Tag Archives: Opera Omaha

Opera Omaha

August 15, 2018 by

Mission Statement

Opera Omaha’s mission is to enrich the quality of life in our community by creating professional opera and music theater, which uniquely combine the visual and performing arts to express humanity’s deepest emotions and highest aspirations.

Wish List

The whole community benefits from donations to Opera Omaha. Your Gifts are vital to ensuring Opera Omaha’s continued interaction with tens of thousands of adults, students, and children each year. Through performances and numerous engagement activities, Opera Omaha enriches lives and helps to create a vibrant, engaged, and culturally rich city.

Upcoming Events

  • Pagliacci
    Oct. 19 and 21, 2018
  • The Elixir of Love
    Feb. 15 and 17, 2019
  • ONE Festival, featuring Les Enfants Terribles and Faust
    April 2019

Background

As the only professional opera company in the state of Nebraska, Opera Omaha produces shows from the earliest operas to those composed by the current generation of artists. In addition to a season of compelling mainstage productions presented at the Orpheum Theater, the inaugural ONE Festival launched in 2018, exemplifying opera’s innovation and power. The company is internationally known for its productions of eight world premieres and four American premieres. It is also highly regarded for an extensive community engagement program. 

Brag Lines

The Holland Community Opera Fellowship offers the opportunity to expand Opera Omaha’s education and community engagement work by bringing opera to new environments, illustrating and promoting the value of creativity in the arts and non-arts sectors. In collaboration with community partners, Opera Omaha is able to identify and address partner needs with collaborative programming and engagement. Last season, Opera Omaha partnered with 55 community organizations, engaging over 17,000 participants across the city and metro area.

Pay it Forward

Supporting Opera Omaha brings many rewards. Whether purchasing a ticket to a performance, becoming a community sponsor, or giving a monetary gift, every dollar given helps deliver excellent art and implement exciting new initiatives, such as the Holland Community Opera Fellowship and the ONE Festival. These transformational programs are helping give people of all backgrounds and ages exposure to the arts.

Opera Omaha

1850 Farnam St.
Omaha, NE 68102
402-346-OPERA
operaomaha.org


The Big Give was published in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Bravissimo! The Holland Performing Arts Center

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by provided

Dick and Mary Holland didn’t sit in their well shaded home all summer, waiting for the grand opening of the performing arts center that bears their names. By early May, they’d toured construction progress a dozen times.

But the privilege of joining them on a progress tour in late August proved that they see the great effort with fresh eyes on each visit. Both Dick and Mary asked pointed questions of project manager Steve Smayda, and Holland had friendly greetings for the men laboring on the job.

He’d recently treated the workers to ice cream, hiring three of those ding-dong trucks and sending them to the 11th and Dodge work entrance. “I’ve never been around guys so damn proud
of what they are doing,” he says. He’d long since donned his yellow hard hat to become the first to sing from the new concert hall stage.

“La Donna Mobile?” “No, something from Faust,” he jokes, but more like scales. The former member of the Opera Omaha chorus then offered a few baritone notes.

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Make no mistake, the Hollands are enjoying their singular involvement, starting with a major gift and a hand in planning the $92 million Holland Performing Arts Center at 13th and Douglas. Any discomfort comes from their more specific roles in that Oct. 21 grand opening performance, emceed by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

A news story reported that Dreyfuss was chosen partly because of starring in the movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” That got a groaning “I hope not” from Omaha’s Mr. Holland. As for that opening night, “We’re certainly going to be there, but I haven’t asked for anything.”

Such reluctance won’t surprise anyone who has followed the story of the Hollands and their “enormously successful” investment with Warren Buffett. When the Omaha World-Herald ran a big spread on their philanthropy (“Giving Their All”) a few years ago, it was noted that they don’t talk about their fortune “and declined to be interviewed” for the article.

When questioned by this writer last year for the University of Nebraska at Omaha magazine Alum, Dick added to the basic account in a Buffett biography. Married a month after his 1948 graduation from then Omaha U., Holland took over his father’s advertising agency and the newlyweds moved into their present home near 80th and Pacific in 1957.

That left him short of funds when he found Buffett, the first person he’d met whose investment ideas “made sense.” So Dick borrowed $10,000 on his life insurance policy and Mary contributed a “significant” amount from her own resources. The rest is history oft-told by biographers of “the Oracle of Omaha”: The insightful ones who invested $10,000 with Buffett in 1957 and let it ride through the founding of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., saw it grow to roughly $280 million.

Still, the Hollands remained in that same modest house, but gave away millions to causes ranging from the fight against poverty to arts organizations. Last year, $43 million remained in their charitable foundation, despite the many gifts.

Anyone tempted to second-guess their large contribution to the Holland Center must challenge two points: “Our top giving goal is to raise a whole lot of people,” especially children, “out of poverty.” And they both place great importance on the arts.

Born in Dundee and a graduate of Brownell Hall, Mary majored in childcare at Mills College in California. Dick, who grew up near 60th and Pacific, and Mary had attended the same Brownell dances, but didn’t meet until after World War II, when he returned to studies at Omaha U. “Mary still loves to dance,” Dick says, “and she’ll dance till the stars fall out of the sky.”

