Tag Archives: arts

It Takes a Village

June 1, 2014 by
Photography by Omaha Summer Arts Festival

One of the most colorful of Omaha weekends awaits as the Omaha Summer Arts Festival prepares to launch its 40th season June 6-8.

“The Omaha Summer Arts Festival is like creating a village—a city within a city,” says Vic Gutman, founder and director of the event. “Hundreds of artists interacting with tens of thousands of our friends and neighbors turns Farnam Street into Omaha’s back yard for one brief but exciting weekend. It’s a social experience as much as it is an art experience.”

The history of the festival closely mirrors that of Downtown Omaha over the course of the last four decades. The now-venerable Old Market was in its infancy when the event first moved to abut an empty pit of a construction zone that would soon become the Central Park Mall, now known as the Gene Leahy Mall. City sidewalks were largely deserted in a urban area that had for years been on a slow but steady economic decline.

“The backdrop for the festival has changed dramatically since then,” Gutman adds, “and the event parallels how our city has earned its reputation as a thriving place for creativity, culture, performing arts, and retail.”

The festival’s artist market may be the main attraction, but the all-ages fun also extends to a hands-on, activity-packed Children’s Fair. Ready for a bite? Check out the savory offerings of the TasteFest to fuel your booth-hopping journey from 10th to 15th streets along Farnam. The soundtrack of the crowd-pleasing event will once again be provided by an eclectic array of artists playing on the World Music Pavilion Stage.

Over its storied history, the event has attracted more than three million visitors to Downtown Omaha and more than $15 million in artwork has been sold.

“The Omaha Summer Arts Festival rises above a mere arts festival,” Gutman adds. “It’s about celebrating Downtown. It’s about community and the life of a city. It’s about Omaha.”

Artists for Inclusion

February 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”

 

Kathy Tyree Channeling Her Inner Diva

February 14, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

The term “diva” has taken a bit of a hit in recent years, suggesting to some a haughty I-want-it-all-and-want-it-now scene chewer who treats other humans like varmints.

For most, though, the word remains untarnished. The diva is still the shining star, the bigger-than-life glory who commands a room while displaying elegance and charity beyond the bright lights.

Kathy Tyree is most certainly the latter type of diva.

So, too, was Ella Fitzgerald, the legendary jazz diva who Tyree will shape-shift into for Ella, which opens at the Omaha Community Playhouse on February 28.

“Ella Fitzgerald was every bit the good diva, a marvelous performer,” Tyree says during an interview at a mid-town coffee shop. “My job is to channel my inner diva. But I think I’ve earned my diva stripes. It’s an immense challenge, but I feel I’m up to the challenge.”

“She brought the house down in Hairspray. She’s going to bring the house down again.”
— Susie Collins

Tyree has more than earned those stripes in 30-some years of powerhouse singing throughout the region. She is arguably Omaha’s premier cabaret singer. Among numerous other roles, she played Aretha Franklin in Beehive, widely considered the longest-running show in the city’s history.

That show’s director, Gordon Cantiello, says he’s confident that Tyree is “by all means a big-time diva in the good way.

“The other girls in Beehive had to work hard to keep up with her,” Cantiello says. “She commands a room. She’s 110 percent all the time. She’s a director’s dream.”

Susie Collins, who will be directing Ella, agrees and adds that Tyree “has a very special, powerful way of expressing herself through her music.”

“It actually goes deeper than the biographies that have been written about her. There are just some topics you didn’t talk about back then that are discussed more openly now.”
—Kathy Tyree

And yes, she said, Tyree can command a room like a true diva. She did just that in a Playhouse production last summer. “She brought the house down in Hairspray,” Collins continues. “She’s going to bring the house down again.”

Ella is a new challenge for Tyree in that, for one, “there are an immense number of lines to learn.” The one-woman musical is “a very honest and open look at her life.” The musical goes far beyond the music.

