A small Rancho angel inspires LA Opera carolers

DOWNEY - When LA Opera brought five fabulous singers to Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center last Wednesday to bring beautiful holiday carols and songs to patients and staff of the world-renowned hospital, a 6-year-old angel in a power wheelchair stole the hearts of the artists and their audience.The singers from LA Opera's Education and Outreach Program performed two 30-minute sets of carols that were so moving that many in the audience had tears in their eyes as they listened to the magnificent music. From Christmas classics such as "Carol of the Bells" and "Silent Night" to modern Christmas songs such as "Frosty the Snowman" and a hilarious version of "Jingle Bells", the LA Opera artists captivated listeners at Rancho's Jacquelin Perry Institute with spectacular sounds of the season. Yet it was little Jake Velasquez whose determination to sing along with the LA Opera stars provided an enduring memory for those who attended the twin concerts in the first and third floor Activity Dining Rooms in the building named for Rancho's most famous angel, the legendary Jacquelin Perry, MD. Singing first to an audience comprised mostly of Rancho pediatric patients and their clinicians, the LA Opera artists delighted the kids with both their voices and their jolly demeanor. "You might think it would be hard for opera stars to connect with kids, but exactly the opposite was true," said Rancho's Chief of Pediatrics Luis Montes, MD. "The kids were just as thrilled by the beautiful music as the adults were, and the humor and playfulness of the artists brought out the child in all of us." Jake's simple love of holiday music made it even more special for everyone. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," said the brilliant soprano Karen Hogle Brown. "That incredible boy was singing along with every one of our carols, and he had such a beautiful smile on his face each time we finished a song." "The LA Opera singers brought holiday magic to every carol they sang, and Jake felt so happy that he joined their joyful voices," said Rancho Chief Executive Officer Jorge Orozco. Jake had a much simpler take on it. "I had fun!" he said. He deserved some happiness after almost losing his life in a horrific rollover accident this summer as he and his family were enroute to the Staples Center from their home in Bloomington, a small town located near Fontana in San Bernardino County. Jake was tossed like a rag doll in the crash, and his injuries were so severe that he stopped breathing and had to be revived by paramedics. He was rushed by ambulance to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, where he underwent spinal fusion surgery. Several of Jake's family members were also hospitalized from the crash, but Jake was the most severely injured, with a major spinal cord injury that left him with quadriplegia. He was transferred to Rancho on October 9, where he learned how to maneuver a power wheelchair and regained his ability to draw and paint despite a lack of fine motor control that prevents him from picking up objects. "He's a real trooper," said Rancho Recreation Therapist Julie Helgren. "He fights hard, and yet he has this really playful side that just makes you fall in love with him every day." Despite his disabling injury, Jake has progressed dramatically. He quickly regained enough strength for his clinicians to discard the "halo" device that protected him after his devastating injury. He has also been weaned off his ventilator for up to eight hours, which allowed him to attend the Downey Elks-sponsored pediatrics trip to Disneyland on November 4. He has also been on outings to the Stonewood Mall and has participated in two barbecues at Rancho. "Jake is really looking forward to this Saturday's barbecue with the Downey Kiwanis," Julie said. "He will bring so much happiness to everyone there, just as he always does wherever he goes." The precocious young boy not only went to the first LA Opera performance at Rancho, he asked his therapists if he could attend the second one as well, which was primarily for adult patients in Rancho's brain injury, spinal cord injury and pressure ulcer management services. And so Jake headed up to the third floor and joined the audience for the second show. He heard five heavenly voices, including those of tenor Ashley Faatoalia, Soprano Karen Hogle Brown, Mezzo-Soprano Melissa Treinkman and brothers and fellow baritones Eli and LeRoy Villanueva. Here are brief biographies of these talented LA Opera artists, which highlights their experience and some of the many ways they have impacted the music world:

TENOR ASHLEY FAATOALIA A native of Southern California, Ashley is noted for his soaring tenor and warm stage presence. His most recent engagements include Porgy and Bess with Seattle Opera, the Southern California premiere of David Conte's new opera America Tropical, Candide with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The Festival Play of Daniel with LA Opera, his debut performance with San Francisco Opera as The Crab Man in Porgy and Bess and his debut performance with San Francisco Lyric Opera as Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni. Most recently, Anthony placed second in the Western Regional Finals for the Metropolitan Opera Competition.