On music, “We’re all over the map,” he observes. “I like the modern Russians, Mozart, Brahms, some Beethoven. Mary likes some things I don’t particularly like, those compositions full of approaching doom. We go to some Broadway shows twice. We always go to Fiddler on the Roof twice, but this last time we were in Arizona.”

Mary puts it this way: “Life isn’t just reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than that. Music penetrates the soul. It causes us to reflect. Painting, dance and creative writing work that way, too. Observe the joy it brings. Not just the applause and cheers, but the quiet pleasure.”

Though Dick’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus was his most recent performance participation in local arts activity, he came close to a career as an artist. His father, Lewis, had been a talented painter, and Dick won an art award while playing football at Central High School.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was nuts about Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Now I like the contemporary—the Jackson Pollock is the best art at Joslyn.”

He started college planning to be a chemical engineer, like his older brother William, but military duty in that field turned him to art on his return to the classroom at Omaha University, the alma mater of Dick and his three siblings. “I never carried it far enough,” Holland explained. “I was just learning to draw, to paint, but I was still an amateur.”

He dreamed of going to the Art Students League in New York City, but then met Mary. “She wasn’t going with me, and I needed to make money” to support her “in even half the style to which she was accustomed.”

That explains the goal, one he now calls “tasteless,” that ran beneath his senior photo in the university yearbook: “To have money and a business in art and advertising.”

That business, for many years, was known as Holland, Dreves and Reilly, second only to Bozell and Jacobs in its advertising/public relations heyday. (Valmont, UniRoyal and Omaha National Bank were prime accounts.)

Dick didn’t entirely abandon art when he delved into vocal music. He tried some life drawing, some painting. “The thing about it,” he notes, “is I’m just so totally into myself when working on canvas,
so absorbed.”

But football and fencing gave way to golf. The tall man shot in the upper 70s in his prime at the Omaha Country Club, and freely advised fellow golfers. And painting gave way to five years of voice lessons, studying with the Germanic Josie Whaley.

“She’d say, ‘Meester Holland, if you keep doing the baaaa, the scales, you’ll have a remarkable voice.” In Dick’s words, “Keep training and your range is raised a hell of a lot.”

In the course of their board work and their contributions to the opera and the symphony, the Hollands and others developed a vision that led to the Performing Arts Center opening in October. Joan Squires, in her third year as president of Omaha Performing Arts, cites that vision and “Dick’s perseverance for eight years or more” as a key to the center’s completion.

She has toured construction with the Hollands and “wished I had a tape recorder and a camera. It’s a thrill every time thru with them.” She joined them again, along with their daughter, Andy, when this writer shared the experience.

In particular, Squires recalls Dick’s first reaction to the downtown center: “It’s so big.”

Yes, that was a surprise, he admits, having viewed it first in model form. He’d visited other arts centers and the committee headed by World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk added sites as far as Vienna and Lucerne to their tours.

The Hollands helped engage architects famed for the renovation of Carnegie Hall and design of the Clinton presidential library, along with the Fisher Dachs Associates as theater consultants who’d done work for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Even more intriguing were the acousticians from Kirkegaard Associates.

“I had to learn how to pronounce AK-u-stishun,” Holland noted. And, of course, to test their talents by singing that passage from “Faust.”

He stood on that 64 by 48 feet stage in the classic shoebox configuration of the main concert hall, 80 feet wide by 180 feet deep, where 2,000 will hear sounds ranging from soloists to full orchestras. Later, the Hollands will sit sans hard hats in what the architects call a surrounding of “warm, fine-grained woodwork.”

Concert-goers won’t see that the hall is “sheathed in zinc,” but before entering they’ll eye the great illuminated glass lantern above and they’ll see that the acoustically isolated hall is clad in limestone. A thousand will sit at orchestra level, with 400 in the mezzanine, and 600 in the upper balcony.

Squires is quick to remind that the $75 to $150 tickets are just for opening night, with early activities including two or three free events, plus tours, and other performances in the $35 and $45 range.

The “black box” recital hall will seat 450, and the terraced courtyard, designated as a third performance venue, will hold 1,000. The Holland Center will house parties and educational activities as well. The Orpheum, fully equipped with stage rigging, will remain home for Broadway musicals and other events.

Squires, who came to Omaha from the Phoenix Symphony, commented on the wide range of upcoming performances. “One of the reasons it’s a joy to work with the Hollands is because they bring such broad understanding and interests,” she says. “They’re eclectic, but don’t impose their taste. It’s a low key, quiet influence, and we respect their desire to stay out of the spotlight.”

“We won’t attend all the early events,” Dick adds, “but there are some we’ll definitely see.” They especially anticipate Renée Fleming’s appearance with the Omaha Symphony on Dec. 9. “I was president of Opera Omaha when she first sang here.” He also takes pride in their presenting of the great Beverly Sills, but notes that the biggest local paycheck of $100,000 went to Placido Domingo.