Set in Nice, France, in 1966, Fitzgerald’s manager suggests she engage in more banter with her audience—a fashion for singers at the time. Her conversations on and off the stage through the musical increasingly delve into deeply personal topics, including the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands 
of her stepfather.

“In shows like this you can get a script that’s kind of glued in there—that’s very forced,” Collins explains. “You have a very skilled playwright here [Jeffrey Hatcher]. The script is just excellent.”

“It actually goes deeper than the biographies that have been written about her,” Tyree says. “There are just some topics you didn’t talk about back then that are discussed more openly now.”

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At the show’s heart, though, is the music and the larger-than-life voice and presence of the diva.

“The diva develops her own style out of her own personality,” Tyree says. “Ella Fitzgerald was uniquely Ella. A diva is the only person who sounds the way they do. You know immediately who is singing when you hear the voice.”

Tyree has built her own personal style from many influences. In some cases, she’s standing on some unlikely shoulders.

You might guess she was first inspired by the towering voices and personalities of Diana Ross and Lena Horne. Aretha Franklin, sure. Cher, who Tyree loves for her versatility. Luther Vandross. So smooth.

But Mick Jagger? Really?

“He’s always going—so passionate,” she says. “I love what he does with a song.”

And Rod Stewart?

“I love performers who are sincere and real,” she says. “That passion is authentic.”

Ella Fitzgerald, she says, was one of those sincere, genuine, authentic, and passionate singers who brought her best each night to her performance and her audience.

That’s what Tyree wants for every second she spends on stage as Ella Fitzgerald.

“I’d like to think I have my own style, so it’s interesting to work to channel Ella Fitzgerald—try to take on her unique style,” Tyree says. “What’s not at all different is that burning desire to give the audience everything you have. Ultimately, a diva wants to give the audience something to remember. So we’re going to work to give the audience something to remember.”

If Hearing Is Believing

February 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Do you hear what Angie and Andrew Norman hear?

If so, that’s the symphony of the Cornhusker state’s stacked arsenal of music makers. And if you don’t hear it now, you will, because they’re working to ensure that everyone recognizes these sweet (or punk, or country, or polka) sounds.

The Normans co-founded Hear Nebraska in 2010 as a “nonprofit cultural organization that cultivates the state’s vibrant, fertile music and arts community.”

Both were longtime students of regional culture; Andrew even worked at local newsweelies. When he needed a master’s project at Michigan State, Angie pitched the idea of a publication covering Omaha and Lincoln’s music scenes as one. The concept stuck and blossomed into an even larger 
project: a nonprofit.

“We realized Omaha and Lincoln’s music scenes were both super strong and great bands in both cities weren’t getting as much attention as they warranted nationally,” says Andrew. “We wanted to include Omaha, Lincoln, and Nebraska in general. It was just all these scattered voices, so we tried to gather them and speak through one confident, strong voice.”

And that voice is being heard, in Nebraska and beyond. A full 40 percent of HN’s website traffic comes from outside of Nebraska and seven percent of traffic is international. “Our mission is to make Nebraska an internationally known cultural destination,” says Andrew, “so I think that statistic really indicates that we’re doing something to reach that goal.”

Angie adds that “HN has received shout-outs from Garrison Keillor and has been featured on Al-Jazeera English.”

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“We want to tie the broader creative to HN, because we want to promote people making cool stuff in Nebraska,” Andrew says. “To support the musicians, the venues, the businesses involved—it all fits and works together. Around here all of these entities support each other.”

Andrew says that’s what makes Nebraska such an attractive location.

“There’s a sense that people want to collaborate. It’s such a good environment to be in when you’re trying to create art,” he says.

HN is known for executing unique, imaginative events that merge music and community. Angie’s favorites were the “An Evening” series of fundraisers, featuring meals from famed vegan chef and Omaha transplant Isa Chandra Moskowitz and music from such local heavies as Simon Joyner and The Mynabirds.

“It combines food, music, and community in an intimate setting,” says Angie. “The environment is amazing, and they are just such special shows.”

Andrew’s favorite was the NET-televised “HN Live at the 1200 Club” with Digital Leather, Big Harp, and Kill County.

