By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
On Saturday evening, September 16, I was invited to attend an important, exciting and beautiful fundraiser. Why so important you ask? Because it was hosted by a private individual, Sherry Watkins, in her lovely home, to raise money from other private individuals in support of the artistic endeavors of proven and gifted artists. AND because the three accomplished artists who performed for Ms. Watkins’ guests were Metropolitan Opera soprano, Danielle Talamantes; her husband, Army Chorus bass-baritone, Kerry Wilkerson; and their amazing accompanist, composer and arranger, Henry Dehlinger. Imagine that incredible vocal power in your own living room singing for you and about 60 of your closest friends and business associates.
The money raised during the evening from ticket sales and the delightful silent auction will go toward making more Danielle and Henry recordings, as well as accomplishing other musical collaborative projects, including new compositions by Henry specifically arranged for Danielle’s voice. The artists also kindly earmarked a portion of the proceeds of the silent auction to donate to a National Society of Arts and Letters’ Classical Voice competition to provide monetary support for young singers. (As a coincidence, Danielle was a winner of an NSAL competition years ago; talk about “what goes around, comes around!”)
As most of you already know, the arts community is always looking for stronger support from the private and public sectors. Many people assume that singers, actors, dancers and musicians simply enjoy their work so much they would do it for very little pay. And that would be somewhat true, if those same individuals didn’t have to pay rent, buy food for themselves and their families, buy clothes, and put their children through schools.
Thankfully, some people in our communities are taking the initiative to help out individuals and arts communities through direct fund raising. This has been going on for hundreds of years dating back to the days when musicians and other artists had patrons or benefactors who took on the responsibility of supporting an artist until he or she could be self-supporting. Until recently, though, I knew no one personally who was doing this.
Enter this smart, delightful, and resourceful woman from Vienna, Va., Sherry Watkins, who was introduced to me by a mutual friend, Maestro Joseph Walsh, whom we both knew from the opera world, the In Series, MetroStage, and his work as a professor at GMU and Music Director of the George Mason Opera. He told me that Sherry occasionally holds fundraisers on behalf of young artists. “When she gives a party,” he said, “you will want to be there! It’s going to be the best of the best!” Of course, I couldn’t WAIT to be invited to her next event. Well, this was it.
Sherry, I was told, likes to base each party on a specific theme as a springboard for attire or costumes, marvelous food, and delectable (and for this party, golden) cocktails. Her “All That Glitters” theme, celebrating the centennial of Leonard Bernstein’s birth, delivered it all. Her event had delicious food (including several gold-colored dishes—think saffron rice–playing off the “glitters” theme), beautifully catered and served, inventive décor, and she even baked six yummy cakes, some of which were dusted with edible gold. (I know they were yummy, because we were encouraged to eat more than one kind. What’s a writer to do?)
And the music. Well, can we talk? Danielle, Henry, and Kerry performed three sets of four Bernstein pieces in each set, which included music from “Candide,” “West Side Story,” “Wonderful Town,” “On the Town,” and several other pieces, both popular and classical as well. Each selection came with a story interestingly presented by both Danielle and Kerry. Their voices are beautiful, strong, and gorgeously matched. Danielle’s seemingly effortless delivery of stratospheric soprano notes, as well as Kerry’s masterful and rich baritone enchanted everyone. As Sherry Watkins posited, “I have tremendous respect and admiration both for Danielle and her talented husband, Kerry, and when they do a duet, it is absolutely magical.” Boom. Add to that Henry’s sparkling accompaniment and arrangements, and fireworks of the best kind ensue.
Sherry offered some interesting details on why she held this fundraising evening. She is an ardent (volunteer) supporter of the arts and has been for decades. Beginning back in 1986, she joined the Board of Directors of the (then) Paul Hill Chorale (now the Washington Master Chorale) and held various offices for 17 years, prior to joining the Virginia Opera Board of Directors, where she volunteered until 2012. In 2013 she began volunteering with the National Society of Arts and Letters (NSAL) and has held several Board and officer positions in the DC chapter, for whom she currently chairs all of NSAL-DC’s classical voice programs.
Throughout all of these volunteer activities, she has observed how difficult it can be to make a living in the performing arts. She says she has great compassion for musicians and other performers who not only have the stress of learning potentially dozens of roles but also finding venues and organizations for whom they can perform those roles so that they can pay their bills! She concluded that perhaps her career in marketing might be useful in organizing some fundraising events that could potentially raise a little money for singers. Hence, this and the four other benefits she has hosted for Danielle and Kerry over the past three years.
I chose to write in the Zebra about this evening in the hope that I might encourage other people to be bold and choose a worthy artist or artists who might need some help in the development of their careers. You don’t have to be a millionaire to do this. Maybe you would want to partner with other people in hosting an event. Maybe you can only afford to host an event once, or every few years—it matters not. AND, it may just make a great difference, not only in the life of a young performing artist, but in yours, as well. I know. I was once a struggling singer myself. Look how that turned out.
You can hear Danielle and Henry on their 2016 crossover recording “Heaven and Earth—A Duke Ellington Songbook.”