But now comes that grand opening with Dreyfuss, the other “Mr. Holland,” and a program that includes Oscar winner Alexander Payne, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, bandleader Branford Marsalis and others, including the symphony and the opera chorus. Squires takes pains to point out even this higher-priced event is not black tie, but cocktail attire.

Tickets went on sale in mid-August and began to sell quickly. A pre-event cocktail party sold out almost immediately.

Lest purists fear that Dick Holland’s brief aria was the only pre-testing of the acoustical marvels, it must be noted that an extensive “tuning” process gave professional musicians ample opportunities to experiment with the new concert hall, even before a long rehearsal period.

During the run-up to the grand opening, acousticians “tuned” the hall. Musical ensembles of varying size and style (classical, symphonic, chamber, pop, rock and jazz) performed during the weeks of late September. At each performance, acousticians positioned each of the moveable acoustic reflectors and panels, matching the reverberations to the size and sound of each group. The positions were locked into preset configurations, which could be used for future performances with ensembles of that size and style.

That’s fine by Holland who recalls his first piano lesson: “Auto stop, I’m the cop, drivers take warning.” The memory brings a smile and makes him happy to give the stage to the pros while he sits back with Mary in Row P of the Holland Center and enjoys their talents.

It’s not just a new asset for the performing arts. It enriches the city where both were born and where they stayed to make good use of their “enormously successful” investment.

All Hail Hal France

April 1, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

In 1970, when Hal France began his freshman year at the University of Vermont as a football player, the little light that had been flickering above his head of black curls suddenly clicked on in all its megawatt splendor. The epiphany changed the course of his life.

“In just a matter of months, I got completely driven into music and became a different kind of person,” says France, who started piano lessons when he was a boy, in his native northern New Jersey. “I was a jock who went from not playing the piano to practicing intensely every day.”

France never veered from the path he chose all those years ago, but he did broaden it considerably. The young man who became a virtuoso pianist branched out into opera, transforming himself into one of the most sought-after conductors in this country and throughout Europe.

Omahans know him as the artistic director of Opera Omaha from 1995-2005. His responsibilities covered every aspect of a production, from the music to the scenery and costumes. A permanent resident of Omaha since 2003 (after spending eight years flying into Omaha several times a year), France’s many other roles include performer, teacher, coach, executive director of KANEKO, humanitarian, volunteer, mentor, friend, and one of Omaha’s most tireless advocates for all the arts, not just opera.

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“It’s really important that live music and the classics be continued,” says France, 63. “Whether you like classical music or not, live gatherings of human beings, face to face, is not replaceable.

Sipping black coffee in lieu of his usual drink preference, hot tea, France reflects on his life’s improbable U-turn. “I played football and basketball through high school and all my friends were athletes.” But didn’t the cultural mecca across the river from Jersey draw him? “Yeah, except I was a Yankees fan and went to their games from a young age. The Yankees, Jets, and Mets—that was my culture,” he says with a dimpled grin.

France praises his late parents, both musicians, for patiently allowing him to find his own level. Once he decided on a “purposeful life” in music, he transferred to Northwestern University for a degree in piano performance. His next stop: the prestigious Juilliard Opera Center, followed by a degree in conducting from the Cincinnati Conservatory.

Why opera? The answer may lie in his heritage. “I’m Italian on both sides, and my grandparents spoke Italian,” he says, indicating the family name had been shortened along the way. Music of all kinds, including opera, filled the house daily.

France started out in the orchestra pit as a rehearsal pianist for a small opera company in Colorado and fell in love with “all the excitement and the energy of that collaboration.” He joined other companies and moved from the pit to the podium in a short time, working his way up the conductor ladder with zeal and an unbridled passion “to bring music to life.” He would soon bring life to the music in Omaha.

“I first came to Omaha in the mid-’80s as a guest conductor at the opera,” he recalls in his low, well-modulated voice. At the time, France was paying his dues at the Houston Grand Opera under the tutelage of John DeMain, who functioned simultaneously as Opera Omaha’s music director. “One year John couldn’t come up here, so he sent me. That marked the beginning of my freelance conducting career, setting off on my own.”

Over the next 10 years, the charismatic France brought an insightful, entertaining, and masterful command to each orchestral or operatic production, from Santa Fe to Stockholm, London to St. Louis. But he never forgot Omaha’s level of talent, community involvement, and impressive philanthropy. In 1995, he readily accepted a position with Opera Omaha and built upon its growing national reputation for high artistic quality. Says attorney David Gardels, a longtime opera board member, “Hal instituted long practice and rehearsal sessions. It was very professional. The chorus people loved him.”

And France loves singers, whom he considers smart as well as skilled. More importantly, he respects them. The admiration flows both ways. “There is no one who believes in a person more, or who has pushed me harder as a musician,” says Opera Omaha soprano Tara Cowherd. “He will memorize an entire opera and sing every note. He’s amazingly talented and humble.”