“It was amazing,” Andrew says. “The state of the art [Holland Performing Arts Center] room, three amazing bands on stage, teaming with Omaha Performing Arts and NET, two absolute top-tier organizations in the state who represent what we strive to become…it was extremely flattering, encouraging, 
and motivating.”

Andrew described watching the sound check and imagined a kid from rural Nebraska watching the program and thinking, “This is possible. You can go for it and make your own sound.”

The Normans want HN to “grow smart.” They’re working to “focus on the foundation to make sure that we continue to grow and last,” says Andrew.

Five years from now the Normans hope HN will host regular showcases across the state featuring Nebraska music. Other goals include a physical space, more paid contributors, residencies, being one of the premier music websites in the country, and, as Andrew puts it, for everyone in the state to have a favorite Nebraska band “in the same way they love Husker football.”

In December HN released its second compilation on vinyl accompanied by a digital download. Such notables as Tim Kasher, McCarthy Trenching, Simon Joyner, Universe Contest, and Conchance are a few of the artists highlighting the eclectic collection.

They’re relaunching the HN site in 2014 and are at work on HN Radio, a web app/music player to feature Nebraska music, interviews, reviews, and other content. The effort is funded in part by the Nebraska Arts Council and Omaha Venture Group.

As Omaha invests in the young nonprofit, the Normans continue to invest in Omaha.

“We want to be an example of people who enjoy living here and cultivate a beautiful life here,” says Angie. “We hope that more people will look here and see opportunities.”

“We moved back and bought a house here,” says Andrew of the Benson home the couple shares with their adorable pup, Polly. “A large goal of Hear Nebraska is to stop the brain drain. I think Omaha, and Nebraska, in general, is just a really great place to start something.”

And on the topic of “starting something,” the couple is now awaiting their most ambitious of projects: a baby Norman due in 
early 2014.

Omar Arts & Events

January 17, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Our customers are looking for a different type of venue,” says Mark O’Leary, executive director of Omar Arts and Events. “Something other than four white walls. Something with timeless craftsmanship and impeccable attention to detail.”

In other words, those seeking Old World charm and character intermingled with modern amenities will find what they’re looking for at Midtown Omaha’s newest arts and events facility. “We fill a niche,” O’Leary explains, “for those planning mid-size to large events.” Everything from weddings to trade shows to fundraising galas will benefit from perks like state-of-the-art A/V equipment, two screens with HD projection, free Wi-Fi, plenty of free parking, and enhanced security.

As a life-long Omahan, O’Leary knows what people in Omaha, particularly Midtown, are looking for. After all, his family’s been here since the 1880s. It’s no small wonder that he also owns The Cornerstone Mansion Inn, Omaha’s only historic inn, located in the Offutt mansion. The inn also serves as an event facility, giving O’Leary the experience event planners will find at the Omar.

Newly opened in November 2013, the Omar will be known quickly as the premier event facility in town, if O’Leary has any say in the matter. “We want to be secure in knowing that we are our customers’ first choice in event venues,” he says, “and that if they go elsewhere, it’s only because we were already booked.” His plan to keep clients coming back is by taking care of every detail and helping them to make their events as memorable and distinctive as possible.

No doubt he’ll be able to see to that, given that he’s a hands-on operator at the Omar. O’Leary’s passion for involvement is evident in his ongoing love and participation in theater. He produced and acted in the feature film For Love of Amy, directed by Ted Lange (Isaac from The Love Boat). For 10 years, he has served on the board of the John Beasley Theater and has produced and/or acted in more than 40 productions, including several national and local commercials.

His sense of timing and production will undoubtedly lead to your event putting its best foot forward at Omar Arts and Events.

Omar Arts & Events
4383 Nicholas St, Suite 230
Omaha 68131
402-905-9511
mark@omarbuilding.com
Executive Director/ Mark O’Leary

Her 13 Cents Worth

January 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Though inching 
perilously close
 to senior citizen status, Robin Welch still moves with the grace and agility of a young prima ballerina, which of course she once was.

