When East Palo Alto activist William Webster stepped into a plane headed for Paris on Sunday, it marked the first time he would travel abroad in over four decades. But he wasn't about to miss the world premiere of an opera he wrote back in the early 1970s.
His musical composition, "The Little Match Girl," based on Hans Christian Andersen's tragic story, will be performed June 20 as part of a four-day music festival in Paris' famed Montparnasse area.
"I'm just bewildered," Webster said in an interview before his departure. "This happening is unbelievable."
Webster describes himself as a man of "multiple incarnations." After getting a graduate degree in German studies from Stanford, he became a college professor in the 1960s and later joined the private telecommunications field for more than a decade. Since 1992, he's been on the administrative staff of Stanford's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
And over the last 25 years, he's also been a tireless affordable housing advocate for the East Palo Alto community.
Webster's first love was music, which he studied as an undergraduate at Stanford.
"I wanted to continue on as a graduate student in music, but I was rejected," Webster said. Even so, he had already written one opera, an interpretation of the Cyrano de Bergerac story.
But Webster put aside his music dreams to pursue German studies and later teach the language and German literature.
Then in 1972, he began working on "The Little Match Girl," which he finished two years later. Webster got two prominent Bay Area opera singers, Sharon Davis and Julia Wade, to perform the opera in his studio and gave copies of the recording -- on cassette tapes -- to friends and music associates.
Among recipients was his friend Roger Dickinson-Brown, an acclaimed American poet and teacher who also studied at Stanford and later moved to France.
A few years ago Dickenson-Brown encouraged Webster to have "The Little Match Girl" remastered onto CDs and began distributing them around Paris.
"He shared these recordings with people he knew in France and then he started sending me these email reports of the response," said Webster. "I was dumbfounded."
Through his connections, Dickenson-Brown got the opera into the Paris festival. His son, Adrian Harrington Brown, produced the opera, which will be performed by French singers.
While in Paris, Webster said he'll be staying with Dickenson-Brown.
Someday, Webster said, he would like to see his composition performed in the Bay Area, with proceeds benefiting East Palo Alto residents. It would bring two of his loves -- opera and his community -- together.
"This story of 'The Little Match Girl' is so relevant to the themes of struggling for survival and existence and homelessness," Webster said. "That is my prayer."