SOPRANO KAREN HOGLE BROWN Karen has been a member and soloist with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Opera Chorus, The Millennium Consort, Long Beach Opera, Opera a la Carte, Torrance Musical Theatre Company, Cabrillo Music Theatre, and many others. She won the 2007 small-ensemble Grammy with the Los Angeles Chamber Singer's recording of Padilla: Sun of Justice, and sang the soprano solos for the LA Master Chorale's Messiah Singalong at Walt Disney Concert Hall in December 2009. Karen is currently an outreach teacher for Los Angeles Opera. She can be heard on recent recordings such as the Los Angeles Master Chorale's A Good Understanding of Nico Muhly's choral music, and Daniel Variations by Steve Reich. She is also featured on recordings by Linda Ronstadt, the Brian Setzer Orchestra, and solos in the movie soundtrack for Avatar, as well as other recordings such as Lady in the Water, National Treasure II, License to Wed, Battle LA, and XMen-Wolverine.

MEZZO-SOPRANO MELISSA TREINKMAN Melissa is currently a member of the LA Opera Chorus and was recently a soloist with the LA Opera tour of "Verdi Opera Tales". In 2011, she sang the role of Tisbe in La Cenerentola with the Sarasota Opera. In 2010, Melissa was a Resident Artist with Utah Opera where she performed the role of Mercédès in Carmen and Suor Infermiera in Suor Angelica. Another recent highlight was her performance of Melousine in the American premiere of Lehar's operetta Cloclo with the Chicago Folks Operetta. Melissa has also been a Young Artist with Sarasota Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera North, and Cedar Rapids Opera.

BARITONE ELI VILLANUEVA Eli has earned outstanding credentials as a performer, and has become a respected name as a stage director and published composer. He has appeared internationally in leading baritone roles including Figaro in The Barber of Seville, Marcello and Schaunard in La Bohème and Falke in Die Fledermaus with such noted companies as the San Francisco Opera Center, LA Opera and the Cultural Arts Festival in Cortona, Italy. Eli recently directed, arranged and translated a new production of The Festival Play of Daniel for LA Opera at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. He is resident stage director for LA Opera's acclaimed Education and Community Programs department. For their In-School Opera programs, he teaches and directs more than 1,500 students annually in original productions. These one-act operas include his very popular compositions, Figaro's American Adventure and The Marriage of Figueroa, working with his brother LeRoy as librettist. In addition, his compositions range from solo vocal and choral works to popular handbell songs.

BARITONE LEROY VILLANUEVA After winning the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions in 1988, LeRoy was awarded an Adler Fellowship with the San Francisco Opera Center. As a member of the Merola Opera Program, he received the Schwabacher Memorial First Prize. He sang in a Western Opera Theater's international tour, which included performances in Japan, Guam, Saipan and China. LeRoy has sung at San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Geneva Opera, Philadelphia Opera, Montreal Opera, Michigan Opera Theater and the New Israeli Opera. He has also appeared in numerous U.S. and world premieres, including creating the role of Spendius in Phillipe Fenelon's Salammbo for Paris Opera. LeRoy has sung concerts with such orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, Orchestre de la Suisse Romande and the Tokyo Symphony. His recordings include the role of Sancho Panza in Fenelon's Le Chevalier Imaginaire and the title role in Monteverdi's Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria. He also appeared in a BBC film production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors. LA Opera's Director of Education and Community Programs, Stacy Brightman, PhD, said "LA Opera is honored to bring these wonderful artists to Rancho for our second consecutive year. We really enjoy singing for Rancho's patients and staff, and singing for the children is especially meaningful for us." Stacy and her team work for months to put LA Opera's holiday performances and caroling tour together. Those who attended found that the hard work was most worthwhile. "The voices of these singers were so beautiful, it raised all our spirits," said Rancho Recreation Therapist Becky Bershtel. "Our patients and staff got so much from these performances, because the LA Opera carolers connected with all of us on a very personal level," Dr. Montes said. "They made it look effortless, but we all knew it took many dedicated hours to prepare such an enjoyable program." "There was a power in these performances that will stay with us for a long time," Rancho Chief Operations Officer Ben Ovando said. "We are grateful that so many of our patients and staff were able to be inspired by these magnificent artists." After their two scheduled performances, the LA Opera artists did special songs for two patients who weren't able to leave their rooms and a patient who was about to undergo surgery. "Rancho is an important part of our countywide caroling tour," Stacy said. "It is very meaningful for us to bring enjoyment to patients who are working to overcome significant challenges in their lives, and to the Rancho team that is helping them renew their dreams." The LA Opera artists will especially treasure their memories of little Jake Velasquez, a little Rancho angel whose bright smile, boundless enthusiasm and valiant spirit touched so many hearts this holiday season.

********** Published: December 13, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 35