Welch came to the Midlands in 1985 as principal dancer for Ballet Omaha, continuing an upward trajectory in ballet that can only be described as meteoric. Previously, she had won a full scholarship at age 15 to train with the Harkness Ballet in New York City, where she was born. Her talents won her a permanent spot with the company and at 17 she jetted off to Monaco.

“Our company was based in Monte Carlo,” she recounts. “Princess Grace would invite us to the castle. We’d swim in their pool.”

The company danced all across Europe, where Welch met or performed with the greatest ballet legends of the era, including Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Yes, everything was beautiful—until Rebekah Harkness decided to close the company she had founded. Welch returned stateside to join the Connecticut Ballet. It was in New Haven in 1978 that a photo of her was taken and used on a postage stamp—worth a princely 13 cents—as part of the Postal Service’s USA Dance series.

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The call to Omaha actually came from her then-husband, artistic director Robert Vickrey, who brought his wife and their young daughter, Rachel, with him to develop Ballet Omaha. After Robert’s departure in the early ’90s (the couple had divorced by then), Ballet Omaha collapsed, and Welch retired as a dancer.

The curtain rose again in 1999 when The Rose Theater offered to house a new school and company, Omaha Ballet Theater, which Welch founded. After 11 years at the helm of Omaha’s only professional ballet company, she was stunned when The Rose decided to sever its ties.

“It was draining to see it disintegrate before my eyes,” says Welch of her ballet school.

But she was born to teach. Welch gathered her strength, her money, and her daughter—an accomplished ballet artist herself—and in 2010 opened Robin Welch Dance Arts, home of Heartland Youth Ballet. Welch’s gift of unfettered, joyous movement now shines in her 
young students.

“I have worked with children trained by Robin,” says Ernest Richardson, Resident Conductor of the Omaha Symphony. “They come consummately prepared. They’re disciplined, respectful, and they know how to work with the orchestra. She’s an 
amazing woman.”

Accolades from her peers sustained Welch after she thought her life’s work had ended. When the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards presented her with their Lifetime Achievement Award two years ago, she broke down in gratitude.

“I had felt isolated until that point,” she admits. “But [the award] made me feel like I was part of the community again. It came at a great time.”

With Heartland Youth Ballet now soaring, Welch’s story adds another en pointe chapter—this one with a happy ending.

Joan Squires

February 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Joan Squires was living a cozy life in Arizona where she was president and CEO of the Phoenix Symphony. But when Omaha Performing Arts leaders called 10 years ago, she couldn‘t resist the challenge.

OPA wanted her help in operating two theaters in Omaha—the venerable Orpheum and the yet-to-be-built Holland Performing Arts Center. Who could pass up the chance to operate a theater built in 1927 that was undergoing a $10 million renovation? And who wouldn’t want to participate in the building of a $102 million performing arts center in Downtown Omaha?

Squires saw it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “There was a committed board and key leadership. Also at that time, no one in Omaha was bringing in shows.”

OPA’s new president arrived in 2002 to find a staff of one and a lone computer housed in the offices of Heritage Services; the philanthropic foundation was OPA’s fundraiser. The Holland Performing Arts Center was only a sketch on an architect‘s drawing board. The Orpheum Theater was still owned by the City of Omaha. And few people knew much about OPA. “One of our greatest challenges was branding the institution,” Squires says. “We had to go from not in existence to fully operational in three years.”

Her first action was to help set goals: 1) Assume management of the Orpheum from the city, 2) Prepare a strategic plan for the development of the organizational and administrative structure for OPA, and 3) Participate in construction of the Holland.

“In 2004, we opened Ticket Omaha [a local ticketing service for the arts]. Tickets were on sale six months before the Holland’s first performance in 2005,” Squires says.20130102_bs_8722 copy

A Decade Later

Today, the OPA president has a staff of 90 full- and part-time employees and 500 volunteers. She oversees the 175,000-square-foot Holland Performing Arts Center and the renovated 2,600-seat Orpheum Theater that reopened in 2002. And Omaha Performing Arts now is the largest nonprofit arts organization in Nebraska.

