On a sun-dappled April day, Ava Pine pulls up to the campus of her alma mater, Texas Christian University, in a beater of a Nissan Altima. She strolls the grounds sheathed in a simple mocha-colored dress from Banana Republic and dons a favorite pair of character shoes she wears whenever she takes the stage.
They are rather humble accoutrements for an artist whom many across the country deem to be one of opera's supernovas, a soprano on the cusp of international superstardom drawing comparisons to opera legends Beverly Sills and Renée Fleming and, quite possibly, the most important classical-music figure to come out of North Texas in a long, long time.
When Pine, 35, brings her considerable vocal prowess back to the Fort Worth Opera Festival on Saturday, debuting in the challenging lead role in the operatic take on Aristophanes' Lysistrata at Bass Hall, she will have performed a rare double play: She will take the stage in Fort Worth after having just starred as Pamina, the lead in the Dallas Opera's production of The Magic Flute.
"Yeah, back-to-back is very rare," admits Pine. "Very hard to do mentally."
She has trekked the miles to TCU on this day, in fact, while on a break from Magic Flute rehearsals in Dallas for an intense hourlong practice session with Stephen Dubberly, Fort Worth Opera's associate conductor and chorus master, who is helping her perfect an aria from Lysistrata.
The grueling pace of the performance doubleheader for Pine only underscores the kind of demand she is in as she knocks on the door of the national operatic aristocracy. And the fact that she is willing to put the miles on the Altima to do it -- "I couldn't not do Lysia in Fort Worth's Lysistrata. She's such the show-runner of this opera," Pine says -- is but one reason North Texas audiences are having a love affair with Ava.
That, and the fact that she's so gosh-darn nice.
It all started clicking for Pine only four years ago in Fort Worth when she swooped onto stage as The Angel in the Fort Worth Opera's regional premiere of Angels in America. The years since have seen her on a national barnstorming tear as she has performed with opera companies, symphony orchestras and artistic groups, from New Jersey and Washington, D.C., to Arizona and Colorado, from Milwaukee and Michigan to Houston and Austin.
Critics and conductors across the country have become smitten:
"Ava Pine painted the soprano arias ... in sumptuous timbres driven by alert, dramatic phrasing," gushed The New York Times in 2009.
"What an incredible voice Ava has. It's so tremendously flexible in tone and color with really a silvery quality to it," raves Gregory Carpenter, general director of Opera Colorado.
"I think her voice is absolutely exquisite -- easily one of the most beautiful voices I've heard in the last 10 years. She's simply first-class," says Joseph Rescigno, artistic adviser and principal conductor for Milwaukee's Florentine Opera Company.
Pine debuted in Europe in 2010, reprising her role in Angels in America with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
She has returned to the Fort Worth Opera for 2010's The Elixir of Love and as Cleopatra in last year's mammoth Julius Caesar.
She also managed to find time to earn a Grammy nomination -- in 2010, for best opera recording -- for her first commercial recording, with Ars Lyrica Houston, singing Cleopatra in Hasse's Marc'Antonio e Cleopatra.
"Keep in mind that throughout this period, every company that Ava has worked for has rehired her," says Robert Mirshak, head of Mirshak Artists Management and Pine's manager. "It's because she brings in an audience and people come back expressly for her. I can assure you there are not many opera singers in the world you can say that about. That's how you tell that Ava is going to be a very big star."
And yet, with all of this rush of hard-won good fortune, Pine is the opera world's reigning anti-diva. It's never far from her mind that she had trouble getting into the vocal-performance program in college, that she got her big break in church choir or that she was named after produce.
"Ava" (as in Ah-va) Mara Pine sounds quite regal -- until Pine reveals that she was named after the avocados her mother scarfed down while pregnant.
"Yeah, I was named after a green lumpy fruit," confesses the Galveston-born, Fredericksburg-raised Pine.
Growing up, Pine thought that she might want to be a doctor like her father. Or maybe a ballerina (she took dance for many years). Or perhaps a singer.
When it came time to pick a college, she chose TCU because it let her pursue any music-related major she desired, while other schools were more insistent on her studying music education because many of those schools didn't believe Pine's voice was "performance quality."
TCU also gave Pine a healthy academic scholarship to cover most of her tuition costs. She would earn a bachelor of arts degree in music, with a minor in theater, graduating summa cum laude. Another irony: Of the only two B's that dotted Pine's otherwise glittering TCU academic record, one was in opera theater -- she missed a final in a rare moment of irresponsibility -- and the other was in the physics of music, "because I'm horrible at math," she confesses.
Darren Woods, general director of the Fort Worth Opera, is the man accurately credited with "discovering" Pine singing in the choir practice room of a Fort Worth Presbyterian church more than a decade ago. As the story goes, Woods -- a member of the church choir who has a knack for scouting talent -- heard her sing a solo, approached her and asked her to let him know when she wanted to be an opera star.
In 2006, Pine entered the Fort Worth Opera Guild's McCammon Voice Competition and, perhaps in a foreshadowing of things to come, won the audience favorite award. She was chosen to be the Dallas Opera's first resident young artist, and, early on, became a specialist in the music of the Baroque period. In a 2007 Star-Telegram interview, Pine said of her love of Baroque music: "For me, it's an intellectual and vocal fit. In a Baroque aria, there's not a lot to hide behind -- it's just more exposed. The music also demands a higher level of originality on the singer's part with ornamentation, and knowing within an aria the things you can and cannot do."
