouse voices and charismatic stage presences to show just why they occupy a rarefied space to which most singers can only aspire.
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Whether sharing the stage in duets or medleys, or performing solo, all three exuded warmth, charm and, often, a lighthearted playfulness with one another and their audience.
With his silver mane of hair and black frock coat, Ramey, who grew up in Colby, was almost spellbinding in his opening number, "I'm fixin' to tell y' 'bout a feller I knowed," from the Revival Scene of "Susannah."
His talent as an actor as well as a singer also transfixed the audience in "Skorvit dusha!" from the Coronation Scene of "Boris Godunov."
But he showed a lighter side when he and DiDonato, a mezzo-soprano who grew up in Prairie Village, performed "Ai capricci della sorte" from Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri." As DiDonato sashayed provocatively off stage as the number ended, Ramey loped after her, making suggestive grabbing gestures with his hands.
DiDonato, wearing a sea-blue gown in the first half and a sparkly red one in the second, showed why she is in demand on stages around the globe. Her strong yet delicately pure voice enthralled in songs from Rossini's "Cenerentola" and Handel's "Xerxes."
Equal in talent and charm to Ramey and DiDonato was Alan Held, who told the audience that he and his new wife years ago made Wichita their first home. Held's commanding baritone was majestic yet tender in one of the highlights of the evening, "Te Deum" from Puccini's "Tosca."
The three stars closed the program with selections from "The Wizard of Oz," but not without first recognizing in the audience the man who taught all of them at Wichita State, George Gibson, who came from his home in Arizona for the program.
Steven Mercurio, who conducted a stellar orchestra and chorus, must be given his share of credit for the evening's success. Not only did his animated and passionate personality seem to bind the performances together, but he also was responsible for choosing the singers' numbers and arranging the program.
Mercurio, who just ended an 80-city tour of Europe and North America with Sting and the Royal Philharmonic, seemed to enjoy himself more than anyone onstage, yet conducted with a sophisticated and professional hand.