Joe Wyatt
Published September 10, 2018

Mary Jane Johnson envisions an Amarillo Opera that incorporates much more homegrown talent and a bit less actual music – only those selections deemed captivating, none that are likely to hold one captive.


The celebrated soprano’s dream is about to become reality, which will be none too soon for the three-decades-and-counting opera company that is facing financial constraints and flagging patronage.

“We’re at a crossroads,” said Johnson, professor of music and voice-artist in residence at Amarillo College, who also is the newly appointed general director and artistic director of the Amarillo Opera. “We’re in debt and we’ve got bills.

“But I’ve got good instincts,” she said. “I’m happy to be here and to push this thing forward. I think people in Amarillo want to come to the opera when it has something to offer that they will enjoy, and that’s my job – to find the things they will enjoy, to do beautiful music that’s lovable.”

Johnson may wield only a shoestring budget as she sets out to cut a new path for the opera, but she is in possession of something that money cannot buy: a bulging storehouse of highly relevant experiences.

Johnson is not only co-founder and artistic director of the Taos Opera Institute, but the Pampa native is a renowned opera star in her own right and has performed with some of her craft’s preeminent practitioners, even the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti.

She has graced stages from Milan’s Teatro alla Scala to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Having personally sized up innumerable discriminating audiences, Johnson is intuitively convinced that Amarillo opera-goers are primed for a less-is-more approach. And, truth be told, so is she.

“If an opera lasts three hours you’re not going to get a lot of people to come back because they don’t want to stay there for three hours,” Johnson said. “And I’ll tell you something: I don’t either.

“My vision is to make it shorter,” she said, “to cut the pieces that need cutting. Times have changed and so have people. They want to go in and out of things, and I’m beginning to believe the same way.”

Also in accordance with her vision for Amarillo Opera, Johnson intends to cast a great deal more local talent in upcoming performances, a significant cost-saving strategy aimed at curtailing the importation of pricy professionals while taking advantage of a wealth of untapped hometown skill. Additionally, the Opera will present a greater portion of its future events at affordable venues, like Amarillo College’s Concert Hall Theater.

I want to showcase more people in the community,” she said, “people from Amarillo College and from all over the community. We have so much talent in Amarillo that we need to take advantage of. They are talented and they want to perform.

“We must also use more cost-effective auditoriums, and we will,” she said. “Amarillo College continues to be very supportive of Amarillo Opera, all the arts, really, so we plan to start there. It’s a very workable solution.”

Johnson, though tasked with reinvigorating Amarillo Opera only as recently as August, already has established a road map for the future and juggled the company’s previously established schedule of events. For example, she dropped a musical – it was nice, but less than operatic – and Speed Dating Tonight now will be the season-opening show.

However, despite her best-laid plans, her world-class talent and her seemingly inexhaustible energy, AC’s voice-artist in residence knows she cannot single-handedly return Amarillo Opera to the pinnacle of the local cultural scene.

“I’ve believed all my life that things happen like they’re supposed to, that you go where you’re supposed to be at the time you’re supposed to be there,” Johnson said. “I’m here now, and I’m excited to get this thing on its feet.

“But the truth is, everybody’s got to step in and help us,” Johnson said. “The community must help. It is time to save the opera.”