Monday, November 26, 2007

Up A Lazy River

"Camping it up" is one thing. "Camping out" is quite another. For those of us who consider "roughing it" to mean spending the night in a suburban hotel where the closest thing to room service is the neighboring Denny's, the thought of erecting one's own tent (instead of the usual equipment) can be a bit intimidating. While traveling to Egypt with the Houston Grand Opera's production of Show Boat earlier this year, I kept wondering what kinky kind of theatrical experience could possibly top my Mideastern musical adventure.

It didn't take long to find out.

Shortly after returning from Cairo, I was invited by the folks at Tag-A-Long Tours to join them on a whitewater raft trip down 100 miles of the Colorado River which would become the second installment of Grand Opera in the Canyonlands. A joint project by Portland Opera's General Director, Bob Bailey, and Tag-A-Long's owner, Paul Niskanen, Grand Opera in the Canyonlands was initially conceived as a one-time event for supporters of the Portland Opera who like the outdoors. However, the first operatic concert in Canyonlands National Park was such a hit that it now looks as if Grand Opera in the Canyonlands will become an annual event.

It's easy to see why. In addition to being one of the most intriguing educational outreach programs devised by anyone in the operatic community, this four-day whitewater raft trip offers music lovers a chance to enjoy some of the West's most incredible geology with friends of a similar cultural persuasion. And since Tag-a-Long's 1989 program included operatic excerpts sung by Merola graduate Pamela South (the former rodeo queen who has since been dubbed "First Lady of Canyonlands Opera"), it was hard for me to resist the group's invitation to join in the fun. Packing my trusty Dumbo pillowcases for good luck, I flew to Grand Junction, Colorado shortly after Labor Day to embark on a bizarre but wonderful adventure shared with a group of Dutch travel agents, German tourists and fans of the Portland Opera.

As a frequent flyer, I should stress that the meals on this trip (which included everything from hot bagels in the morning to 1-1/2 lb. salmon steaks, garlic-steamed clams and chicken cordon bleu at night) were better than what I get served in many restaurants. And, having once helped run a YMCA sailing camp, I can honestly say that the teamwork of Tag-A-Long's guides (Stu, Bill and Mara) rates top honors.


Contrary to the formal etiquette espoused at most operatic events, Grand Opera in the Canyonlands is a decidedly down-home affair. Of course, for those who insist, there is some dressing up. But it's strictly done by the artists who, at the first (and most formal) concert in Canyonlands National Park, performed in evening gowns and tuxedos. Despite the interruption of a brief rainstorm, the afternoon's concert (which was accompanied by Portland Opera's David McDade on a brand new $25,000 Steinway Grand) featured a pleasant program of selections from grand opera and Broadway. Staged in a sandstone grotto (whose acoustics add the ring of a singer's voice to the music as it bounces off the canyon wall on the opposite side of the river), this event was blessed with a charming ambience. With performances by soprano Pamela South, mezzo-soprano Gloria Parker, tenor Bob Bailey and basso Jerome Hines, the concert was followed by a catered reception featuring champagne and hors d'oeuvres. After that, it was back to the campsite for dinner under the stars, lots of bad jokes, and ghost stories told around the campfire.

The next day was spent floating down Cataract Canyon at a leisurely pace while the two sopranos, beer cans in hand, tested the echoes of the canyon walls with their voices. A second concert had to be aborted after the wind picked up and got sand in the piano, sand in the singers' faces and sand in the accompanist's contact lenses. As the artists huddled in a tiny boat beside the piano and waited for the wind to subside (while dreaming up a concert program featuring such classics as "Sand Enchanted Evening," "Sand Gets In Your Eyes," "I've Got You Under My Sand" and "Sand Day My Prince Will Come") the wind-swept audience, which had patiently been waiting on the rafts, took over the musical responsibilities by entertaining the professional singers with a series of Dutch and German drinking songs.

Upon returning to the campsite (where several tents had almost blown away) the group gathered around a campfire as Pamela South, Bob Bailey and Gloria Parker sang folk songs like "Oh, Danny Boy" and selections from West Side Story. The highlight of the evening came when, under a full moon and starlit sky, Miss South (who used to sing country western songs in a bar in Salmon, Idaho) performed "The Ballad of Hobo Bill" a cappella with country-style yodeling between each verse. It was one of those magical moments in music when the beauty of the human voice captures the spirituality of the text and communicates it, as simply as possible, to an audience with spine-tingling effectiveness.

As people emerged from their tents at approximately 7:00 a.m. the next morning, many were startled to discover David McDade floating down the river while playing wake-up selections (Debussy, etc.,) on a Steinway grand piano. What can I say? It was that kind of a trip.


By the second day on the river people had gotten to know each other fairly well. Among those on my raft were a 72-year-old former Olympics swimmer, a man who owns a tire franchise in Utah, a woman who helps organize "pro-choice" fundraisers in Salt Lake City and a delightful lady who does hospice work with AIDS patients in Portland. Although, throughout the raft trip, the scenery in Canyonlands National Park was breathtaking, due to the low water at the end of the season, the 25 sets of rapids in Cataract Canyon were fairly easy for our guides to negotiate. My favorite moment came immediately after we hit the first set of rapids and got soaked by the icy waters of the Colorado River. Mezzo-soprano Gloria Parker turned to me and screamed "Good God! I won't have to buy douche for a year!"

The raft segment of the trip finished up at Lake Powell's Hite Marina and, during the scenic flight (in a fleet of tiny Cessnas) from Hite, Colorado to Moab, Utah, it became obvious that Cataract Canyon is situated at the bottom of a prehistoric ocean floor. Upon returning to my hotel room in Grand Junction, I wasted no time throwing my mud-caked shoes and socks into the garbage and washing my feet in the toilet bowl.

Tag-A-Long plans to market Grand Opera in the Canyonlands to regional opera companies as a fundraising idea. But I really think that this tour would also have strong appeal to those who enjoy the cruises offered by RSVP Tours. What makes these trips so special are the intimate moments one is allowed to share with one's fellow rafters and the artists who perform. Those wishing to receive information about 1990's Grand Opera in the Canyonlands whitewater raft trips can contact Tag-A-Long, toll-free, by calling (800) 453-3292.

This happy camper heartily recommends the experience to one and all.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on November 2, 1989.

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