Seventy-five percent of funding is now from earned revenue and 25 percent is from contributions.

Rankings in two industry publications in 2011 gave Omaha bragging rights. The Orpheum was ranked No.1 in Midwest ticket sales by Venues Today and No. 16 worldwide by Pollstar. The Holland was ranked in the top 10 nationally by Venues Today, an impressive ranking for a performing arts center that didn’t exist six years earlier.

“There were those that said Omaha could not support the facility,” remembers John Gottschalk, OPA chairman since its formation in 2000. Squires has oversight of a $18 million operation. “And in six years she has never missed her budget. Never.”

Squires’ success in luring top talent has brought a financial benefit to the area, attracting visitors, creating jobs, and increasing tax revenue. A 2011 survey by University of Nebraska economists concluded that the two theaters had a cumulative economic impact on Douglas County of $128.49 million over five years and a $98.31 million impact on Nebraska.

The widely praised acoustics of the Holland bring out the best of the Omaha Symphony. Broadway shows now seek out the Orpheum. Performances have included Wicked, Jersey Boys and Disney’s® Lion King, which returns in March.

Check Squires’ iPhone and you’ll find an eclectic collection of music. But Broadway tunes rule. “From childhood on, I’ve loved Broadway musicals,” she says.

OPA’s mission includes presenting educational programs for all ages, from student matinees to master classes to workshops taught by professionals.

“An addition at the Holland designed for teaching dance classes was added about three years ago,” says OPA Vice Chairman Richard Holland. The performing arts center was named for him and his late wife, Mary.

10 January 2013- Joan Squires office is photographed for B2B Magazine.

Photo in Squires’ office of her with Debbie Reynolds (left) and Warren Buffett.

Squires has her finger on the pulse on Broadway theatre life and currently serves as a voting member for Broadway’s Tony Awards®. Active in Broadway League committees, she is a member of the Performing Arts Center Consortium and of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. She is an advisor for the Broadway Dreams Foundation.

The Life of Joan Squires

Joan was born and raised in Shippensburg, Pa., where her father ran a family business. Her twin brother, John, is the fourth generation in the business. Joan received her undergraduate degree in music education from Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa., and became a music teacher for three years. She loved her students, but teaching wasn’t her life’s mission.

She moved into arts management, earning a master’s degree in both business and music arts administration from the University of Michigan. She served as an intern for the National Endowment for the Arts and participated in a yearlong fellowship under the sponsorship of the League of American Orchestras.

Squires has worked in arts management for more than 25 years. Previous positions were with the Milwaukee, Utah, and Houston symphonies. She has received many honors including the Ak-Sar-Ben Court of Honor and the YWCA’s Woman of Vision. In 2012, she received a Governor’s Arts Award from the Nebraska Arts Council.

Squires has a short commute to work. She lives in a downtown condo about halfway between the two theaters that she oversees. Her husband, Tom Fay, was a vice president of the Arizona State University Foundation before they moved to Omaha. A native New Yorker, he played the oboe for 17 years with the Pittsburgh Symphony and held a second career in arts management and academic fundraising.

Fay and Squires have been married 22 years. She has three stepchildren and three grandchildren. Her husband has been supportive of her demanding career, says Squires. “He said he had his career, and it was now my turn.”

Squires said despite all the long hours she logs at work, it’s all worth it. “At the end of the day, standing in the back of the theater and watching the audience react, I think I have the best job in town.”

Opera Omaha Guild

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.

Roger duRand

December 25, 2012 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Omaha designer Roger duRand didn’t invent the Old Market, but he played a key role shaping the former wholesale produce and jobbing center into a lively arts-culture district.

His imprint on this historic urban residential-commercial environment is everywhere. He’s designed everything from Old Market business logos to chic condos over the French Café and Vivace to shop interiors. He’s served as an “aesthetic consultant” to property and business owners.

