Emma Nevada comes back to life in show

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Mary McNeill received a standing ovation Sunday for her portrayal of Emma "Nevada" Wixom, a world-famous opera singer raised in Austin in the 1870s.

Like Emma before her, she filled the hall with her huge, luscious voice - no microphone needed.

"It took a lot of work so it feels very good to know that people like it," said the playwright, Lena Covello.

The living-history play was put on by Sparks Little Theater at the Brewery Arts Center's performance hall. McNeill sings 13 pieces throughout the show accompanied by a pianist, violinist and guitar player.

"It's really fun," she said after the show. "Emma's a very charming character to play."

Emma Wixom was a stand out in Sunday school concerts in Austin. She studied in the San Francisco before heading to Europe, where she impressed royalty. She assumed the last name Nevada in a nod to her childhood state -part of the Wild West made famous in Europe by Mark Twain.

"The Emma Nevada Show" opens with tender violin by Jon Obister, guitar by Dasan Alachsay and piano by Jeanne Weiser. It segues into a well-narrated, two-act play complete with monologues, vignettes, opera and lovely, hand-crafted music.

McNeill sounds stellar doing "I Dreamt I Was in Marble Halls" by Michael W. Balfe. She took command of the crowd's attention with the gorgeous, dramatic "Return to Sorrento" by Ernesto D. Curtis.

She is supported by several actors in multiple roles. Guitarist Alachsay put down his instrument and put on a jacket to play an old miner who touched Emma's heart.

Johnny Debernard was hilarious as Emma's English agent, telling the story of cowboys with trousers tucked into their boots climbing over chairs to see her.

Covello got the idea for the living-history play from Andrea Daly-Taylor of Piper's Opera House , where Nevada performed. Covello spent years researching the play. "This is the culmination of three years' work," she said.

It was the first play she'd written, but it won't be her last. She's working on three more living-history plays: on English opera star Eva Turner, on German nun Hildegard Bingen and on ex-Beatle John Lennon.

Sparks Little Theater hopes to take show to Austin and Nevada City, Calif., where Wixom was born in 1859. The theater will hold a fund-raiser for those efforts in January.


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