In these "interesting times" Berkeley Opera is just the kind of arts organization that should be getting your support. Opera companies around the country are folding left and right and Berkeley is definitely one worth keeping around. Who else would stage Die Fledermaus as Bat Out of Hell, condense the entire Ring into a three hour performance and reconstruct Italiana as Riot Grrl from Mars? Besides these off the wall treats, they do lesser-known works, the tickets are reasonable and it's a local company made up of your friends and neighbors.

I don't get over to my old stomping as much as I'd like, but tonight I got on BART and made the trip, in no small part motivated by Ruth Ann Swenson's name on the list of appearing artists. Side note: Ruth Ann, I love you, I really do, but it is time to update your publicity photo. Don't worry- believe me, you still got it going on, but that picture of you from long ago has got to go.

The concert was held at the First Congregational Church, which for some reason was as hot as hell tonight. I was comfortably seated in the front row of the balcony but I had to go downstairs because I just couldn't take it. So I sat with all the old Berkeley kevetchers who babbled all night, saying this and that and saying nothing at all while foaming at the mouth. I love Berkeley- you see the same people there all the time who were old when you were in school and they're still around and don't really look any older than they did a long time ago. Must be the water.

The orchestra opened with the overture from Luisa Miller just to remind us of why this is second tier Verdi. This rarely programmed Verdi will soon be out of the standard rep because like Stiffelio, there is simply not a good reason to stage it when you can do a Boccanegra or Traviata instead and you're also trying to program Handel or Britten on a regular basis. It's not bad, but if it never saw a stage again no one in the world would truly care.

There are fifteen singers on the program and seventeen scheduled numbers. I won't bother with a breakdown of all there was to see- if you cared that much you'd have been there yourself. So the highlights are:

The 2nd trombone player taking the stage while the Luisa Miller overture is underway, barreling down the side aisle, seating himself and then putting on his bow tie. Nice entrance dude. Can't make a 7 O'clock curtain? Now everyone knows at least one reason you're working on this side of the bay.

Duana Demus-Leslie performs "Doretta's song" from La Rondine- yes the one good tune from this Puccini opera that starts great and then is a two hour bore which Angela Georghieu keeps foisting on companies around the world. Duana has a decent voice, a little shrill at the top, but she may just be the most beautiful and striking woman I've ever seen sing an aria. I'm won over, but I can be shallow like that.

Everyone else on the first half of the program is fair to good, but at the conclusion Ruth Ann comes on and sings "Deh Vieni, non tarder" from The Marriage of Figaro and it's at once obvious that it is really just unfair to have her onstage with everyone else. There is just no comparison. She has a warm, lustrous and smooth as butter creamy voice that just takes over the entire church and two minutes later the audience is eating out of her hand.

The second half worked better for the other singers. SFO regular Catherine Cook did better on her own with Berta's aria from Barber than she did with the "Flower Duet" in the first half with Marie Plette.

Plette is Berkeley Opera's utility player. Appearing four times, she did Puccini, Wagner, Dvorak and Offenbach. She was more convincing with each number, perhaps doing her best as Sieglinde during the Walkure sample and with Rusalka's "Aria to the Moon."

Jillian Khuner unfortunately only appeared once during the Meistersinger quintet and stole the number away with her beautiful and restrained soprano. Phillip Skinner shined during his two appearances and Benjamin Bongers must be the opera world's Bo Bice. Same hair, same biker look, but I'd have to say Bo may have done an equally good job with Siegmund if given half the chance.

Ruth Ann came back again and made everyone else look bad with "Endless Pleasure" from Handel's Semele to close the show. Peter Gelb, what the hell is wrong with you, anyway?

In the orchestra, a special shout-out is due for Jonathan Goldstein on the timpani, who did a great job without ever once getting a visual cue from the conductor all night on where to come in .

The evening had a warm and easy aura to it- people supporting a company they love and with good cause. This July Berkeley Opera is staging Thomas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe- get yourself a ticket, and if you can, make it a point this summer to also see Festival Opera, San Francisco Lyric Opera and Pocket Opera. Let's make sure these companies survive these "interesting times."