February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1958, a volunteer organization called the Omaha Civic Opera Society took the stage, creating and fostering an opera-loving community in Omaha. After tremendous support, the organization became fully professional in 1970, making Opera Omaha the only professional opera company in Nebraska. As Opera Omaha has expanded its seasons of mainstage productions and increased musical events throughout the community, the company has found constant encouragement in the dedicated, fully volunteer-based Opera Omaha Guild, originally called Omaha Angels when it began in 1967.

The Guild stands behind Opera Omaha each year, raising funds to support its productions, creating outreach opportunities, and educating the community about opera through memberships and events.

“Omaha has a strong fine arts community, and it is so very important that opera continues to play a prominent role,” says Jillian Tuck, current president of the Opera Omaha Guild.

Tuck moved back to Omaha from Fort Worth, Texas, a few years ago and found that she wanted to support the arts in her former community. “I had been involved with a Fort Worth Opera volunteer group, so I decided to seek a similar opportunity here in Omaha.” Luckily for Tuck, the Opera Omaha Guild had just what she was looking for—a passion for opera and activities and social events that were accessible.

“Omaha has a strong fine arts community, and it is so very important that opera continues to play a prominent role.” – Jillian Tuck, president of Opera Omaha Guild

As president of the Guild, Tuck presides over the Guild meetings, appoints committee chairpersons, and serves as an ex-officio member of all Guild committees. “The Opera Omaha Guild is a working board with committee chairs and volunteers bringing the effort, organization, and energy behind all of the events. They are the reason for our success.”

Tuck loves opera and says that being in the Guild has allowed her to share that love with other people every day. Recently, she had the opportunity to talk about her passion at the Guild’s Cotillion graduation dinner. The Cotillion—French for “formal ball”—is one of the Guild’s fundraisers and provides the opportunity for Omaha sixth-graders to learn the art of formal dining, mature communication, and ballroom dancing through several classes and a final graduation dance.

Because the Cotillion supports Opera Omaha, Tuck knew she could reach out to a younger generation about opera. “Speaking to adults about opera can be challenging because they often have preconceived notions, [but] speaking to 300+ sixth-graders and their parents was something I found inspirational.” In her five-minute speech, Tuck felt she was able to open the door to an art that most of the children had never experienced. “I believe that opera truly is for everyone to enjoy throughout a lifetime, and creating young opera fans through the sharing of my own love for opera is something I will always cherish.”

Funnily enough, it was the Cotillion that got President-elect Lisa Hagstrom involved with the Guild. “I was in the first Cotillion class that Opera Omaha conducted in 1985,” she explains. “I had been looking for volunteer opportunities within the arts community and had attended a couple fundraising events for Opera Omaha. [Since then], I have been involved with the Guild as a board member for 10 or 11 years.”

“The great thing is that nearly 100 percent of all money raised [at Spirits of the Opera] goes back to Opera Omaha.” – Lisa Hagstrom, president-elect of Opera Omaha Guild

Hagstrom helps with several of the Guild’s events, including the Cotillion; the annual Opera Omaha Gala, which was held in February this year to celebrate the partnership of Opera Omaha and artist Jun Kaneko for the production The Magic Flute, one of Mozart’s most famous operas; and the currently on-hiatus Burgers & Bordeaux chef competition event.

The Guild’s most notable event, however, is the award-winning Spirits of the Opera fundraiser, which replaced an event called Wine Seller. “Wine tastings became a very popular fundraising idea for many groups, so we thought a cocktail tasting would be something different,” explains Hagstrom. “The first year of [Spirits of the Opera], we matched cocktails with operas, and attendees tasted eight different cocktails. It was a fun event, but it was lacking ‘something,’ and we just didn’t know what that was.”

Fortunately, the president of the executive board for Opera Omaha at that time, Jim Winner, found exactly what that “something” was while he was eating at Dixie Quicks, a Southern comfort food restaurant in Council Bluffs. One of the well-known Dixie Quicks servers, Bruce “Buffy” Bufkin, suggested to Winner that the Guild include a drag show as entertainment at the event.

Today, Spirits of the Opera is a drag show set to opera with the performers singing popular arias and other opera selections of their choice. The event is held at local hot-spot The Max, which is known as the best gay dance club in Omaha. The Max donates its space for the event, and all of the performers donate their time and talents. “It is an amazing experience,” says Tuck. “It blends the classical arias of well-known operas with some of the region’s most talented female impersonators.” In addition to the drag show, the event has the themed cocktails, silent and live auction opportunities, a raffle, and food from local restaurants, including Dixie Quicks.

Drag performers from the 2012 Spirits of the Opera event.

Drag performers from the 2012 Spirits of the Opera event.

“The great thing is that nearly 100 percent of all money raised goes back to Opera Omaha,” adds Hagstrom, who went out to Philadelphia last June to receive the Most Unique Fundraising Event award for Spirits of the Opera, presented by Opera Volunteers International.

As the Guild looks forward to this year’s Spirits of the Opera in May and further into 2013, Tuck says their goals remain the same. “[We just want] to support Opera Omaha and provide opportunities to educate the community about the importance and joy of opera.”

This year’s Spirits of the Opera will be held May 4 at The Max (1417 Jackson St.). For more information about the event or about the Opera Omaha Guild, visit operaomaha.org or call 402-346-7372.