Larry Pinson; photo by Joe Earle
It started in church. In the spring of 1997, Larry Pinson thought it would be interesting to hear singers from the Atlanta Opera’s chorus perform at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip in Buckhead as part of a service to start the Lenten season.
He wasn’t a member of the congregation, Pinson recalled, but as he walked in, he was asked to help seat people. He agreed. Afterwards, the person who recruited him to usher for the special service asked whether Pinson would be willing to volunteer to help out at the opera’s offices during the week. Pinson, then semi-retired, had time on his hands, so he said yes.
These days, at age 83, the white-haired retired economist still answers the Atlanta Opera’s phones and does other chores one or two days a week as a volunteer at the company’s offices in northwest Atlanta. “I’m on every Thursday,” he said one recent morning as he took a break from his volunteer job. “And other people who do this, when they need a break, I sit in for them.”
It’s his way of showing support for people who bring opera to Atlanta. “It’s something I can do to show my appreciation for this group of people,” he said. Besides, he said with a smile, sometimes “you get to meet people like [opera star] Renee Fleming” when they drop by the opera’s home base for rehearsals.
And his work is important to the opera, too. Volunteers—the company has 70 on its call list, including 15 to 20 “regulars”—are “integral” to its operations, said marketing manager Rebecca Danis, who oversees the volunteers. Volunteers, she said, help with everything from managing the opera’s archives to stuffing envelopes with mailers to manning tables to solicit subscription renewals.
They also, of course, answer the phones. And around the office, people have gotten to know the chatty Pinson, Danis said. “You really can’t pass by the front desk without talking to Larry,” she said. “He has a story for everything.”
Through the years, Pinson’s volunteer work has extended beyond the Atlanta Opera’s front desk. He volunteered with the opera company from 1997 through 2008, took a break, returned in 2014 and has been at his post since. In 2002, he took over as the opera’s volunteer coordinator. “I had a title,” he said with a self-deprecating grin. “I even had business cards.”
On occasion, he’s even ended up onstage to fill non-singing, non-speaking parts in some of the company’s productions.
He said he also worked for about five years as volunteer coordinator and house manager at Spivey Hall, a widely admired performance space in Clayton County; has sung bass in his church choir for 20 years; and participates in the Senior University of Greater Atlanta, a non-profit, volunteer-driven school now based at Rehoboth Baptist Church in Tucker that offers classes for students older than 55.
“All this stuff keeps me from getting immersed in myself,” Pinson said. “I don’t wallow in loneliness.”
He plans to teach a class at the senior university this fall on enjoying opera. He’s an enthusiastic fan of the art form. “It’s a tremendously engaging form of storytelling,” he said. “Every opera has a strong line. It usually offers a moral. There’s something to be told through the opera. Costuming. Staging. Lighting. All those things. Of course, there’s the music, and the performance of the music. It’s the only art form I know that engages all of these things together. To engage all these things together is really what makes me love it.”
And, he said, a good opera has a point. “When you get to the end of it, you know something you didn’t know when it started,” he said. “Not only do you know it intellectually, but you know it emotionally, too, because of the music.”
Now Pinson, who grew up on a Hart County farm and now lives in Buckhead, is working on getting his children and grandchildren to share his love of opera. “I have successfully made an opera fan out of one granddaughter,” he said. He’s not giving up on the others just yet.
What’s his favorite opera? He can’t choose. “I’m not one to have a favorite opera,” he said. He likes everything from Classical works to Romantic ones to early 20th Century pieces, he said. Then he thought a moment. And, he added, he really enjoyed a recent performance by contemporary composer Philip Glass.
And to show his appreciation for those works and the people who perform them, Pinson will keep on answering the phones and greeting visitors at the Atlanta Opera’s front desk. How long does he plan to continue his long-running show? “Probably as long as they’ll let me,” he said.
Atlanta Opera performances are held at various Atlanta-area venues, most notably, the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy., Atlanta 30339, 770-916-2800, cobbenergycentre.com.
For more information about upcoming Atlanta Opera performances, visit atlantaopera.org.