Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Hearts on Fire

Valentine’s weekend provides ample opportunities to turn up the heat

Express Staff Writer

Witness the musical heat that these two make together. Share the passion of the season when songbirds Michelle Johnson and Brian Major take center stage Friday night for an evening of arias, gospel and popular tunes to kick off the Valentine’s weekend. Courtesy photo by Mykwain Gainey

Michelle Johnson has already won her personal Superbowl. The daughter of a Baptist pastor from Houston not only captured the judges' votes to be named grand prize winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2011, but she won their hearts as well. The New York Times declared her the clear crowd favorite.

"The process leading up to my success at the Met was full of hard work, focus and pure fun," she said. "The rehearsal process was a little stressful because I felt constantly on display. The audience is pretty intense and they definitely have strong opinions."

It prepared her for the next most pivotal life move thus far, which, while filled with likewise adoring friends and fans, she hopes will be a little less stressful. She will wed her longtime friend, the baritone to her soprano, Brian Major, with whom she shares her passion on and off the stage.

"It was not love at first sight!" she jokes of their meeting at the Boston University Opera Institute, where he was in the masters program. "We were friends for a long time, and then it blossomed into a beautiful romantic relationship. We are very aware of each other's strengths and weaknesses, so we try to pick up the slack for each other when needed.

"I love working with Brian. We don't work together very often, but when we do, it's pretty magical."

The two will share that joy, harmony and chemistry at a concert called "Love Is in the Air," sponsored by the Sun Valley Opera and to be held in the Opera House at the resort on Friday, Feb. 10.

Music critic David Patrick Stearns has said of Johnson: "On a good night, opera soprano Michelle Johnson is the bullfighter and the audience is the bull—there to be teased, attracted, provoked and (pleasurably) slain. Johnson could make you believe that opera singers are born rather than made, shepherded to fame by the forces of destiny and with luck, kept from vocal harm by extra-militant guardian angels."

Perhaps singing gospel and hymns in her dad's choir as a child helped, but it was Johnson who guided her destiny.

"I was 8 years old when I found opera," she said. "I saw Madame Butterfly on PBS and I was mesmerized. I asked my parents if I could take voice lessons, and the rest is history."

She pursued acceptance at the New England Conservancy of Music, where she got her bachelor's in music. But it was time spent with the Academy of Vocal Arts that she credits for helping her nail the Met honor.

"Winning the Met competition has put my name on a different radar. People know who I am without my having to introduce myself. It's something you have to get used to."

She heads back to Houston in March to perform the role of Leonora from Verdi's "Il Trovatore" for Opera in the Heights.

Frank Meyer, co-founder and president of the Sun Valley Opera, said it was quite the coup to have been able to snatch Johnson and Major up for the Sun Valley show.

"The dream of every rising opera singer is to win this prestigious competition," Meyer said. "The managers of the main opera houses from around the world are in the audience. Many of today's opera greats like Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson had their careers launched by winning the grand prize.

"This is the first time we've had a grand prize winner in our concert. Seeing her perform in an intimate setting rather than a large opera house is a huge opportunity to truly hear her incredible voice."

Major is a rising star as well, with opera credits including Don Alfonso in Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" and Handel's "Messiah" with the Des Moines Symphony. He is currently a studio artist with Center City Opera Theatre, where he will sing the role of Lincoln in "Slaying the Dragon," a world premiere by Michael Ching. He has won numerous awards and studied abroad at the University of Siena in Italy.

The pair will sing a selection of popular songs, show tunes and ballads to satisfy lovers of opera and those who just enjoy rich voices.

"We are both very excited to meet the community and share our gifts," Johnson said.

Love is in the Air

When: Friday, Feb. 10, at 8 p.m.

General admission: $40

Where: Sun Valley Opera House

Tickets: or online at, 726-0991.

Diva Patron Pre-Party

What: Mix-and-mingle pre-show. Hors d'oeuvres, wine and reserved, front-section seating.

How much: Select from offerings starting at $125 up to $15,000.

Where: Sun Valley Opera House

Tickets: or online at, 726-0991.

Cupid's Cabaret

What: A cozy winter cabaret show featuring memorable songs and laughter, starring L.A. songbird Stephanie Streja alongside many other talented vocalists with Joe Fos on piano, Brad Hershey on guitar, all under the direction of Patti Parsons.

When: Saturday, Feb. 11, Sunday, Feb. 12, at 6:30 p.m.

$20 includes: Café table seating and a no-host bar for drinks and hors d'oeuvres.

Where: nexStage Theatre, Ketchum

Tickets: 726-9124.

Cupid's Cabaret V-Day special

When: Tuesday, Feb. 14, at 5 p.m.

$25 includes: Cabaret show described above plus chocolates, champagne, café table seating and a no-host bar for drinks and hors d'oeuvres.

Where: nexStage Theatre, Ketchum

Tickets: 726-9124.

Boutonnieres Annual Valentine's Ball

When: Saturday, Feb. 11, 6:30 p.m.

What: No-host reception, dinner and dancing with music by DJ Lenny Joseph.

Attire: Sun Valley formal or black tie.

Where: Sun Valley Lodge Dining Room

Tickets: $70 per person (tax and gratuity included.)

Reservations: 622-2800.

All Hearts Dance

Who/What: All ages welcome to dance the night away with a D.J. spinning.

Attire: Formal encouraged, but not required.

When: Saturday, Feb. 11, from 7-9 p.m.

Cost: Couples $25, singles $15, 12 and under free.

Where: Community Campus gym.

Tickets: Tickets available at the 4-H Extension office or the Golden Elk, both in Hailey.

Benefits: All proceeds go toward improving the Blaine County Fairgrounds in Carey.

Sun Valley Summer Symphony School of Music Faculty Recital

When: Saturday, Feb. 11, at 6 p.m.

Where: Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, Ketchum.

Who: R.L. Rowsey, piano and voice; Sue Miller, piano; Leigh Heward, piano and voice; Jennifer Sullivan, violin; Arturo Chavez, cello; Jim Watkinson, piano; and Janis Walton, voice.


A few other ideas:

Don't forget those who danced before

What: See's Candy available in heart-shaped boxes, gold boxed truffles and gifts for kids under $10. All profits from the gift shop go to feed home-bound seniors.

Where: The Senior Connection Gift Shop, 721 Third Ave. S., Hailey.

Stir up something for after the dance

What: Love Potion Workshop, using essential oils to create a signature style.

When: Saturday, Feb. 11, 4-5 p.m.

Where: Tranquility Tea House, 580 Washington Ave. N., Ketchum.

Reservations: 726-0095

Cost: $30. Class limited to 30 people.

Get hearts racing

What: Sweetheart Nordic Relays, fun race for the whole family, six 1km Nordic relays with a kiss as a tag off.

When: Sunday, Feb. 12, at 11 a.m.

Where: Sun Valley Nordic Center

Entry fee: $15 per team. Costumes encouraged.

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