Opera's 2005 season signature art piece unveiled

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Key points Emerald City Opera preview party and silent auction for 2005 season signature artwork by local artist Rob Williams 4 to 7 p.m. Saturday TEI Contemporary Modern Gallery in Torian Plum Plaza Free

In 1905, when "The Merry Widow" operetta opened in Vienna, Austria, it kicked off a cranial fashion craze. The lead singer, Lily Elsie, wore a large brim hat with a large feather in the production, and her contemporaries followed suit.

The fashion became known as "The Merry Widow Hat," an outrageous and unwieldy hat that women wore for the next three years.

This year is the 100th anniversary of the premiere of "The Merry Widow."

In celebration of its third season and the anniversary of the operetta, Emerald City Opera is unveiling its signature artwork -- a mix media piece by Rob Williams -- along with an invitation to pull your best hat out of the closet for the reception. Hats are not required, but attendees are asked to wear hats, elbow-length gloves and pearls in the style of the early 20th century.

The artwork is titled "Encounter at Maxim's," referring to a scene in the third act of "The Merry Widow" in which the hero is reunited with the widow, Hanna.

"Encounter at Maxim's" was donated to the opera by Williams, abstract artist and owner of the graphic design company The Design Ranch.

"Rob was the first business person to help me in the creation of the opera company," said ECO founder and executive director Keri Rusthoi.

Rusthoi had invited Metropolitan Opera bass-baritone LeRoy Lehr for a fund-raising concert. She needed invitations to advertise, and a friend recommended Williams as a designer.

"Emerald City Opera was just an idea then," Rusthoi said. She explained the concept to Williams, and he not only made her invitations, but also designed and donated the opera's logo.

"He was the first person in the business world to believe in the opera," Rusthoi said. "I've been with him ever since.

"I'm an artist, and he's an artist, and we're both doing businesses to support our art. It's easy to work with him because he understands where I'm coming from."

Rusthoi didn't approach Williams about creating a signature piece; Williams approached her.

"Opera is a rather traditional art, and Rob's art is rather contemporary," Rusthoi said. "I didn't think he'd be interested in this."

The piece will be displayed throughout the year at Emerald City Opera events and presented to the highest bidder on the final day of "The Merry Widow" performance Aug. 14. "Encounter at Maxim's" also will be on ECO T-shirts, the 2005 season poster and all advertising. It also will be used on the Opera's Christmas tree in the Tread of Pioneers' annual Festival of Trees.

"He gets a lot of exposure as an artist," Rusthoi said. "And we get to raise some money for the opera."

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