Strands of gray now weave through his black curls, but France still racks up frequent flyer miles. His coming opera engagements include a production with the Hawaii Opera Theater and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He’s also teaming with the Omaha Conservatory to present a series of community-based programs about music, while continuing his mentorship of young singers at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Divorced from Grammy-winning soprano Sylvia McNair, France enjoys being in a committed relationship with Judi M. gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs. “Being connected to her life, which is so different from mine, is a real blessing,” France says. “I love music, but one becomes a better musician as one becomes more connected.” With no children of his own, he dotes on his nieces and nephews, hoping a light will some day lead them to a life of fulfillment.

Visit operaomaha.org for more information.

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In the Spotlight

November 24, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There aren’t many actresses who could say they “sculpt faces” by day and shape the local theater scene by night.

But that’s the story of leading lady Leanne Hill Carlson of Omaha, who has squeezed in more starring roles, costume changes, and hair colorings than she can count—all while building a family and a medical career.

“I have been so blessed with all the opportunities I’ve had here in Omaha,” Carlson says. “It’s not the plan I would have picked from the beginning, but it’s been amazing.”

That’s a good word for the star performances Carlson has logged since getting her start as a sophomore at Papillion-La Vista High School—one of five times she has played Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof (all requiring dye for hair that is naturally perfect for a lead in Legally Blonde).

Carlson knew she desired a career in musical theater after that role and others in high school that included Sandy in Grease and Ado Annie in Oklahoma. “I had two wonderful teachers who fostered my interest in theater and music,” Carlson says. “I was hooked.”

From there, Carlson pursued a musical theatre degree at Sam Houston State. She was part of the College Light Opera Company, which performed nine shows in 11 weeks on Cape Cod and gave her the chance to play Nellie in South Pacific and Lalume in Kismet.

Carlson had aspirations of making a theatrical run in New York City, “but the cards never turned that way for me,” she says.

Instead, she came home to Omaha and turned an interest in medicine into a master’s of physician assistant studies from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She is a physician assistant at a dermatology clinic and uses her artistic eye to change the faces of Omaha.

“I’ve had a few patients recognize me from the theater,” says Carlson, who also performs regularly as an in-demand vocalist. “They’ve asked me to sing and dance in the office, and I’ve done it a couple times.”

The proverbial go-to leading lady thrives on the big stage. She has played in roles at the Omaha Community Playhouse, The Rose, the Orpheum, and others.

Along with playing the role of Pitti-Sing in Opera Omaha’s The Mikado, Carlson has starred in Annie, 42nd Street, Beauty & the Beast, The Sound of Music, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and has been cast in two movies.

Her favorite theatrical role has been Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, probably because that character most mirrors her personality. “That was so intense,” says Carlson, who is married to physician Mark Carlson and has two children. “I never had a moment off stage, and there were 14 costume changes. But it was so fun!”

Carlson recently had the chance to fly as Mary Poppins in a blockbuster run at The Rose—a feat that went smoothly until the last of 13 songs in her final performance. Carlson was ready to soar when she got stuck in the lights. Making a quick midair maneuver, she avoided a serious mishap and brought down the house.

“The whole cast was waiting for me backstage, and we got a huge ovation,” she says. “It was wonderful—the kind of moment you relish when you love something as much as this.”

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Omaha Performing Arts

October 13, 2015 by
Illustration by Devin Golden

When Tony Bennett took to the stage at Holland Performing Arts Center in 2005, it was just another in the long list of innumerable venues he had played over the course of his legendary career. By the time he left, it stood out as one of the best.

That’s because as he began to sing, he paused, put aside his microphone and said, “I don’t need this.” Bennett was able to perform without technical enhancement, a rarity among performance venues. Not, however, at the Holland. The facility boasts state-of-the-art acoustics, and whether front-row-center or in the uppermost tier, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

Making sure there aren’t any bad seats is the job of Omaha Performing Arts, which is currently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The nonprofit organization manages both the Holland Center, which opened in 2005 and is home to the Omaha Symphony, and the Orpheum Theater, built in 1927 as a premier venue for vaudeville acts. Together the two dominate the city’s performing arts scene and feature an eclectic array of talent ranging from classical ballet legends to Broadway blockbusters to jazz giants to even political pundits.

That kind of variety was unimaginable 10 years ago when the Orpheum served as Omaha’s primary performing arts venue. It hosted Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, and limited-run Broadway productions as well as community events such as high school graduations, dance recitals, and fashion shows. “The Orpheum’s schedule didn’t allow for the majority of artists and performers we have today,” explains Joan Squires, Omaha Performing Arts’ president since its founding. “It was a very confining schedule.”

Omaha also lacked a venue with the sound quality necessary to showcase singers and musicians to full effect. “One of the problems we had in the performing arts was that the music hall at the Civic Auditorium had fairly poor acoustics,” explains John Gottschalk, the organization’s chairman of the board. “You can’t have performers if you don’t have a place where what they do on stage isn’t getting out to the audience.”

HollandGraphicDick Holland, who, along with his late wife Mary, provided the main bequest for the $102 million performing arts facility that today bears their name, elaborates, “We had no good place for the symphony orchestra. The symphony is an expensive damn thing to have. And it needs full support to have first class musicians.”

