It was a sold-out dinner gala for PORTopera at the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel, with close to 200 guests – more than 50 percent more than any previous year.

“I never thought we would survive the first year,” said Jack Riddle, a co-founder of PORTopera. “But here we are, and these events keep getting bigger and bigger. It’s exhilarating. At least I can say I’ve been part of it.”

“Tonight is a celebration of 21 years, against all odds, of having an opera company of this caliber, known not only nationally but internationally, in Portland, Maine,” said Dona D. Vaughn, artistic director of PORTopera. “I think it’s a testament to the talent we select and a celebration of our Young Artists Program.”

“PORTopera is nationally known as one of the best – if not the best – regional opera company,” said former board member Elizabeth Serrage, noting that at least a half dozen of PORTopera’s young artists have gone on to perform at the Metropolitan Opera.

Young artists up to age 30 are in residence for the month of July – invited to stay in the homes of opera supporters. They sing in five public performances, including in places where one might not expect to find opera, like Harrison or the Temple at Ocean Park. The month culminates with a full professional opera at Merrill Auditorium. This year it is Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” on July 30.

“We’re a year-round opera company that shows our productions in July, but it takes all year,” said board president Ann Elderkin, who began singing in the chorus with her husband, Jim, in the 1990s. “Along the way, we saw it was a professional company supported by community efforts – donations and volunteer time – and I said, ‘I want to be part of this.’ I just have such an appreciation for the kind of young artists we’re able to bring – and to bring back – to Portland.”

Elderkin quite visibly encourages all PORTopera supporters, including those she calls the “next generation.” They include board member April Ylvisaker, a financial adviser who sings and plays piano and violin, and who sponsored a table for 10 at the gala.

“I’m trying my best to bring young people to the arts community, and PORTopera does well with engaging them,” Ylvisaker said. “They can get great opera without leaving Portland.”

And then there’s Anthony Fratianne, a third-year board member at 39.

“I’m very passionate about Italian food and culture, and I first experienced opera through one of my favorite Italian restaurants, Vetri, in Philadelphia,” said Fratianne, who served as a chef apprentice to “Iron Chef” Marc Vetri.

For the gala auction, Fratianne offered to prepare an Italian dinner for six. When this item went for a whopping $4,500 – the largest auction bid of the night – he offered a second dinner for six, which brought in another $4,000.

When asked how that felt and why bids might have been so high, Fratianne sang the praises of PORTopera. “Did you hear them tonight?” he asked. “Opera singers are amazingly talented.”

Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough. She can be contacted at:

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