He’s been a business owner there, himself. He once directed the Gallery at the Market. For decades, he made his home and office in the Old Market.

The Omaha native goes back to the very start when the Old Market lacked a name and identity. It consisted of old, abandoned warehouses full of broken windows and pigeon and bat droppings. City leaders saw no future for the buildings and planned to tear them down. Only a few visionaries like duRand saw their potential.

 “I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

He had apprenticed under his engineer-architect father, the late William Durand (Roger amended the family name years ago), a Renaissance Man who also designed and flew experimental aircraft. The son had resettled in Omaha after cross-country road trips to connect with the burgeoning counter-culture movement, working odd jobs to support himself, from fry cook to folk singer to sign painter to construction worker. He even shot pool for money.

He and a business partner, Wade Wright, ran the head shop The Farthest Outpost in midtown. A friend, Percy Roche, who had a British import store nearby, told them about the Old Market buildings owned by the Mercer family. Nicholas Bonham Carter, a nephew of Mercer family patriarch Samuel Mercer, led a tour.

“We trudged through all the empty buildings, and I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was,” says duRand. “It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other. They were all of the same general age. They were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style.

“They were such an asset.”

Remnants and rituals of the once-bustling marketplace remained.20121119_bs_4319 copy

“When I first came down here, the space where M’s Pub is now was Subby Sortino’s potato warehouse, and there were potatoes to the ceiling,” recalls duRand. “Across the street was his brother, John Sortino, an onion broker. There were produce brokerage offices in some of the upper floors. There were a couple cafes that catered to the truck drivers and railroad guys. There was a lot of jobbing with suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff—heating and cooling, plumbing and industrial supplies. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night for freight to be loaded and unloaded.

“A really interesting urban environment.” He thought this gritty, rich-in-character built domain could be transformed into Omaha’s Greenwich Village. “I had in mind kind of an arts neighborhood with lots of galleries and artist lofts.”

That eventually happened, thanks to Ree (Schonlau) Kaneko and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts.

duRand and Wright’s head shop at 1106 Jackson St. was joined by more entrepreneurs and artists doing their thing. The early Market scene became an underground haven. “In 1968, it was really artsy, edgy, political, kind of druggy,” says duRand.

Experimental art, film, theatre, and alternative newspapers flourished there. City officials looked with suspicion on the young, long-haired vendors and customers.

“We had all kinds of trouble with building inspectors,” who he says resisted attempts to repurpose the structures. “The idea of a hippie neighborhood really troubled a lot of people. This was going to be the end of civilization as they knew it if they allowed hippies to get a foothold. It was quite a struggle the first few years. We really had a lot of obstacles thrown in our path, but we persevered. It succeeded in spite of the obstructionists.

“I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

“And then it became more fashionable with the little clothing stores, bars, and gift shops. Adventuresome, young professionals would come down to have cocktails and to shop.”

The French Café helped establish the Old Market as viable and respectable.

The social experiment of the Old Market thrived, he says, “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived, it evolved authentically,” which jives with his philosophy of “authentic design” that’s unobtrusive and rooted in the personality of the client or space. “Sometimes, the best thing to do is nothing at all. The main criterion wasn’t profit…It was for interesting things to happen. We made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here.”

Having a hand in its transformation, he says, “was interesting, exciting, even exhilarating because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. I do have a sense of accomplishment in making something out of nothing. That was really the fun part.”

He fears as the Market has become gentrified—“really almost beyond recognition”—it’s lost some of its edge, though he concedes it remains a hipster hub. “I’m a little awed by the juggernaut it’s become. It’s taken on a much bigger life than I imagined it would. I never imagined I would be designing million-dollar condos in the Old Market or that a Hyatt hotel would go in.”

duRand and his wife, Jody, don’t live in the Market anymore, but he still does work for clients there, and it’s where he still prefers hanging out. Besides, all pathways seem to take this Old Market pioneer back to where it all began anyway.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.