The Holland Center provided that support and opened up the Orpheum’s schedule, making it possible for Omaha Performing Arts to offer a wider selection of performances. “We bring in the kinds of performances that would not appear here otherwise,” Squires notes. “We really seek to bring in top artists and have brought in a wonderful array. That’s a large factor in our success.”

Deborah Ward, director of marketing and communications for the Omaha Convention & Visitors Bureau, loves that success. “Omaha Performing Arts has really enhanced not only downtown’s cultural landscape but also the entire city’s,” she comments. “It’s provided unique performance venues and equally unique performances and has been really clever in the acts it’s brought in. We recently did research for the Kansas City, Des Moines, and Sioux Falls markets. We specifically wanted to know why those people come to Omaha. We found that 11 percent come for arts and culture.”

Less quantifiable are the educational benefits to the community, which are just as important and exist as one of Omaha Performing Arts’ primary missions. “We look for community opportunities that don’t always exist,” explains Squires. “We use performances to partner with the community and find ways to connect and build community engagement.” This includes master classes taught by performers, student matinees, discounted tickets for underserved communities, and a host of other offerings. In 2011 the Broadway show Wicked, for example, provided an opportunity for an anti-bullying summit involving cast members, school students, and the Anti-Defamation League. This year, the organization is introducing Carnegie Hall Musical Explorers, a program that builds basic music skills for students in kindergarten through second grade.

“The experience for our community is wonderfully enriching, and people understand that,” notes Gottschalk. “We have these professionals in town and the great gifts they give to people in terms of their time and talent. When a young person walks into a great hall, they’re inspired.”

As Omaha Performing Arts celebrates its first decade, Squires can’t help but be enthusiastic about its future. “As we get into the 10th anniversary, our real focus is to engage the community,” she says. “There’s still so much we can do.”

Holland agrees. “We’re damned proud of what we’ve done. We’re going into the coming 10 years terribly enthusiastic about everything and about growing more.”

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Ballet Nebraska

September 8, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of B2B.

How is it that Midlands Choice has come to make an investment in, of all things, a ballerina?

Sure, the bottom line of any insurance entity is driven by risk management—the investing of premium revenues to hedge against claims.

But taking stock in Claire Goodwillie, a company dancer with Ballet Nebraska?

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Erika Overturff

The Midlands Choice example is repeated all across the metro as area businesses support a broad array of arts nonprofits, ones that dwell in everything from tutus to tempura.

And the table is set for a new era of collaboration between business and the arts  because philanthropic giving in America has finally returned to pre-recession levels.

Contributions, which totaled $358 billion in 2014, surpassed 2007’s pre-recession level of $355 billion. Additionally, giving was up from all major sources—individuals, corporations, foundations and bequests—according to Giving USA, an annual report compiled by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy and the Giving USA Foundation of Chicago.

“Eight out of nine types of charitable organizations we measure saw increased contributions, and that’s good news for the philanthropic sector as a whole,” W. Keith Curtis told Omaha Magazine in an email. Curtis is chair of Giving USA Foundation and president of the nonprofit consulting firm The Curtis Group. “The 60-year high for charitable giving in 2014 is a great story about resilience and perseverance.”

Themes of resilience and perseverance define the Ballet Nebraska story.

Erika Overturff was 27 years old when the ballet company of which she was a dancer and resident choreographer appeared doomed. She had no money. She had no business acumen.

That was 2009. Flash forward to 2015 and Overturff, now 33, founder and artistic director of Ballet Nebraska, is leading the region’s only professional dance company into its sixth season.

In a city known for its “can-do” spirit, this story could be about almost any local arts nonprofit, but the unlikely saga of Ballet Nebraska is told here because it is perhaps the most improbable of tales, one that best reveals what a business community and the arts can do when they share a common vision.

Like settling into your seat with a program before the lights dim at any performing arts venue, it’s probably best to start by reviewing the cast of characters:

The Connector

Hal Daub knows people. Especially in a city of six degrees of separation that is, in reality, much more like two or three degrees, the former Omaha mayor (1995-2001) and U.S. Congressman (1981-1989) who has served on countless nonprofit boards and is now a partner at Husch Blackwell…knows people.

“When I was first introduced to Hal and he offered to help,” Overturff says, “I assumed that meant he was going to maybe make a few calls and do a little name-dropping.” Daub, it turned out, would become a key player in the often delicate pas de deux that is the coupling of business and the arts. “He not only made those calls, but he set up the appointments…and then he came along to personally introduce me and stand by my side in front of those who would become some of the most generous funders of Ballet Nebraska.”

“The reason I am so fascinated by what Erika has done,” says Daub, “is that Omaha is a city that has clearly evolved to become a place that is not just metropolitan, but truly cosmopolitan.” And investing in the arts, Daub believes, makes good business sense. “The social environment of a city—its arts and entertainment—is critical in attracting and retaining the best workforce. Ballet Nebraska, Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, Omaha Performing Arts…those and so many others are the organizations that help keep the best talent in Omaha.”

