June 4 was an epic night for all those who attended the 3rd annual WWO Leadership Council event in New York.
Thanks to Janet and Howard Kagan, the attendees enjoyed the warm and cozy environs of Soho House in the Meatpacking District of New York City. The "Three Doctors.com" foundation, created by Drs. Sampson Davis, Rameck Hunt and George Jenkins, inspired the group by bringing them into their early lives in the streets of Newark, where they made a pact to get an education and become doctors who would serve their community.
These young men have an astounding commitment to change how poor youth all over the US feel about themselves. They want to give hope to all youngsters who may not know that they can make their lives better. I felt the pure power and energy of each of them tonight. At one point, while each of the doctors spoke, I looked out at the audience, and saw how completely captured they all were...is it love? Is it grit? What is it that finally changes the direction of a life from a sure course to failure and disappointment to triumphant success? George Jenkins said he didn't know what finally makes young people change, but he spoke articulately about his hope and dream to make sure that he could tell his story of success so that kids would know that if he did it, they could do it. Each of their presentations was about their fight to "beat the streets" (which is also the name of a book they wrote) and they are proof that this fight can be fought and won.
Then the group all walked around the corner to West 13th and Washington Street to a magical tent housing the set of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 by Dave Molloy. This opera was originally commissioned, developed and premiered by Ars Nova, owned by Jennifer and Jon Steingart and produced by Janet and Howard Kagan, all of whom are members of Leadership Council.
The tent disappears the minute one enters and walks the wooden ramps into the theater. The round tables for four fill a room of lighting equipment, a musical ensemble, walls curtained and covered with paintings including Napoleon Bonaparte, setting the scene for early 19th century Moscow which is where the adapted story of War and Peace takes place.
Whether one knows the Tolstoy book or not won't make a difference because the production lives on its own merits as a powerfully dramatic opera with a dark and romantic Russian essence swirling in seduction, sensuality, danger, history and the superficial love of wealthy aristocrats. Early 19th century Russian life was short, depressing, and dominated by political forces that made the poor, victims of circumstances and the rich able to enjoy moments of rapture on a backdrop of complex human behavior without happy endings. Everyone succumbed to the ugliness of wars without meaning. Those who were educated pondered the great moral issues of life. Duals ended lives for no apparent reasons, except pride, tradition and vanity.
The musical ensemble of clarinet, oboe, violin, cello, guitar, piano and percussion surrounded us on all sides. The musician and actor who played Pierre was at the piano conducting, and also standing speaking lines and singing. That versatility was manifested by a cast of 11 exquisitely talented performers who were our wait persons and story tellers. Costumes were just perfectly fit for the time and, along with make-up and artful hair, made the play believable and authentic. I was dazzled by the feeling of being surrounded. I found myself turning my head almost 360 degrees to take in the players as they strode and pranced on the stage acting as a perimeter.
The strobe lights and spots accompanied by Russian tonal rock music put me in a "Studio 54" mood. There was a set of costumes in one scene that transported me to a bordello. Anatole and Helene's plot to seduce Natasha was evil and inevitable just as it is in the book, but the irksome and visceral music mixed me up and created some romance that confused me and delighted me at the same time.
I had to leave early and didn't get to experience the last scenes where romance and deep abiding love come together for Natasha and the wounded Prince Andrey. Because I did study Russian history, literature and music in high school and college, I will go back to see the ending another night. I adore Russian culture even with its darkness and suffering, and am grateful that Ars Nova and the Kagans have made this opera possible for WWO's Leadership Council and the rest of the world.
What a night and what a way to celebrate the generous gifts of LC members who support the innovative and creative programs of Worldwide Orphans Foundation. These generous long term gifts allow orphan children to sing, dance, act, paint, perform, play sport, go to school, get medicine when they need it and learn about their hopes and dreams so that they can step up and out of their impoverished communities to be independent and successful just like Sampson, Remeck and George...all the same whether in Newark or Addis Ababa. Whether grit or love, both or more...we value it all.