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Michael Barnes

Beauty of Life, Library Foundation, ‘Aida’ and Andy Roddick

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Jessica Balladares-Bennett and Leslie Bollier at Beaty of Life Luncheon for Hospice Austin.

HEALTH: You couldn’t improve on Cheryl Strayed. Effortlessly admirable Hospice Austin has a history of attracting the best possible inspirational speakers to its Beauty of Life luncheons. Strayed’s bestseller about overcoming grief on the Pacific Rim Trail, “Wild,” was adapted into a popular movie with Reese Witherspoon. I liked both, but I had no idea what a tremendous communicator Strayed would be at a huge Hilton Austin event (950 in attendance). She was warm, funny, thoughtful and she artfully tied her remarks back to the nonprofit’s mission of providing outstanding care for the terminally ill and their families.

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Tuan Nguyen and Vu Nguyen at Illumine Dinner for Austin Public Library Friends Foundation.

BOOKS: Honoring the authors and others. The Austin Public Library Friends Foundation is on a roll. The new central library, which it effectively backed, opens next year. The foundation not only attracts some A-List donors, but also big hitters in the city’s literary community. Honored during the sociable Illumine event at the W Austin Hotel were prolific historian H.W. Brands, full-hearted songwriter Sara Hickman, Pulitzer Prize finalist poet Dean Young and tireless literary patron Forrest Preece. The presenters — Sarah BirdMichael Blair, Chris Mink and Stephen Harrigan — were as distinguished as the winners.

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Claudia Hollern and Jose Cuellar at Austin Opera’s “Aida.”

ARTS: “That’s the best production I’ve ever seen here.” So said a woman as she left Austin Opera‘s “Aida” during a Sunday matinee performance. For once at the Long Center, I didn’t see an empty seat. The “bravi” started early and often, rewarding every aria and chorus. I was particularly pleased to see an instant standing ovation at the finale of the first two acts — you know, the one with the knockout pageantry — with its army of soloists, chorus, orchestra, dancers and supernumeraries. The previous week, I’d taken the MegaBus down to see Houston Grand Opera‘s “Eugene Onegin.” Walking away from that, I thought that the larger company almost always trumped Austin’s with sophistication, style and power. I was disabused of that notion seven days later during “Aida.”

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Shannon MacKenzie and Sam Payton at Andy Roddick Foundation’s Masquerade.

SCHOOL: The Andy Roddick Foundation has changed course. Quietly, it has moved away from the goal of providing character training through tennis, the second phase of its history, after pumping money into charities for children through star-studded galas. Now mature — like its founder — it provides targeted after-school and summertime activities, primarily at Pecan Springs Elementary School. Along the way, it has dramatically raised attendance rates and hopes to spread the love to other schools soon. Guests at the group’s annual Masquerade heartily approved over a succulent dinner from the Four Seasons Hotel. Couldn’t be prouder of our hometown hero.