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Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Omaha Omaha Fellow

December 24, 2018 Leave a comment

 

Jose Maldonado pictured with another Opera Omaha Fellow Kate Pomrenke

 

 

Improbable music journey leads Maldonado to Nebraska as an Opera Omaha Fellow

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in El Perico (el-perico,com)

Jose Luis Maldonado concedes the improbability of how he became an opera singer. But that just makes him more eager to share his tale because if it could happen to him, than who knows how many other potential vocalists are out there without even realizing it?

Part of his role as a first-year Opera Omaha Fellow in the Holland Community Opera Fellowship is exposing young people to an art form that may be foreign to them.

The California native grew up around the East L.A. area, where the strains of opera are rarely heard. He comes from a musical family. His father played piano in L.A. salsa bands. His grandfather, Jesus Francisco Maldonado, played saxophone in Mexico, where he’s known in Cuahutemoc Chihuahua as El Botas.

Jazz and Sinatra were some of Maldonado’s other musical influences. From an early age he set his sights on following his grandfather as a saxophonist. He studied hard and became proficient.

In high school his varied activities in band, sports, student government, public speaking and tutoring led his football coach to call him “a renaissance man.”

By his junior year he’d formulated a plan for college. He would study music and business (his father’s in real estate) with an ultimate goal of attending USC and playing in the Trojan marching band.

But then fate threw him a curve. With no suitable artist to sing the national anthem for an all-school assembly, he volunteered, even though it meant singing in public for the first time before thousands. Until then, all he’d done was imitate Rat Pack crooners for friends. He nailed the anthem by mimicking Robert Merrill but it was Jose’s rich baritone that won over the crowd

Then, at his senior graduation, a teacher made him promise to take a voice class in college before she handed over his diploma. He vowed he would. He kept his vow at Rio Hondo Community College but only as a courtesy. Then an unexpected thing happened.

“I ended up really enjoying it. The vibrant teacher. Ann Gresham, made it more than singing. She lured me back to the class every semester by saying, ‘If you want to know your real voice, you should come back next semester,’ because I was still mimicking.”

He credits touring music shows she created that he performed in at schools with honing his stage presence and sparking his interest in community outreach, which is the focus of his Opera Omaha Fellow work.

As much as he liked singing, he considered it a hobby, not a career path. He was still stuck on his USC dream . But his best-laid plans got disrupted after he sang a German song for his final.

“That song really changed my perception of what a singer is,” he said. “The way she had me learn this song was so deep and specific. It was not just learning and translating the words but relating it to the culture and why it was written and honoring the composer and the librettist for that poetry.

“At the end of the song I closed my eyes and repeated this phrase (lyric). I felt this energy. I opened my eyes and everybody was in tears. There was silence, then applause. It was just this beautiful experience.”

When the teacher asked to see him privately after class, he thought he’d somehow messed up.

“She asked, ‘You felt that in there, right?’ I said, ‘Yes.’  She said, ‘I know you’ve achieved what you wanted to at the school and you’re going to be moving on. I’m very proud of you. But I would not be doing my job if I didn’t ask you this,’ and she looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Do you want to be an opera singer? Because I can get you there. But it’s going to take a lot of work.’

“I was speechless because I never thought to be a singer. i remember, frozen, looking at her and saying. yes, but I didn’t consciously make a decision. She said great and told me about another college where the state would pay for my lessons. I just kind of nodded and walked away in shock.”

What he’d done didn’t sink in until he got home.

“Back in my room I yelled out, ‘What did I just do?’ Because the opportunity to realize my dream was right there in front of me. I worked really hard to get straight As. Counselors from USC and Rio Hondo made sure I met all the requisites. There it was and I just threw it away to become a singer.”

“But as soon as I yelled out, I felt this epiphany. In my mind I saw this blender with everything I was mixed in it and what poured out was opera singer. I just remember saying, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.’ Like magic, the calling was there for me. I haven’t looked back since.”

He continued music studies at Cal-State Fullerton. The woman responsible for putting him on the path to opera, Ann Gresham, became his private instructor.

An unforgettable experience occurred at Cal-State in a production of The Merry Widow. For the first time. his whole family saw him perform, even grandpa Jesus, who disapproved of his choice to make a life in music.

“My grandfather was not on board with me being a singer because of his experience with the musician’s life. He worried I wouldn’t be able to support myself. I’ll never forget his face when I walked out after the performance. He was just crying. It completely changed his perception. That was impactful for me. Now my Papi Chuy is my biggest fan.

“To be able to convince him that way spoke volumes for how much conviction I have for what I do. He saw I was going to be successful.”

Jose, 29, paid homage to him when, in a gibberish rant his character The Baron makes, he inserted Spanish words in the middle of the German operetta.

From Cal-State, Maldonado went to Manhattan School of Music in New York, where he graduated with his master’s in May. He gave the school’s commencement address. At the ceremony he got to meet two music icons who received honorary degrees: Opera tenor Placido Domingo and Latin jazzman Paquito D’Rivera.

In July he played the lead in a production of Falstaff for the Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance Opera Festival. Arroyo, a famous soprano, created the foundation to help emerging artists like Jose get professional opera experience.

