"She's gone, too," says the conductor, remembering another old friend.
The comment, made in the middle of a long conversation, isn't said in a overly melancholy way. No sentimentality or woe-is-me grumbling here. Just a plain and simple fact of life: As we get older, we lose people along the way.
At 88, Nicola Iacovetti has lost more than his share by sheer fact of the number of years he's lived. The retired Fresno opera pioneer, once called "a little Italian guy who's like a ball of fire" by an enthused patron, has said goodbye to many of the people he worked with for more than 40 years of leading first the Fresno Opera Association and then the Fresno Lyric Opera Theatre. He staged more than 30 different operas — some multiple times — between 1963 and 1997, the life span of the two organizations.
Recently Iacovetti decided it's time to gather together as many of those people as he can. His idea: a dinner called "Remembrance of Operas Past," which will be held Sept. 20 at Pardini's restaurant.
"We're honoring all those people, past and present, who helped keep these two companies together," Iacovetti says.
Event organizers, led by bass player Linda Hamilton, who played for Iacovetti for years, are trying to find as many people as they can who were affiliated with the companies, not always an easy task when relying on 15-year-old address and phone rosters. Deadline for registration is Sept. 13.
For decades, Iacovetti dominated the opera scene in Fresno. The first production of the Fresno Opera Association, in 1963, was "Amahl and the Night Visitors" in the old Sullivan Hall on the grounds of the Shrine of St. Therese Catholic Church in the Tower District. The production ran for two performances, filling the 400-seat hall.
Iacovetti didn't just conduct the orchestra at his operas. He wore many hats as artistic director. Often he stage directed the productions — and built sets.
He remembers building a "stone" wall as part of the "Amahl" set with Charles Harshaw, who plans to travel from Washington state to attend the dinner. They filled bags with stuffing to simulate stones, which they then painted. The problem: One of the volunteers lost an important ring in one of the bags, and they ended up tearing up all the bags in the search. ("She never found it, poor woman," Iacovetti says.)
The conductor became a noted public figure. More than one time, he says, he'd get stopped at the grocery store by someone who told him, "Pardon me, I just wanted to see what you look like from the front."
The Fresno Opera Association lasted until the late 1970s, when it disbanded because of differences on the board of directors, Iacovetti says. But he found he couldn't stay away from opera, even though his wife, Janet — "I married my star soprano, and she's one of the best artists I've ever worked with" — was skeptical at first when he told her of his plans. He went on to found the Fresno Lyric Opera Theatre.
The list of titles performed over the decades by the two companies reads like a selection of opera's greatest hits, from "La Boheme," which opened the new Saroyan Theatre, and "Die Fledermaus" to "The Sound of Music" and "Man of La Mancha."
In 1997, the Fresno Lyric Opera Theatre staged its last performance, a production of an opera written by Iacovetti himself, "The Match Girl."
Along the way, he always had exacting standards, he says, crafting productions that were regularly reviewed by Opera News. He admits he could be tough at rehearsals.
"I got that way because when I want something done, I want it done right," he says.
One of his promising singers was Edna Garabedian, who sang Carmen for him in the early 1970s, right after winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Years later, she would go on to found Fresno Grand Opera and the California Opera Association. Iacovetti conducted "Pagliacci" for California Opera in 2009.
He worked with many great singers over the years. One of the best known is Dorothy Renzi, a dear friend, who played many leading roles for him, including Tosca. Iacovetti is hoping that Renzi, in frail health, will be able to attend the dinner.
Entertainment will include arias sung live by Constantine Pappas, Deborah Sauer-Farrand and Richard Woods. Snippets of operas on DVD will be shown, including an amusing clip of Renzi and Ray Klassen, the event's master of ceremonies, in the "Tevye's Dream" scene from "Fiddler on the Roof."
For Iacovetti, the dinner will be a chance to bring together important people in his life. He's lost so many of them in recent years. Why wait until it's too late?
"I think of all those people, and it just makes me feel — I don't know, how am I supposed to feel?" he says, turning introspective. "It makes me grateful that they were around."
IF YOU GO
"Remembrance of Operas Past," 6 p.m. Sept. 20, Pardini's, 2257 W. Shaw Ave. $25. Reservations must be made to (559) 243-0303 by Sept. 13. (Story updated to correct phone number)
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.