In the intervening years -- between stops around the globe -- she has been a frequent collaborator with the Metroplex's most respected artistic organizations, from the Dallas Bach Society to the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
"I certainly appreciate my roots here," says Pine. "I like all the people here, and I always feel so at home on either side of the Metroplex. I mean, so many of the audience members have been following my career since before I even had one, so they feel a lot of ownership of what I do."
At the core of Pine's self-effacing approach to her success is the fact that she only started her operatic career at the relatively advanced age of 28. As a result, signs of Pine's un-diva-like behavior abound.
"Ava is always concerned about the other cast members of the company," says Mirshak. "She treats everyone around her with respect, talking to everybody, engaging everyone from the chorus members to the stage manager, telling them they are doing a great job."
Pine will not allow herself to get even half-full of herself -- her assessment of her steady climb up opera's pecking order is measured and understated.
"I would say I hear, through my colleagues and people I respect in the business, along with people I don't know, generally good things about me and my work," says Pine, haltingly. "I guess that's as good a sign as any that things are going well, and I'm just trying to continue the work I've been doing, just keep on doing as much good work as I can."
A gifted voice
Pine's career ascension has been rooted in several key aspects of her creative qualities, not the least of which is the dazzling quality of her voice.
Possessing a crystalline, highly pliable lyric soprano range, Pine's voice allows her to easily slip into any ingenue role -- as Adina from The Elixir of Love, Pamina from The Magic Flute and Susanna from The Marriage of Figaro.
"In a field of thousands of sopranos, her voice stands out," says Woods. "Take Renée Fleming: Nobody sounds like her. Well, Ava has that quality. You listen to her and all you can say is, 'Wow.'"
But Pine is hardly just an incomparable voice. She's perhaps one of the most gifted operatic actresses of her generation.
"I'm a stage animal," Pine declares bluntly. "Being onstage, assuming another character, stepping into someone else's shoes for an evening gives me such a chance to play and, in a way, acts as a form of therapy."
Woods had Pine's acting chops specifically in mind when he offered her the part of the fiery, liberal heroine Lysia in Lysistrata.
"There is a vital moment in Lysistrata where Ava's character has to shift radically in tone, and the whole heart of the show is in that moment," says Woods. "And I just knew that Ava's genuineness would make that moment not seem contrived or false and would take the audience from laughing one moment to tears the next."
William Florescu, general director of Milwaukee's Florentine Opera Company who directed Pine in its 2009 production of The Magic Flute, believes that "Ava is such a good actor that you don't seem to be watching her act. So many of the moments that Ava has in The Magic Flute call for a kind of naturalism that she easily has. And she communicates it with an economy of gesture that just keeps pulling you in."
Meeting any challenge posed by an opera has made Pine into one of opera's most fearless performers. In her 2008 breakout performance in the Fort Worth Opera's Angels in America, Pine not only had to sing a very tough score, but she had to do most of it while suspended high above the stage.
"For Angels," recalls Woods, "we put Ava in a harness and lifted her into the upper recesses of the Scott Theatre, where she had to all but hang from a beam, and then have her fly from it -- which had to be terrifying -- while singing some of the hardest bloody music ever written. Ava was nothing but a total sport about it."
And yet, coupled with Pine's iron will to succeed is perhaps her most un-diva-like quality: a spritelike affability, an intrinsic pleasantness that is extremely refreshing to all who work with her.
"I think of Ava as our Beverly Sills," says Woods. "I mean she not only has Sills' level of talent but, more importantly, has her incredible sense of genuineness. What you see, with Ava, is what you get."
For all of Pine's outward enthusiasm at her newly emerging success, she is extremely sober about the costs of the nomadic life of the rising opera star.
She has given up her apartment in New York City and has parked most of her clothes, musical scores and even her trusty Nissan Altima with a friend in Fort Worth.
"I'm seeing that opera can be an unforgiving mistress," Pine says. "I've given up a certain measure of stability in my life, as I'm pretty much always on the road without many of the creature comforts that most people appreciate, like a house, a garden, a dog, all those things."
And Pine is hyperaware of how her career may swing upward or down depending upon how she ages.
"I know," says Pine, "there are always younger singers coming up, so I need to make sure I establish myself to a level of respect that is great enough so, when I'm not such a young thing, I'll still be OK. In the meantime, thank goodness theatrical distance is a great plastic surgeon."
Pine is poised to make the next leap up the operatic ladder by building her name in Europe. Having already performed in a Baroque festival in Norway, Pine is hoping to audition for agents handling major houses in London, Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Paris and Milan.
In addition, Pine is already formulating a small list of stretch roles she would love to tackle in the future: the title role in Manon by Massenet, the governess in Britten's The Turn of the Screw, Lucia of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.
According to her manager, Pine is being discussed to play Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, a role widely considered to be even heftier than Pamina in The Magic Flute.
"And in it," says Mirshak, "Ava would have to hit several high C's -- notes that have sent a lot of sopranos crashing and burning, even at the Met -- so that tells you something about how highly she is thought of."
Mirshak pauses before making a not-so-outlandish prediction: "In five years, I see her on every major opera house [stage] in the world."
Woods is just as bullish. "She's got everything it takes to be a big star," he says. "Ava has all the goods to make it at the Metropolitan Opera. She's ready for it now."
But typical for Ava Pine, she's the last person to hazard that prediction.