The Advocate

Michelle Clark is Union Pacific’s general director of information technologies, which means she probably knows more than a little about computer viruses. As a three-year board member of Ballet Nebraska, she’s also seen how supporting the arts can go viral.

“Employee generosity is furthered by the use of the company’s matching gifts program,” Clark explains. “This creates a sense of pride for employees, and Union Pacific is supportive of the communities in which we live and work. The employees of Union Pacific are very generous and have supported fundraising drives not only for Ballet Nebraska, but a number of organizations such as the Women’s Center for Advancement and JDRF.”

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Employees should never underestimate their power to play a key role in advocating for nonprofits within their organizations.

“I am passionate about the art of dance, especially ballet and Ballet Nebraska,” Clark says. “Dance inspires my creativity and provides insights to see beyond the obvious. My hope is that by providing individuals with the awareness of opportunities to experience and support the art of dance they will find their own inspiration to apply to their own life.”

And just as stubborn computer viruses are often cloyingly messy to eradicate once discovered, Union Pacific’s relationship with Ballet Nebraska has a “stickiness” of its own. Clark was preceded on the Ballet Nebraska board by Gayla Thal, the company’s senior vice president and general counsel.

The Bulldog

Don’t let the gentle demeanor of Midlands Choice vice president Greta Vaught fool you. Supporting the arts is often a visceral experience, and Vaught’s passion for dance exerted itself on multiple levels in the early stages of growth at Ballet Nebraska.

“Midlands Choice has always been supportive of my work in the community,” says the board chair of Ballet Nebraska.

“We like to listen to our people when making such decisions,” says Midlands Choice President and CEO Thomas E. Press. ”It is important for us to know that our giving has real meaning for them, their families, and their communities.”

“I looked at what Erika was trying to do,” Vaught continues, “and I thought it was brave, but impossible. But all along the way I just kept going back to the thought that if one of my daughters [Mia, now 15, and Hannah, now 19] wanted to try something so bold one day that”…insert long pause…“I’m sorry, this is making me cry. I would just hope that people with experience and connections and dollars would shepherd my daughters along like so many people have done with Erika and Ballet Nebraska.”

Okay, so maybe “The Bulldog” wasn’t such a great character name for this role after all.

The Artist

“I had to do a lot of on-the-job learning when I decided to try to launch a dance company,” Overturff says. “We were lucky in that we got our nonprofit status right away, but I didn’t know anything about the business side of things, and really nothing about raising funds. I was moved by every $5 check that came in, but it took a lot of mentoring, advice, and counsel to get us to where we are today as a fully funded, professional performance company.”

Ballet Nebraska now has a paid staff of 22, including nine salaries paid to company dancers. Today, Overturff’s once-nonexistent business connections run deep. Personal contributions from the likes of philanthropists Richard Holland, and Fred and Eve Simon, further fuel the growth of ballet in Omaha. Foundations also play a major role in funding. A recent gift of $124,000 from the Iowa West Foundation is the largest in Ballet Nebraska history.

“Talented professionals from all over the world that have trained their whole lives to pursue a career in dance now come to Omaha in the hopes of performing with Ballet Nebraska as we serve the state and western Iowa in performances, education, outreach, and more” she says. “A ballet company—any performing arts company, any arts organization—is about its people…the artists, the staff, and hardworking, selfless volunteers. But it is the people of Omaha, from the smallest donations to the relationships we have with such great businesses, that makes it all happen.”

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When Hair, Makeup, and Style Become Art

June 10, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.

In 2007, hair stylist and makeup artist Omar Rodriguez left his native Puerto Rico for love. He moved to Omaha to be with his then-partner, a hairdresser from here he met in his island nation.

Back home, Rodriguez cultivated a background in theater, dance, music, and beauty-fashion. As a singer he toured with the boy band Concepto Juvenil, doing his bandmates’ hair on the side. This son of a butcher father and secretary mother was a fast-rising talent who then worked for leading salons Avante and Wanda Montes. His celebrity clients included Benicio Del Toro, Paulina Rubio, Jon Secada, and Ricky Martin. He was the stylist for Secada’s Amanecer album cover and Martin’s Black and White Tour CD cover.

Rodriguez worked various fashion shows and taught at a beauty academy run by a former Miss Universe Puerto Rico–Desiree Lowry Rodriguez (no relation). He was a Sebastian Beauty representative and trainer.

Once over the “culture shock” of Omaha, he built a loyal following as a star Fringes Old Market salon stylist. He collaborated with top Omaha Fashion Week (OFW) designers Dan Richters and Buf Reynolds. But when the romantic relationship he was in ended, he returned home with a broken heart. Three years ago he came back at the urging of Fringes owner Carol Cole.

“Carol is a very inspirational and passionate person,” he says. “I don’t know if I would have come here if she hadn’t called to bring me back.”

Rodriguez trained Fringes staff for the 2012 Battle of the Strands in Las Vegas. The Omaha team he competed on won People’s Choice and Best Makeup awards.

He’s since resumed work with OFW and now also reps a major makeup brush brand while consulting for a reality TV show. He works with many Omaha photographers and is a champion of Omaha’s creative culture, he says.

