Rita Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Rita Howell

Opera Guild exposed hundreds of children to exciting art form

One of the sad passings of 2009 was the disbanding of the Como Opera Guild. For six years the non-profit group provided opera performances for North Mississippi audiences. Thousands of local schoolchildren have been entertained with short operas presented in English and offered free of charge by the Guild.

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The opera company, founded in 2003, was the fulfillment of a dream for David Durrett, a Como native who enjoyed a professional opera singing career, appearing in productions from San Francisco to New York. He retired from the stage and came back to Como, where he devoted much of his time to organizing, funding and directing the Como Opera Guild. His goal was to provide opportunities for area children to be exposed to classical music.

Children at Batesville schools and members of the Boys and Girls Club of Northwest Mississippi were among those treated to kid-friendly opera performances over the years, while longer performances were presented for adult audiences.

Durrett enlisted professional opera singers and secured funding from the Mississippi Arts Commission, the National Endowment for the Arts, Yoknapatawpha Arts Council, the Sycamore Arts Council, the Oxford Convention and Visitors Bureau, Cellular South, Entergy, the Walmart Foundation, and many individual and community donors.

Durrett suffered a recurrence of cancer but continued to pour energy and time into the Guild.

He died Nov. 26, 2006, at age 55.

Devoted Como Opera Guild supporters, including Durrett’s sister Bonnie Long and his cousin Gwen Durrett, were determined to continue his vision.

The annual Opera Under the Stars free concert in a meadow near downtown Como continued for two more years. The group’s last opera was “The Old Maid and the Thief,” presented for young audiences from Batesville and Oxford in 2008.

The Guild was unable to carry out its plans for a 2009 Fall Tour, for which they’d been awarded a grant from the Mississippi Arts Commissions.

“Due to lack of funds, performers and volunteers for the Fall Tour we were forced to return the grant,” stated a letter from the Guild’s officers to supporters in October. “We determined in the beginning to ‘not do anything if it wasn’t the best,’” the letter explained.

“Without artistic and administrative volunteers, it has become increasingly difficult to continue David’s dream. However, we believe that his dream of bringing opera to the children of North Mississippi has been realized. We can truthfully say that thousands of children have enjoyed this exciting art form.”

The Guild has distributed its assets between its partners in the arts, the Panola Playhouse and Northwest Community College’s Fine Arts auditorium.

It should be remembered that for a time Mississippi could boast of three opera companies: one in Jackson, one in Natchez, and one in Como.