A Labor of Love


An opera-singer friend once told me that performing before a live audience helps lift both the performer and the audience out of the humdrum of life.

She said this after I had asked her why she devoted so much time and energy to her community opera company. It seems that she's always doing something for the opera company -- sawing or painting wood for props, typing programs, baking goodies to be sold at intermission and, oh yes, singing.

When I called her this week there was a noticeable hum in the background during part of our conversation. It was her sewing machine; she was constructing a costume.

This weekend all the labors of her effort may be seen as The Municipal Opera of Baltimore opens its season with two one-act operas by Giacomo Puccini, "Sister Angelica" and "Gianni Schicchi," at Christ Lutheran Church, 701 S. Charles St. The performance tonight is at 8 p.m., tomorrow's is at 3 p.m.

My friend, Dorothy Lofton Jones, formed the opera company upon her retirement in 1991 from the telephone company for several reasons: to give local musicians a performance venue; to bring opera to "non-traditional" audiences such as African-Americans at a reasonable cost; and to fulfill her own dream of working full-time with an opera company. She has pursued this dream with a vengeance.

Community opera has its difficulties. Chief among them are the shortage of money to pay for costumes and sets and a paucity of volunteers to help coordinate the work-intensive performances.

I thought of Dorothy's opera company after a study was released last week showing that Americans are giving less money to charities and volunteering less of their time, despite an upturn in the economy. We gave 11 percent less to charity last year than we did in 1989. Forty-eight percent of Americans volunteered for some cause in 1993, down from the 54 percent in 1989.

Some theorize that this trend is due to the lingering effects of the recession and that more women are in the work force. But I'm not so sure that these reasons account for most of the decline. I wonder whether in our desire to shut out an increasingly frightening world, we also are closing the door to charity work and community activism. Has caring for the downtrodden and promoting art and culture become expendable?

Dorothy, like many leaders of non-profit groups that lack a sufficient number of volunteers, doesn't cry about shouldering so much of the group's work. Why? Because she so deeply believes in her cause; she's on a mission to spread the magic of opera. With this in mind, her group usually performs in English and each season tries to present at least one work composed by a woman or a member of a racial minority. Last spring, 500 people saw the company's performances of "Treemonisha," the only opera composed by Scott Joplin.

Like any self-confident movement leader, Dorothy doesn't recruit volunteers. She figures that if you believe in her mission, you'll show up to take on any of the dozens of tasks she assigns to volunteers or takes on herself.

So when someone like me says "just call me if you need help," Dorothy smiles sweetly and in her lilting soprano voice says, "That's OK, I know you're busy."

Dorothy's hard work and sweet disposition help keep the 30-member company looking and sounding professional. The predominantly African-American company ranges in age from childhood to 72. Some are well-heeled -- including one physician -- others are blue-collar workers. Most are people who can't afford to or don't want to give up their careers to pursue full-time careers as musicians. So instead they fit vocal classes, rehearsals and performances in between work and home responsibilities.

It's the sort of schedule Dorothy is used to. During her career with the telephone company, she was much in demand as a paid church soloist and, at one point, even took leave from her job to tour with a major opera company for several months.

Now despite all the work of putting on the operas, Dorothy happily extends herself, working 18-hour days. To pass the time on her 60-mile round trips between her White Hall home in Baltimore County and the city for rehearsals, she vocalizes all the way. As certain as Dorothy's drive and enthusiasm is the fact that if we fail to support our varied arts groups, they will flounder and die.

The least I can do is buy a $10 ticket.

Marilyn McCraven edits The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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