The Phenom of the Opera

Dorothy Lofton Jones is the driving force behind a local opera company determined to have its voice heard.

May 22, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Sleep? What's that?"

When Dorothy Lofton Jones asks the question, it seems entirely possible that the notion of slumber is an alien concept. She's the force behind the Municipal Opera Company of Baltimore - founder, artistic director, even costume maker - and, at 67, her energy level shows no signs of wavering.

For several weeks now, that energy has been focused on a production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly, which opens tonight at the company's home base, Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church. It's not exactly an easy opera for a community organization to tackle, but that wouldn't deter Jones; this is the second time she staged the work since forming the company in 1991. She didn't hesitate to take on the same composer's La Boheme, either, not to mention Mozart's The Magic Flute and Cosi fan tutte, Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, Bizet's Carmen or Franz Lehar's The Merry Widow.

With a tiny budget (about $70,000 for a two-opera season when she can afford to have an orchestra, less now that she can afford only a pianist), Municipal Opera has its share of limitations and struggles, its mix of the professional, nearly professional and amateur. But it also has a compelling mission, one that keeps this operation highly motivated - to "provide talented minority singers with increased opportunities to perform operatic roles," opportunities often hard to gain at major companies.

"You don't have to be black to sing with us," Jones says. "We have several white singers, and I love them to death. When we did Carmen [in 2001 with two casts], we had a black Carmen and a white Carmen, and it was wonderful. And one of our Pinkertons for Butterfly is from Venezuela. I won't turn anyone away. If they have a talent, I'll use them - if they don't mind the small stipend we can afford to pay. If I can help a young black or Spanish - or whatever - singer, I will do it."

These days, African-American singers make up about two-thirds of the roster. "Everyone seems to mix very well," says stage director Ron Oaks, who used to sing with Jones when the two were soloists at Brown Memorial and calls her "the heart and soul of the company." (He's white, by the way.)

The original premise for the company understandably remains strong. "There are a lot of young talented black folk," Jones says. "They go to all the opera auditions, but they don't get chosen."

Although the opera world has been thought of as color-blind since Marian Anderson made her belated Metropolitan Opera debut in 1955, minority representation has fluctuated considerably over the years. It's a fluctuation very familiar to Willie Anthony Waters, an African-American groundbreaker in opera-conducting and administration who is currently general and artistic director of the Connecticut Opera.

"There is a visible lack of African-American singers on the stages of American opera companies today," Waters says. "So I definitely think there is a place for such groups as Municipal Opera and Houston Ebony Opera [he's also artistic director of that company of minority singers], which can help identify, encourage and develop singers who have the talent but aren't getting through the networks to the other companies. They need the opportunity to hone their craft, learn the repertoire and get on their feet."

The North Carolina-born Jones, a mezzo-soprano who toured as a vocal trio with two of her sisters when she was a teen and studied at the Peabody Institute in the mid-1960s, got her own operatic feet wet touring in the Houston Grand Opera's production of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Later, she sang in the chorus of the Baltimore Opera Company for nine years. (In addition to the musical pursuits, she worked for the telephone company for 28 years. "I had to pay the rent," she says.)

With the help of eight friends, Jones formed the Municipal Opera, pouring a lot of her own money into the project. In addition to helping minority singers, the venture tries to help audiences, too, by performing everything in English and keeping prices low.

One more characteristic defines the company - a feeling of family. From the ladies serving cookies and punch at intermission to the children of cast members serving as extras, there's a disarming earnestness and openness about the performances.

It's the same at rehearsals. One minute, the soft-spoken Jones - even though she's fighting a bad cold - is outside the church hall keeping an eye on a youngster who is playing while his father is onstage. Another minute, she's casting a knowing glance on costumes. A chorus member passes by wearing an ill-fitting robe. "I didn't make that one," she says with a laugh. She tells some other singers that she'll have their costumes finished by the next night. "Spare sets and costumes are stored at my home in White Hall," Jones says. "They are chasing me out of the house. My husband is not happy."

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