Santa Cruz County residents have been discovering and savoring performances at the Benderly-Kendall Opera House in Patagonia since it opened in 2016, and young musicians have found it to be a great place to showcase their musical abilities.

Daniel Karger-Penalosa performed at the Opera House on March 1, 2020, as part of the U of A Musicians on Tour Series.

That was part of the mission to begin with, said Christina Wilhelm, director of the Santa Cruz Foundation for the Performing Arts. Wilhelm said she wanted to provide a venue for young musicians “who don’t have a place to perform.” The Opera House hosts performances by new musicians on Sundays, including college students pursuing a degree in music at the University of Arizona’s Fred Fox School of Music.

The U of A has collaborated with Wilhelm for about three years. This partnership has allowed music students to perform at the Opera House for the local audience. This year, two student pianists, Daniel Karger- Penalosa and Yujia Luan, performed on March 1. Two more concerts were planned for March, but were postponed due to COVID-19. Wilhelm said she is going to provide the venue for the performers planned in March after the stay-at-home policy is terminated.

Yihui Wang and Grace Sheppard, students at the U of A, perform at the Benderly-Kendall Opera House.

The Vocal Studies Program and three harpists, Xiaodu Xu, Yvonne Cox and Victoria Gonzalez, had also scheduled concerts for the first time at the Benderly-Kendall Opera House, according to University of Arizona Assistant Vocal Professor Yunah Lee.

Lee and her vocal students were planning to join one of the Patagonia concerts in March, thanks to Matthew Tropman, a University of Arizona assistant professor of tuba and euphonium who came to Arizona in 2015 and tried to find venues for students. He connects the Opera House and the University to arrange concerts.

Tropman said the Opera House is a great venue for students to experience performing outside of Tucson. Students usually have opportunities to perform for an audience on campus such as senior recitals or graduate recitals. However, the audience for those concerts tends to be their friends and family. According to Tropman, the experience of performing in Patagonia is helpful for students because it is a more realistic performing environment.

“It’s not easy for them to find those opportunities to perform in front of strangers,” he said. “The process of preparing a performance and then going out of town and performing it brings up the skills that they might not have had a chance to work on, whether it’s writing a written program or figuring out how to speak to the audience.” 

Tropman says the performances at the Benderly-Kendall Opera House are different because the hall is smaller than usual. The physical distance between the performers and the audience can be as close as the distance between professors and students in a classroom. 

The Opera House is far more elegant than a classroom. It features big windows, soaring plastered walls, polished wood floors, a beamed ceiling and a grand piano beneath a white chandelier. Rows of chairs sit close by. It is an intimate space.

In most concert halls, performers play on stage and cannot see the faces of the audience members because of lighting. At the Opera House, the close physical distance allows the performers to directly see and feel the audience’s expressions.

Tropman believes it is good for the students to engage with the audience.Tropman said he also enjoys working with Wilhelm. He respects her passion for music and the Opera House.

“I love Christina. She and I have a very good friendship,” Tropman says. “I only get to see [her] when I go down there, but it’s always so nice to see them and chat with them and we’ve really had a fun time putting a concert together.”

Wilhelm says the project to build the Benderly-Kendall Opera House started in 2005. Her friend Virginia Benderly initiated the concept of the opera house. After Benderly died of cancer in 2006, Wilhelm continued the campaign for ten years until she obtained 20 to 30 regular patrons.

Wilhelm built the Opera House with donations. She named the facility after two big donors: Benderly and John Kendall.

“Then we got local donations which helped us to actually begin the project and complete the project in a year,” she said. “The fact that we could start and end in a year was remarkable.”

The local residents helped the project not only with their money but with their talents, too. Wilhelm hired local architects, builders and laborers to complete the project. The Opera House was built entirely by the community.

Since the opening of the Opera House, the size of the audiences at the performances has increased. Audiences come from Sonoita, Nogales and beyond. Wilhelm said that she has more than 900 people on the mailing list.

According to Wilhelm, visitors have started to share a sense of belonging in the three years since the opening, as they constantly come back to experience the music. “People know each other and it takes me a long time now to get them to be quiet, so we can start a concert,” she said with a smile. “It’s wonderful, except we’re always a little bit late now starting.” 

Wilhelm believes that live music can connect people like few other activities. The audience makes music together with the musicians when they are not passive listeners but “are actually involved in the process of the live music.” When musicians perform for the audience, they directly experience the response during the performance. Lively response inspires the musicians more; active listeners encourage performers. 

In addition, the Opera House frequently collaborates with the local school districts. Elementary and high school students serve as interns at the Opera House to learn how to put on a concert and experience live music. According to Wilhelm, most children who participate are unfamiliar with classical music concerts.

“They have to make sure there are seats for everyone, to meet and greet, and it gives some idea of belonging to a different community,” she says. “And who knows, maybe one or two of them…decide, ‘Yeah, maybe that’s what I wanna do for my life.’” 

While all events this spring were postponed, Wilhelm did not stop sharing music. She collaborated with the local radio station KPUP to play recordings of performers who have played for SCFPA since 2006.