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Pick of the day: A friendship forged in opera

They have been friends in California since junior high school. Rickard Roudebush grew up with a rigid father who laid linoleum floors for a living and refused to allow his son to learn the violin because he thought it wasn't practical. Rickard's friend, Kenneth Wells, came from a musical, Baptist family and learned to play honky-tonk piano at the age of 9.

Decades later, their friendship enlarged, mainly through their shared love for opera, but also because Roudebush was on the verge of dying from colon cancer in 1988 and Wells implored him to try experimental chemotherapy. Roudebush listened to his friend and lived. Tonight, the two friends are doing something they never thought possible: They are premiering an opera they co-wrote -- in which Roudebush sings -- at the UCLA Semel Institute Auditorium.

In the daily front page feature titled "Column One" in the Los Angeles Times, reporter Martha Groves reconstructs the twisting paths of this duo's friendship from childhood to preparations for tonight's opera, whose subject is Eleanor Roosevelt and how she dealt with her husband's death and infidelity.

The origins of tonight's debut date back nearly 20 years. The friends, who wrote the libretto with Wells' son Matt and another friend, Gayle Mansfield, obtained the libretto's copyright in 1992. It was, Grove writes, "a year Roudebush had never thought he'd reach."

I loved this story because it showed one man's quest to live and simultaneously to achieve art. Groves goes back and forth in time, but I wanted the story to be purely chronological. The first paragraph is so compelling -- showing Roudebush rehearsing on stage -- but its power would have been deeper had Groves saved it for the ending, after the reader had digested everything Roudebush had gone through.

Roudebush, a tenor who plays the role of the priest who presided over the White House funeral of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, is rehearsing on stage, and Groves captures a poignant passage:

Onstage in a UCLA auditorium, tenor Rickard Roudebush intones the solemn words of the Episcopal funeral rite: "I am the resurrection and the life. . . . He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. Amen!"

For those in the Los Angeles area tonight who want to attend "The First Lady" chamber opera, you should know that admission is free, but reservations must be made. There are additional performances later in the month and in March.

By Ian Shapira  | February 19, 2010; 9:25 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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