“I’m impressed by how much talent we have here. I really love that part of Omaha.” He nurtures talent via OStyles Omaha, “a community of artistic professionals” he created “to do collaboration and innovation and to inspire the cultural scene. We are dreamers. We are believers. We have the drive and passion to produce the extraordinary.”

When friends and colleagues outside Nebraska ask why he’s in the Midwest and not in some fashion capital, he says his response is always the same. “I could go to New York or California and I could do great, but do I want to swim with the sharks? I want to motivate and create something here in Omaha. I want to position Omaha as a real leader in fashion.”

The styling he did for Clark Creative Group’s promotion of Opera Omaha’s 2014-2015 season attracted national attention, especially the Surrealist hair piece he fashioned for A Flowering Tree.

“It was an amazing photo shoot,” he says. “I love how you can achieve what you visualize. I like to innovate. I do pretty, I do commercial, I do avant-garde. When I design hair I consider myself an artisan because I’m working with my hands. I mold. I bring color. I give contrast. I add texture. I create a figure and I finish that figure with paint–the makeup.”

Rodriguez enjoys the notoriety his work brings, but says, “I prefer being a king without a crown.” Besides, he says, “I’m always going to be a student for life. I push myself and what I learn, I give it back.”

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Dr. Antoinette Turnquist

May 27, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in May/June 2015 edition of 60-Plus.

She’s been described as “Dynamite.” “Amazing.” “Unique.” “A Living Legend.”

These are just some of the words Dr. Antoinette Turnquist’s former students use to describe her and the difference she has made in their lives.

What makes one teacher stand out among so many others, and make such an impact on his or her students…an impact felt even years later? It might be her basic teaching philosophy: “Every student matters; every student can learn,” as she puts it. Or, her “great joy in watching them learn…watching them discover things.” Whatever the reason, these glowing remarks are about someone, surprisingly, who never even wanted to be a teacher.

Dr. Turnquist, a teacher in the Omaha Public School System for 39 years (1964-2003), says she had planned to go directly to graduate school for a Master of Fine Arts degree. “I wanted to become a producing artist,” she explains, “but I took just enough education courses to be certified as a kind of insurance policy.”

That, of course, was before she ever stepped into a classroom. “I did my first semester of student teaching,“ she recalls, “and fell in love with it…with the kids, with the process, with the whole concept of public education.” She adds, “I myself was a product of public education, but I had never fully comprehended the significance of it until I stood there in front of all those waiting faces.”

Her long and illustrious teaching career began with three years of teaching in both the old Monroe Junior High and McMillan Junior High schools and ended at Omaha South High School, where she taught for 36 years. And though her teaching days are over, (she admits she misses her students), she is still indirectly impacting them…52,000 of them, to be exact.

In 2003, her dedication to public education led her, quite naturally, to the Omaha Public Schools district office, where she served as Coordinator of Business Services. In 2008, she was named Director of Business Services, and today, she is the Executive Director of District Operational Services, responsible for the many support services for all district students.

Todd Andrews, who works with her as communications director at the district office, says, “At 50-plus years with OPS, Dr. Turnquist is one of the living legends of the district. She has humbly and energetically dedicated her entire professional life to educational excellence. The district is extremely fortunate to have her.”

Looking back on her teaching days, Dr. Turnquist fondly recalls that “one of the first things I discovered at South High was their wonderful diversity, which included Hispanic and Latino as well as Caucasian students, and the whole philosophy at South, which was to implement programs for every student.”

She started out as an art teacher, serving as department chair for the Visual Arts department. One of her former students, Jeff Koterba, a 1979 South High graduate, also recalls those days: “I took Toni’s art classes, and if not for her, I wouldn’t be the artist I am, but more importantly, the man I am,” says Koterba, the longtime editorial cartoonist for the Omaha World-Herald. “Because of her belief in me, her patience and her wisdom, I found a better path, the path I was meant to follow.”

Eventually, she chaired the newly-created Fine Arts department, which included Visual Arts, Theater, Drama, Vocal Music, Instrumental Music, and Humanities, giving students many new opportunities, including working at Opera Omaha on local productions.

“It was an exciting time to be a teacher,” she recalls, “as we looked for new avenues of education for our students.” That goal, in fact, led to her and another teacher creating a new course for young women, so they could see what opportunities were available to them, and also to learn about their own history. They called it “Women’s Studies,” and “it proved to be a very popular class.”

Another former student, in fact, can personally attest to that. Lenli Corbett, a 2001 South High graduate, says, “Dr. Turnquist’s Womens’ Studies class was incredibly important to me, to my development as a woman and as a future professional. She brings out the best in you…not every teacher is able to do that.”

When asked if she considers herself successful (her list of achievements include Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers (1994), among many others), Dr. Turnquist quoted Lee Iacocca, who said, ‘Your legacy should be that you made it better than it was when you got it.’ Thus, I would say yes, I think I have been successful both as a teacher and as a central office administrator. What anyone else might think about my success along that line is anyone else’s call, not mine, and I am quite comfortable with that.”

