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CENTER OF ATTENTION: A Decade at the O.C. Performing

Memories Cover the Good, Bad

Reflections: 'That first night, I felt like a child again,' said Mary Lyons, one of 75 Pacific Chorale singers.


They're neighboring cities, but that evening they seemed a million miles apart.

It was Sept. 29, 1986, opening night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Mary Lyons was among 75 Pacific Chorale singers breaking in the $73-million Costa Mesa hall. For two decades, the chorale had sung in the Santa Ana High School auditorium, excellent acoustically but otherwise your basic convenience store in comparison.

The move symbolized the county's cultural coming of age.

"That first night," said Lyons, 58, "I felt like a child again. It was just magicalto come out on that stage, to turn and look at that audience filled with tuxedos and glamorous gowns, to be standing with the L.A. Philharmonic; it was amazing, just wonderful. Honestly, it brought tears to my eyes."

The chorale's artistic director, John Alexander, recalled another memorable moment.

"Probably the greatest thrill I had performing there," Alexander said, "came while doing Vaughan Williams' 'Sea Symphony' [in 1987]. It's a huge, huge work, and the hall worked perfectly for it. There was this ringing and a great vitality to the sound."

Like others who have stood on the center's stage over the years, Natividad (Nati) Cano can't isolate a favorite moment. But Cano, whose Los Camperos mariachi orchestra is one of the country's best, has been gratified by remarks from audiences, who fill the hall to capacity for his shows.

Many say "it's about time" that mariachi was performed in such a top-quality concert setting, Cano said. "They are happy to see it there, because mariachi is all over, but there are not too many places you can go where people really are into the show, really listening and not getting up to buy hot dogs."

Not all recollections are entirely pleasant, however.

Remember the 6.9 quake that rocked the Bay Area in 1989? The San Francisco Ballet, making its center debut the same evening, heard about the temblor only hours before going on.

"I remember we'd just come from rehearsal," said soloist Leslie Young, "and were going across the street to the hotel, and one of the dancers just came flying by and said, 'The Bay Bridge just collapsed.' And we looked at her like, 'You must be kidding.' She was like, 'No.' "

Phone lines jammed; many dancers couldn't reach home that night. The show did go on, and all learned the next day that loved ones were unharmed.

The next afternoon, Young continued, each dancer received a letter of thanks, signed by center founding chairman Henry T. Segerstrom, for "personal discipline, courage and . . . spirit" in the face of trying circumstances.

"I remember coming into the dressing room and seeing those little envelopes," she said, "and everyone going, 'Aww, aww.' It did help."

A musical theater program for at-risk youths helped Luis Castillo stay away from drugs, said the Santa Ana resident. Two years ago, at 18, Castillo completed the annual Summer at the Center program with a performance of songs from "Grease" and "Bye Bye Birdie" at Segerstrom Hall with his classmates.

"I'll never forget the standing ovation," Castillo said. "It was such a great feeling of achievement, and, let's just say it would be better than money. It seemed that every bit of applause was meant just for you; every person standing was standing just for you."

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