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Sunday, October 20, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sara Jenkins: A Life Of Music

If this is 90, I can't wait.

Because Sara Baird Jenkins is having the time of her life.

Poised to turn 90 on Tuesday, sharp as the proverbial tack and a livelier yarn-spinner than Scheherazade, Sara Jenkins will be feted by a first for Seattle Opera, which is run by her son Speight: The new production of Beethoven's only opera, "Fidelio" (opening Saturday), is being underwritten in her honor by family and friends.

"I feel I'm the most fortunate person in the world," declares Sara Jenkins in the gracious accents of her native Texas, where the word "there" contains two syllables (they-ah), and "die" rhymes with "bah." If you are imagining dowager dresses and old-lady oxfords, you've got the wrong almost-nonagenarian: Mrs. Jenkins favors chic silk dresses and pumps, and her taste in evening gowns runs to the downright regal.

"It's so rare that an old person is able to be a part of a living, growing thing like Seattle Opera," she says. "I go to all the rehearsals, and I go to every performance, and I know all the singers as if they were family. They're all so good to me. They send me postcards from all over the world.

"All my life, I've been on the front line of everything, workin' and goin'. Now I have to slow down a little, but I still feel a part of all the excitement and drama at the opera."

Those 90 years have been jampacked. Mrs. Jenkins and her late husband, also named Speight, could be found zooming around Tunisia on camel back, crossing the Andes, living in a yurt on the Gobi Desert, facing fusillades of bullets during a revolution in East Africa, touring a sheikh's harem, or tracking down antique china in Russia. Both loved to travel, and both were impassioned collectors of beautiful objets by Meissen, Sevres, Rock- ingham and the occasional bibelot from Catherine the Great's coronation.

That love of travel has stayed with Sara Jenkins.

"It was just eight years ago," she recounts, "when I got just determined to go to Outer Mongolia and see it for myself. We stayed in those yurts - you know, the tents made out of camel skins - and there was no running water. I thought I'd just dah. And I lost 12 pounds.

"But it was worth it. We saw where Genghis Khan had pitched his black tents. We saw a white leopard. And do you know the Gobi Desert is the only place in the world that was never covered by a glacier?"

The life of many journeys started out in a lovely Colonial Revival home, where Mrs. Jenkins grew up; that house has just been declared a Dallas landmark. Built by her father, a successful doctor and the son of one of the founders of Southern Methodist University, the house's graceful columns and lofty rooms were home to Sara, her sister, and her twin brothers.

Dallas was a small town of 40,000 in those days, when Mrs. Jenkins' father became a founder of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra by organizing friends to listen to music in people's homes on weekend afternoons.

"My mother's favorite word was `stewardship,' " Mrs. Jenkins recalls, "and I learned the tradition of volunteer work. I've been active all my life as a volunteer, in social causes as well as the arts."

Then she met opera entrepreneur Larry Kelly at a luncheon with five other friends.

"This man just literally bounded into the room, and he went around and kissed all of us, and said, `I'm going to build an opera in Dallas.' That set us back, I can tell you. People didn't go around kissing each other hello the way they do now. None of us knew about opera any more than we could speak Chinese, and Dallas didn't have an opera house - just a state fair building where they showed automobiles.

"Well, that didn't stop us. We all went out and raised money, telephoned, got people to come. We had Maria Callas, and we all went out to Love Field with red roses to meet her. We had Joan Sutherland. All of a sudden, I was getting a lifetime education in opera. Now, I don't know one living thing about the piano, and I can't sing except in church, but I knew this opera was for me."

When her husband, a noted ophthalmologist, was diagnosed with cancer, the family moved to New York to seek the best medical advice. Though Speight Sr. lived only two more years, by then Mrs. Jenkins had gotten involved with volunteerism in New York, and she decided to stay on. She founded an early-childhood-development center, served on the board of the Junior League ("I dived right in"), and the Community Service Society.

About 15 years later, when her son Speight moved to Seattle to head Seattle Opera, Mrs. Jenkins moved, too. Her eyes twinkle when she talks about Speight Jr., her only child, who looks out from a 1938 mother-and-child portrait on her sitting-room wall.

"He was just a baby," she remembers, looking at the photo, "and what a time I had getting him to hold still for that artist! Now, I'm going to get into trouble, because Speight told me not to talk about him. But I do have to say that he's the best thing to me that ever lived.

"When he was announcing the plans for this opera season, and suddenly said that the `Fidelio' was going to be in honor of my birthday - well, I was just knocked out. I couldn't believe it."

Out-of-state friends and relatives are descending on Seattle for the occasion and for a party in her honor. An added plus is that Seattle Symphony maestro Gerard Schwarz will be the conductor. Schwarz and his wife Jody are good friends: "I love those two just like my own children. It's wonderful to see the good relationship between Speight and Gerry."

Why "Fidelio"?

"I like upbeat things," Mrs. Jenkins says of Beethoven's opera in celebration of freedom and the overturning of oppression.

"You know, in opera, so many times there's just death and tragedy at the ending. I love this opera; it represents all of my life. I've been teased about being so optimistic and upbeat, but I can't help feeling that lifting up of the spirits. I love that surging music and the way the characters sacrifice everything, but win out in the end."

"Fidelio" isn't the last of her operatic plans. Last season Mrs. Jenkins made her official opera debut as a supernumerary in "Dialogues of the Carmelites." This time she has her sights set on next summer's "Aida," when director Francois Rochaix wants her to be in the Triumphal March scene.

"First thing I asked him was, `Can I ride in on an elephant?' " she reports.

"We aren't having any elephants this time. But I'm going to be brought in on a litter by four Egyptian slaves. I can hardly wait."

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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