Turnquist says she has no plans to retire anytime soon, either from OPS or her 50-plus years of working as a visual artist. “Some may think it’s strange,” she says, “but I still like getting up every day, getting dressed, and trying to make a difference.”

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Splash!

April 20, 2015 by
Photography by Andrew J. Baran

Originally published in March/April 2015 Omaha Magazine.

Soprano Renée Fleming once lamented “My worry is that opera will become a historic art form as opposed to a living, breathing thing.”

We’ll leave any judgments on the notion of “historic art form” to posterity, but the January 16 Opera Omaha A Flowering Tree Gala was big-big-big in the way of itself being a “living, breathing thing.”

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Commandeering an abandoned wing of Crossroads Mall, the immersive experience in the cavernous, stunningly decorated space was equal parts performance piece and installation art, each delivering a magnum opus worth of “wow” factor.

“We wanted a location that would reflect the opera’s main theme, that of transformation,” says Opera Omaha general director Roger Weitz. “Our aim was to turn the most familiar of spaces—a mall—into something completely new, completely original. We go to these lengths because going to a gala should be not unlike going to an opera: a social environment for people to experience music and theatre in a way that is a daring, original, and moving. Above all, it should be fresh and relevant. Opera has the power to be all these things, and I want all of Opera Omaha’s major undertakings to reflect these values.”

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Ensemble members from such prestigious companies as Joffrey Jazz Contemporary, the L.A. Dance Project, and the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet were joined by recent Juilliard grads in performing modern dance movements, sometimes while being showered from above by indoor rain. Shamu and Gallagher were famous for dousing the most avid of front-row fans; now Opera Omaha has introduced its own decidedly lithe and lyrical version of a Splash Zone.

Among other cast members performing that night, the dancers were joined by both the Opera Omaha Chorus and Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, who sang the title role in A Flowering Tree. They were accompanied by pianists Timo Andres and Richard Valitutto.

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Members of the creative team included James Darrah, the Los Angeles-based director, production designer, and visual artist, along with designers Adam Larsen, Emily McDonald, and Cameron Mock.

Event chairs Mogens and Cindy Bay hosted the sold-out crowd of 400 in raising over $250,000 for the opera company.

And in words that this writer could never have imagined being put into print, the Opera Omaha Gala (a gala, for cryin’ out loud) was for one brief crescendo of triumphal glory the drop-dead hottest ticket of the season.

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Anne Thorne Weaver

February 18, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

National Society of Colonial Dames diva Anne Thorne Weaver is at an age when she says and does what she wants. Fortunately for Omaha, this patron puts her money where her mouth is in supporting the arts.

When the new Blue Barn Theater opens this spring, the box office will be named in her honor for a major gift she made to the company. She admires the Blue Barn’s edgy work.

“I’m just very impressed with what they do,” says weaver. “There’s something about the intimacy of the smaller theater. I think they’ve done some wonderful productions. I think their new facility will be wonderful, and there won’t be any bats,” she adds in referring to a past production when an winged intruder darted overhead.

“I thought, that’s an interesting prop,” she quips, “and then realized it was a bat. Suddenly there was this thundering of shoes coming down in a mass exodus.”

Weaver likes that the theater’s new site on South 10th Street will be more visible than its Old Market digs. “I think it’s an exciting move and one of the things that’s really going to add to the Omaha scene.”

Her gift to Omaha Performing Arts made possible the Orpheum Theater’s Anne Thorne Weaver Lounge. The dedicated private space is a chic oasis for post-show receptions.

“I think it really puts a little wow into Omaha,” says its namesake, “and really adds a lot to any attraction you’re doing in the Orpheum.”

Outside the metro, her generosity’s recognized in the gift shop named after her at the Museum of Nebraska Art (MONA) in Kearney and the lobby gallery named for her at the Lake Art Center in Okoboji, Iowa. She also donated the center’s stained glass ceiling created by Bogenrief Studios.

She not only gives money but time to venues she believes in, serving on boards for Opera Omaha, the Omaha Symphony, the Omaha Community Playhouse, and MONA. She served on the Western Heritage Museum (now Durham Museum) board and was active in the Joslyn Women’s Association.

Weaver, whose civic volunteering includes the Nebraska Humane Society and the Junior League of Omaha, only gives to things she enjoys. “Life is too short, so why fuss around with something I don’t enjoy or work with people I don’t like. When you give, everything is given back.”

She traces her aesthetic appreciation to her late artist grandmother, Narcissa Niblack Thorne, renowned for her miniature rooms, dioramas, and shadow boxes. Some of her grandmother’s handiwork is displayed in framed cases hanging on the walls of Weaver’s exquisitely designed home, whose expansive sun room features two Bogenrief windows.

Surrounding herself with beauty comes naturally to Weaver, who grew up in the historic Terrace Hill home in Des Moines. The restored structure is now the Iowa governor’s mansion.

The well-traveled Weaver considers the vibrant arts scene here a cultural and economic asset that makes the city a more attractive place to live and visit. She takes pleasure helping the arts thrive and sampling all the region’s offerings.

“We all need music and art in our lives,” Weaver says.

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