Magic, The Gatherings
By Tom Lady
Opera topic? Check. Host and venue? Check. Okay, but is it a venue capable of holding a good number of opera lovers? Check. Speaker? Check. More than one speaker? Check. Equipment? Check. Right, but will someone get there early enough to set up and test the equipment and face Murphy’s Law of Technology head on? Check.
Gatherings are among the Opera League’s most popular events, a crowning jewel that dates back almost to the League’s beginning. Nowhere else but at a gathering can you experience the crème de la crème of volunteerism, subject matter expertise, and a vibrant, passionate community, all centered around the vital art form that is opera.
So did I forget anything in my checklist? Apparently I did, and it’s a biggie. “The operative word is food,” says Beth Dymond, San Fernando Valley co-host along with her husband Alan. “No food, no one comes.”
Indeed, when I attended the San Fernando Valley gathering on Moby-Dick and Norma in late October (my first gathering!), it was clear that the potluck was the lynchpin. The dishes were as varied as a diva’s wardrobe. Homemade, ordered, traditional, ethnic, you name it, brought by the attendees to supplement their diet of culture with a diet of culinary pleasure. And don’t forget the vino.
The hosts' hospitality is very much appreciated. OC regional head Lorna Blancaflor says, "When we did The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro last season, our gracious hostess Sylvia Traub not only set up a special display related to the productions, but also prepared opera-themed table decorations and program!"
Gatherings have evolved quite a bit over the decades. Past president Anne Combs remembers: “When we began, the gatherings were very different in character from now. League members would bring their recordings. We would read an upcoming opera's synopsis. We all had a great time learning from the ensuing discussions. The more formalized presentations that we have now came about after we had a Speakers Bureau [now known as Education and Community Engagement]. Graduates of that program began to share their knowledge at the gatherings as well.”
Gatherings are unique among the League’s oeuvre of offerings in that they are regionalized. League co-founder Alice Coulombe explains: “By the time Joan Thompson became the League’s fourth president, the League was nearing the size it is now. We began to fret it was so large that volunteers didn’t know each other and were missing the happy excitement in the life of the company. Regionalizing was a special interest of mine. So at a board meeting, Joan said to me, ‘It’s something you really care about, you might as well do it.’ We formed a committee and did it!”
Currently the gatherings are organized by eight regions: Beverly Hills, Hollywood / Hancock Park, Orange County, San Fernando Valley, San Gabriel Valley, Santa Clarita, South Bay and Westside.
So what’s involved in being a gathering head? Gathering Chair Ifang Hsieh explains: “Although all gathering heads are provided with a detailed task list, they tailor each gathering as they see fit. Finding venues is always a challenge. Special thanks go to Santa Clarita regional heads Ann Anderson and Ron Gordon who host every gathering at their home, and San Gabriel Valley long-time hosts Barbara and Jack Dawson.
"The gathering heads are multi-tasking specialists and seasoned volunteers," Ifang continues. "Their enthusiasm, creativity and people skills are the League’s most valuable asset."
“Chuck Bragg and I have been organizing Westside gatherings for about ten years,” says Monika Whitaker. “These events are truly fascinating and educational thanks to the high caliber of our speakers. I have made many wonderful friends.”
League president Marlene Chavez teams up with Sean Muhlstein to organize the Hollywood / Hancock Park gatherings. She reserves a special shout-out for Anne Russell-Sullivan. “Anne is gracious, efficient, and entertaining. She should be commended for doing double duty. Anne might speak at her own Beverly Hills gathering at 10am, then head over to my house for the 2pm gathering.”
Sometimes, however, the speaker doesn't have the needed equipment and will therefore depend on the host to provide it. "You have to match the venue to the speaker,” says Regi Merwin, gathering head for the San Fernando Valley. “You may need a TV and DVD already at the venue. Other speakers bring a whole setup.” She laughs and adds: “No two remote controls are created equally.”
The technically-inclined frequent speaker Steve Kohn agrees. But what do you do when something goes awry in the machine? Steve smiles as he quotes the troubleshooting credo of engineer and League member Ron Streicher: "There’s always another button to press.”
Speaking of lots of buttons to press, I ask Ifang what’s involved in being the big brain behind all this. “I keep a separate list and update it often. Notable tasks include informing the regional heads of the League's administrative and policy changes such as membership-related updates, interfacing with LA Opera that coordinates the Education and Community Engagement program, and recruiting new organizers.
“Anyone who enjoys event planning is encouraged to volunteer for an existing group, or start a new gathering in other SoCal regions. I also plan and host the annual meeting. Though the tasks can get quite involved, anyone who can prioritize and organize will be able to do the job.”
Here’s the good news: It’s so worth it!
“It’s a nice little community,” Regi says. “And you see different kinds of people all over town because we’re all into the same kind of cultural things.”
“I’m so happy that it continues,” Alice Coulombe gushes. “With the gatherings and group activities, it makes it so much better when volunteers know one other and work together.”