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When Metropolitan Opera legend Roberta Peters flies to San Antonio this week, she'll find a city where opera, if not enjoying widespread interest, is at least growing up. If your neighbor can't name the three tenors, nonetheless he'll know one of them packs on the pounds. Still, San Antonio's opera scene is in flux, and San Antonio Lyric Opera General Director Mark Richter knows that getting Peters to perform here could swing the scene the Lyric's way.

"If Ms. Peters enjoys performing in San Antonio, it opens up a lot of doors to her other friends," Richter said, joking that he was able to convince her to come to town, "because I'm too dumb to know better."

For a city that was without an opera company for the better part of the past two decades, the classical art form is making a comeback, and Peters' performance is the most recent highlight.

At 71, she has outlasted most of her contemporaries in a career that is still garnering great reviews. From her first performance at age 19 at the Metropolitan Opera to her 50th anniversary performance there, the New York Times regularly calls her appearances "jubilant" and "divine."

"Moderation is the key to everything," Peters said recently from her home in Boca Raton, Florida, where she lives with her husband, a real estate developer. "Good health and singing the right repertoire ... I've seen so many singers who are not singing the right repertoire, who sing parts too heavy for them. I've trained to sing the light coloratura roles." As a soprano, she has sung works from Handel to Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, and she had the same teacher through all of them. "It's very important to have a good teacher," she said, and to that end, Peters is heading master classes for young singers across the country, most recently working with Luciano Pavoratti in New York City. Some of her best advice to upcoming performers, simple as it may be, is to stay fit — vocally and physically.

"We don't croon," said Peters. "You need your whole body when you sing opera." Peters still practices her scales, breathing, and fits in a few sets of tennis daily. Of her career, she says there have been mostly highlights: "It's hard to find `an opera` that you like best. When you perform, you have to love the opera you're performing." Peters makes it easier on herself — and her voice — by only accepting roles that suit her. "You have to know where you are in your life. Some things that I sang when I was 20 I don't sing today. But things I couldn't sing when I was 20 I can sing now." With its four high-Fs, the second "Queen of the Night" aria from The Magic Flute is one of those works she doesn't take on anymore, but her maturity and skill enable her to tackle difficult Mozart works.

Peters started her career unexpectedly at age 19. A harried producer asked her six hours before the curtain call for Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera to fill in for an ailing Zerlina. Having trained since 13, but still a few years away from what would typically be a debut, Peters accepted. It was the start of her 50-year career on stage and, as a sign of those times, television. The Ed Sullivan Show was a major venue for opera, and it featured Peters in more than 60 appearances.

Other than a bit part in the 1996 film City Hall, there aren't many chances to catch Peters on screen, big or small. The folks who are today buying tickets in San Antonio to opera performances are the same ones who watched her on Sullivan — which means the crowds in San Antonio aren't getting any younger. That's why bringing a diva to town is such a coup for Richter and the Lyric, who hope to grow larger — and younger — audiences.

The Lyric's largest supporters, the San Antonio Opera Guild, lost a critical link in bringing opera and new audiences together last month: Vice President of Educational Development Gene Martinez died while attending the Metropolitan Opera's Southwest auditions.

Martinez had implemented outreach programs to the city's low-income neighborhoods and started the free Opera Enhancement Series (think of an entertaining Opera 101 class). He had ambitions for reduced-price matinees. But a few days before the third installment of the popular Enhancement series, Martinez had a heart attack. The event still went on, with the San Antonio Symphony's former musical director Christopher Wilkins leading a familiar crowd through samples of I Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana.

Richter performed CPR on Martinez when he fainted at the auditions, and knows what his passing means for opera in San Antonio.

"Gene was kind of a one man army. He was going to be a counterpoint to what we were doing ... breaking the stereotypes and parodies of opera," Richter said. "Gene was that one person to get things done with an impassioned vision, and there aren't many of those people in San Antonio."

Still, opera's fans are turning out in larger numbers, partly proven by this: When the Lyric Opera formed in 1997, its annual budget was $6,000. For the 2002-2003 season, Richter is operating with half-a-million dollars; Peters should only add to that number. During her stay in town, the diva will undoubtedly play some tennis, perform at the Empire, be honored by the city, and attend the Third Annual "Opera Under the Stars" Gala. Richter said the annual weekend usually generates $10,000 for the Lyric Opera, but this year, with Peters performing and the location (the gala's in the same place where the Gore fundraiser was held last year), he hopes for a complete sell-out and $25-30,000 in new funds.

"Opera is the hottest upcoming thing in San Antonio. I mean this is big stuff: there's love, murder, firing squads, rape, lying, pretension," said Richter of the Lyric's current season. "It's everything Ron Howard would use in one of his movies."

For your information
Roberta Peters
Friday, April 5
Empire Theatre
208 E. Houston
224-9600 (Ticketmaster)

Third Annual Opera Under the Stars Gala
April 6
Jimmy and Jennifer Day Estate

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