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The seas

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Posted: Sunday, September 16, 2012 12:00 am

Season 17 of MSC OPAS (1989-90) was memorable for several reasons. As with all OPAS years, Season 17 brought acclaimed artists and performers to the Brazos Valley, ranging from the Houston Symphony to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, from the Moscow Virtuosi Chamber Orchestra to the Summit Brass, from Michael Tilson Thomas to Joshua Bell. It was singularly notable as well as the first season of OPAS Jr., thus signaling OPAS's commitment to advance the arts for all ages. And it was, for performers and audience members alike, "the season of the bats," as Anne Black vividly recalls in one of the many anecdotes to be found in Footlights and Footnotes: MSC OPAS 40 Seasons. Whether they were a gifted species of arts-minded bats or found the programs for that year especially suited to their bat tastes or were simply comfortable in the cozy confines of the upper regions of Rudder Auditorium, the bats were an expected, if not always welcome, part of Season 17.

To be sure, not every OPAS season can lay claim to the beginning of OPAS Jr. or boast the persistent presence of winged creatures, but each season has been noteworthy in its own way. Since 1973, MSC OPAS has brought to the Rudder stages a variety of artists, performances, ensembles, musicals, theatre, and other modes of entertainment that defy simple explanation, all with an aim of bringing to this community song, dance, instrumental virtuosity, high drama, exquisite beauty and just plain fun.

Who can forget Yo-Yo Ma and Emmanuel Ax or Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov or, in a different vein, the Smothers Brothers and the Tuna guys?

OPAS has brought distinguished artists (think, among many others, of Christopher Parkening [the very first performer to appear under the auspices of OPAS], Van Cliburn, Marilyn Horne, Marcel Marceau, Andre Watts, Pinchas Zukerman, Bella Davidovich, Victor Borge, James Galway, Lang Lang, Michael Tilson Thomas, Tom Chapin, Branford Marsalis, Twyla Tharp, Ray Benson, Arlo Guthrie, Garrison Keillor, Ronan Tynan, and Steve Martin), internationally acclaimed ensembles (including the Houston Symphony, Pennsylvania Ballet, STOMP, Cleveland Orchestra, Dance Theatre of Harlem, Ahn Trio, Rockapella, Dallas Symphony, Bowfire, Debussy Quartet, Houston Ballet, Romero Quartet and Canadian Brass) and many of the best known and most acclaimed operas, ballets and musicals.

As for bringing Broadway to the Brazos Valley, well, just about every important Broadway musical and a number of award-winning plays have made their way to the Rudder stage, some of them more than once. Understanding the history of OPAS at Texas A&M University and in the Brazos Valley provides a wonderful opportunity to review, relive and celebrate the contributions of an organization whose aim has always been to "enlighten, entertain, and inspire."

Footlights and Footnotes: MSC OPAS 40 Seasons is just such a history, recounting in images and words the beginning steps and continuing vitality of this remarkable organization, thus providing to the OPAS audience and the larger Texas A&M and Brazos Valley community both a visual and a written record of the past 40 years. Inspired by the anticipation of the 40th anniversary season and sparked by a suggestion from Ricky Griffin, the president of OPAS during Season 39 (2011-12), Anne Black, Stephanie Sale and I, ably supported throughout by Tina Phillips and Pam Wiley, set out to make a book.

But we were by no means alone. We contacted every living OPAS president and solicited from each a personal recollection of his or her season, and those recollections - filled with humorous anecdotes, admissions of anxiety, numerous occasions of satisfaction and excitement, and, always, a genuine appreciation for what OPAS has brought to the community - make up the bulk of the written portion of Footlights and Footnotes. I wrote the accounts of those seasons for which the president was deceased or unable to provide a full recollection, and in that effort I was fortunate to have the helpful guidance of some who were here at the creation of OPAS, including, notably, Ann Wiatt and Valerie and David Woodcock.

Footlights and Footnotes is, we believe, an interesting and important history, and it is a beautiful visual presentation of that history through photographs drawn from each of the forty seasons. Selected and curated by Stephanie Sale, these images remind us of performances we saw or wish we had seen or might hope to see in the future. As Stephanie eloquently puts it in the Epilogue to Footlights and Footnotes:

"This is a book of memories, cobbled together by recollections of captured moments - from the twin realms, visual and verbal - of fine performing artists, perfecting and sharing their extraordinary abilities with us, touching the essence of ourselves."

Stephanie has been responsible for the visual element, I have been responsible (with significant contributions from many) for the written element, and Anne - well, Anne Black has been the resource to whom we all have gone for advice and counsel and, especially, for her own insightful and humorous recollections since assuming the position of executive director of OPAS in 1987. It will come as no surprise to anyone associated with OPAS over these many years that Footlights and Footnotes is dedicated to her and to her inspiring commitment to this premier organization.

In addition to the contributions of many OPAS presidents, the OPAS book (as we have more commonly called it) includes the comments and recollections of many students and Jim Reynolds, the former and longtime director of the Memorial Student Center. In our efforts to learn more about OPAS from a student perspective, we were pleased to hear not only from recent chairs of the OPAS Student Committee and active student members but also from some of the very first students to be involved, including the first student chair in 1973-74, Gwen Flynt Smith, and Merrill Mitchell Bonarrigo, one of the small group of students initially tagged by J. Wayne Stark, then director of the Memorial Student Center and OPAS's founder and first executive director.

Footlights and Footnotes is not a plodding historical record. The stunning visual images alone assure that is not the case. But so do the varieties of perspectives and anecdotes shared by OPAS presidents and others, from Florence Furubotn (president of Season 4, 1976-77) to Nita Hoelscher (president of current Season 40, 2012-13).

A few know, but many do not, how high Wayne Stark and the OPAS team set the bar from the beginning. The first season included Christopher Parkening, Itzhak Perlman and Van Cliburn, among others, an assembly of artistic talent that is clear confirmation of Stark's, and OPAS's, aspirations.

To be sure, OPAS has changed over the years, but in many ways it has changed because it must. Rose VanArsdel, one of the community members involved in OPAS early on and president of Season 10 (1982-83), reflects on the past and the present, noting that the "economics of the performing arts world have changed considerably through the years. No longer are there as many touring groups as there once were. Audience tastes have changed, too, and OPAS has shifted its emphasis more to the large Broadway shows or entertainment on its main stage, with the newer OPAS Intimate Gatherings offering smaller-scale performances."

Anne Black also speaks to change in the Afterword to Footlights and Footnotes, reflecting on the present and anticipating the future: "As we look forward to the next 40 years, we realize change is inevitable. We, of course, do not know what those changes will be, but change is unavoidable and also important. However, what will remain the same is our commitment to enlighten and inspire, as well as entertain."

Footlights and Footnotes is a record of accomplishment and change, made possible by the many artists, performers, students, university members, and community citizens who have supported MSC OPAS for the past 40 years. It is the beginning of what will be a year-long celebration of OPAS, and the arts, in the Brazos Valley.

Paul A. Parrish is Regents Professor Emeritus of English at Texas A&M University and OPAS president, Season 27 (1999-2000).

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