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Omaha Magazine

Uniting as One: Opera Omaha Engages Community Involvement

Aug 27, 2021 04:27PM ● By Sean McCarthy
Children's choir in purple shirts

Photography Contributed    

 In December 2020, the company announced the cancellation of The Marriage of Figaro and Sweeney Todd, which were originally slated for early 2021 performances. 

Opera Omaha’s plan to get people back into theater seats is heavily reliant on community engagement. It’s a project that has been in place since 2016, said Roger Weitz, general director at Opera Omaha, in a phone interview.

Five years ago, Opera Omaha launched a strategic initiative with the hopes of becoming more relevant, accessible, and innovative to its patrons. The two major efforts that resulted from this were the Holland Community Opera Fellowship and the One Festival. 

The Holland Community Opera Fellowship uproots how opera companies usually engage with communities. For decades, the typical practice of bringing opera to a larger community was to put on short performances in places such as schools. The interaction between the opera company and the audience was minimal, Weitz said. 

“It was very much ‘here’s who we are, and this is what we do and aren’t you lucky that we’re here,’” he said. 

Holland Community Opera Fellowship partners with schools and community organizations. Opera Omaha will go into these community spaces and discuss the goals of the organization they’re engaging with, along with discussing the needs of the people those organizations serve. 

That includes conducting creativity workshops with homeless people at Siena Francis House and Micah House in Council Bluffs, as well as working with people who have suffered from traumatic brain injuries. Weitz said he knew the limits of these efforts for people who are suffering from traumas such as TBI and homelessness. At the same time, he pointed to art’s power to help people cope and process their pain. 

“Opera is a multifaceted art form that brings all of these tools of creativity to bear for people to celebrate life, to work through sorrow, to have a catharsis,” Weitz said. “And we hope to bring joy wherever we go.” 

The Holland Community Opera Fellowship has also worked to address racial injustice. The local protests in reaction to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the killing of James Scurlock by bar owner Jake Gardner, who later committed suicide after being indicted by a grand jury for Scurlock’s death, led many companies to think about their commitment to social justice. 

“We, as a predominantly white organization, wanted to amplify voices that don’t have the same platform that we do,” Weitz said. 

Last year, Opera Omaha launched the series A.BL.E, or Amplifying the Black Experience. Led by curators Melanie Bacaling and Chabrelle Williams, the series was created to celebrate the contributions of Black artists in opera and bring awareness to issues facing the Black community. This included a discussion on the opera dwb (driving while black).

While the Holland Community Opera Fellowship helped to engage audiences in 2020, sadly, the One Festival was canceled due to the pandemic. In keeping with Opera Omaha’s commitment to community engagement, the festival has typically given artists more autonomy in creating original work. Instead of reaching out to artists to direct a production, the One Festival reached out to artists to do their own original pieces for Opera Omaha. Rebecca Brown, director of marketing and public relations, said she hoped Opera Omaha will announce the future of the One Festival later this year. 

Also in full swing at the moment is Opera Omaha Guild’s Cotillion—the French word for formal ball—which combines fundraising for Opera Omaha with lessons in social skills for sixth graders (and, this year, seventh graders) throughout Omaha. The Cotillion Graduation will be held at Embassy Suites - La Vista on Oct.16, 2021.

Opera Omaha’s resumption of its large-scale productions in October will be with a chorus that has not performed in more than a year. Taking this into account, Brown said Opera Omaha set the performance of Eugene Onegin for April 2022, because it will be their largest chorus for their 2021-2022 season. 

Like most chorus members of Opera Omaha, Ed Perini had little-to-no live audience interaction throughout 2020. Perini, who sings bass-baritone, has been a member of Opera Omaha since 1995. His last performance was for Faust in 2019. During the pandemic, he continued to sing in the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral choir while working his full-time job at Bank of the West, where he is a home equity closer in consumer real estate services. 

Perini received his Master of Vocal Performance at Michigan University in 1994. Shortly afterward, he moved with his parents to Omaha. After seeing an Opera Omaha production of Carousel, he auditioned for the chorus. His performances have included La Bohème and Carmen

As a member of the Opera Omaha chorus, Perini works on contract. Months before a performance is given, a chorus member accepts the contract, and then starts a monthlong rehearsal period. A week before opening night, rehearsals are moved into the Orpheum Theater. 

The number of chorus members can depend on the production. A smaller performance could include up to 12 chorus members, but productions like Aida can include as many as 60 singers. The end result continues to be a draw for Perini. 

“Once we’ve gotten through the whole rehearsal period and you’re out there onstage on opening night…there’s no experience like it,” he said. 

Perini doesn’t know when his next production will be. Vocal-wise, not performing in an opera for more than a year is its own challenge. But Perini has also been battling knee issues. The physical components of being part of the chorus can be just as challenging as the vocal demands, Perini said. In addition to the long rehearsals, chorus members are sometimes asked to do a lot of running and other rigorous movements. 

“I’d really like to do it again, I’m just not sure if I’m going to be able to do it right away,” Perini said. 

Opera Omaha’s season at the Orpheum Theater officially kicks off Oct. 15 with the Italian opera The Capulets and the Montagues. Drawing inspiration from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, it’s classic and contemporary. Brown, who left Opera Omaha in mid-July, knows Omahans are looking forward to seeing live opera again. 

“A lot of our patrons have been vaccinated and they’re anxious and excited to get back to live performances again,” she said. 

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This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.