Arthur Woodley was not a name I knew. But then I am not an opera buff. Had I been, I would have known Mr Woodley is a nationally acclaimed bass soloist most frequently associated with the Seattle Opera. His roles are many – one for which he is particularly renowned being Porgy in Porgy and Bess. He has also performed with Sir Neville Marriner and The Academy of St Martin in the Fields in Mexico, amongst other countries.
Why my interest? Because on Friday evening I heard Mr Woodley sing at Whim Plantation, now a Landmark Society museum, on St Croix. The setting was splendid. The windows of the rotunda-shaped room open to easterly breezes, the smell of recently fallen rain mingling with wax from candles sparkling high above us in a candelabra tarnished by sea air and time, the cricket chorale, all increased the audience’s anticipation.
His accompanist entered first. Dr Adele Allen is an esteemed pianist and, forgive the pun, instrumental to the music scene of the island. She settled at the piano, and then Mr Woodley lumbered in. He is not a tall man, neither is he big, but rather he is deep. Deep in voice, in thought, in emotion. He was clean shaven, though is known to happily grow any kind of beard, saying in one interview at Seattle Opera, “Joyce (Degenfelder, Hair and Makeup Designer) was talking about a goatee. I figured, might as well grow the whole thing out, so she has more to play with!”
Born in New York but brought up by grandparents here on the island at Estate La Vallee, one can’t help marvelling at his path to opera. But it was not to be opera that night. Rather the concert was a nod to American music. We travelled Ten Thousand Miles to Siam to hear the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic, I Have Dreamed, to Irving Berlin’s Change Parters to the spiritual, Climbing High Mountains, and many more in between. His pitch perfect performance made even better by the wonderful acoustics in such an intimate setting.
I spent much of the evening in tears. Something I had not warned my friends might happen. I had expected opera after all, and the only opera I know well enough to bring me to tears is La Traviata. But Mr Woodley’s rich, mellifluous voice singing many of my father’s favourite songs was my undoing.
My father was an untrained but pleasant tenor, and what he lacked in style and technique he made up for in gusto. I might have been on the other side of the world on Friday evening, but I was transported to my parents dancing on the verandah of our house in Singapore one Sunday afternoon to Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Isn’t It Romantic? with Dad singing along.
That’s the wonder of music. It moves us.
I’m in St Croix, where there are fewer demands on my time, so I may finish a rewrite of a novel due to go to my wonderful editor, Jane Dean, next week for polishing. I can though be very easily distracted, and so it was last night.
This time to the annual fundraiser for the Caribbean Community Theatre. A cabaret complete with desserts and coffee. Wine for some. The setting was not quite so magical as Whim Plantation, though the white tablecloths, decorated with bougainvillea clustered around candles and champagne glasses filled with tumbling cherry tomatoes, drew the eye from the the utilitarian walls of the building shared sometimes with a congregation. The emcee asked us to close our eyes and imagine Billie Holiday’s sultry tones. But we didn’t have to. Becky Bass, a twenty-five-year-old from St Croix, recent alum of Brown University, and now a singer setting her sights on Broadway, took us to a dark, smokey night club with her evocative voice. Etta James, Nina Simone, Sara Vaughn were all summoned before the tempo changed with a raunchy rendition of When You’re Good to Mama from Chicago, and other Broadway productions. A duet with Daniel Deane, an artist relatively new to the music scene but pleasing to listen to, and then her prowess with the steel pan showed her many talents.
I thanked both Mr Woodley and Miss Bass, for making me cry, and laugh. Both were gracious, one at the top of his career, one embarking on an exciting road to Broadway and beyond, and yet such is their affinity with St Croix they happily return.
As I sit here on my gallery, gazing between sentences to the turquoise, aquamarine and navy stripes of the glittering Caribbean, I am again overawed by the talent this US Virgin Island nurtures.
What can I say? Except I’m thankful to the flip of the coin which brought me here.