Since starting his Omaha fellowship in August, he and his peer fellow  have engaged the community. They performed an outdoor concert at Turner Park. They’ve worked with the Learning Community Center of South Omaha and Nelson Mandela School. They performed at Buffett Cancer Center and Gallery 1516. They facilitated classes at the Omaha Conservatory of Music.

Jose is scheduled to perform with the Omaha Youth Symphony at an Omaha Area Youth Orchestras concert  on November 11 at the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Wherever he goes, he wants his story of defying expectations to inspire others.

“I didn’t come from a traditional classical background. I’m very proud to say I was made in America with Mexican parts. I’m very proud of my culture. But I’m also an individual, I’m an artist, and I don’t have to be bound by walls or comfort zones or perceptions or interpretations. If i can help shine that upon people and let them choose for themselves what’s possible for them, then I’m doing my job.

“I encourage anybody that feels restricted or limited to break those barriers. Part of it is taking responsibility to take the actions that you can create to step forward and to find those opportunities and angels in your life.”

He wants to continue giving back by creating a cruise line that operates as a business nine months out of the year and that holds an intense summer training program for performing and visual arts students.

“To be able to offer this summer training program completely free is a dream of mine,” he said.

He also aspires to sing with his hometown Los Angeles Opera and at Palacio de Bellas Artes, Teatro Degollado and Teatro Aguas Calientesin Mexico.

Meanwhile, he loves being an Opera Omaha Fellow because it allows him to give back.

“It’s exactly how I began in music. We don’t just come and sing. We build relationships with community partners, We meet their needs. We plant the seeds of opera and we also get to nurture those seeds.”

He appreciates, too, that the two-year fellowship provides professional development opportunities.

“We have coaching every week with Opera Omaha Head of Music Sean Kelly. On top of our salary we get a professional development stipend to use to have voice lessons. It’s inclusive of flights and accommodations. We budget that as we need to continue our growth as vocalists – honing technique and advancing skills

 

That’s something I really cherish. I feel valued not only as an ambassador but as an opera singer.”

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

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Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

July 27, 2018 1 comment

One of the more interesting opera programs I’ve seen is the oratorio, Blizzard Voices, with words by poet Ted Kooser and music by composer Paul Moravec.  The dramatic template for the program was The Blizzard of 1888, often referred to as The Children’s Blizzard because of the large number of youths who lost their lives in the great white blow out that smothered the Great Plains.  Years before the opera program Kooser used survivors’ accounts of the natural disaster to create a book of poems called The Blizzard Voices, which was eventually given a dramatic reading at the Lincoln Community Playhouse.  Kooser adapted his work for the oratorio.  The concert used orchestral music, solo and chorus singing, spoken words, lighting, and projected images created by artist Watie White to transport the audience into what I called the great white shroud.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was written before I saw the oratorio, based on interviews I did with Kooser and Moravec.

If you’re a Ted Kooser fan or want to know more about the poet, this blog contains stories I’ve written about him.  Just click on his name in the category roll on the right hand side o

 

Blizzard Voices: Stories from the Great White Shroud

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

January 12, 1888 began much like any other winter day. A tad warm for the season perhaps. A brisk breeze swirled about and a bank of low lying clouds to the north suggested a change brewing. Yet except for a strange electric current in the air and the odd behavior of pets, no real portent warned of the fury to be unleashed on the Great Plains. Nebraska would not be spared.

When the blizzard hit terrible wind and snow spewed forth from the sky and didn’t let up. The temperature plummeted, dropping far below zero. The big blow cut through the land like a giant scythe swung in unrelenting anger. The enveloping storm smothered everything in its path — humans, animals, houses, barns, fences, fields, roads, bluffs, gullies, creeks, rivers. Anything caught unprotected was soon frozen or buried in the great white shroud. Drifts reached 20 feet high.

So concentrated was the storm that day turned to night. Visibility reduced to nothing in the blinding, numbing white-out conditions. Many souls died from exposure across a several state region, among their number — children. It was a school day and some students perished trying to reach their farm homes. Thus, it came to be known as The Children’s Blizzard.

 

©Illustration by Dick Taylor

 

Pulitzer Prize-winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser of Garland, Neb. grew up hearing stories of this storm of the century. In the 1980s he wrote a slim book of poems under the title The Blizzard Voices inspired by recorded reminiscences of survivors. His blizzard poems were given dramatic readings by the Lincoln Community Playhouse.

Now, Opera Omaha’s mounting an original oratorio, The Blizzard Voices, based on his poems. The concert hall production integrates orchestra, chorus and soloists on stage. The music is by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Paul MoravecStewart Robertson, making his swan song as Opera Omaha artistic director, conducts. The premiere performances, Sept. 12 at the Holland Performing Arts Center and Sept. 13 at Iowa Western Community College’s Arts Center, are both at 7:30 p.m.

Kooser’s spare poems, each from the perspective of an actual survivor, describe awesome, gruesome, tragic, heroic events of that surreal experience, one whose extremes still resonate today. “Stories of suffering and survival go back to our deepest origins, I think, and we never tire of them,” Kooser said.

Moravec said by phone from Manhattan he admires how Kooser’s lean poems communicate the intimate human dimensions of this natural disaster in the language of every day rural people, many of them immigrants.

In an artist’s statement, Moravec wrote, “Part of the power of Mr. Kooser’s adaptation derives from his wise decision to allow the ordinary, plain-speaking historical accounts come through their simple, rough-hewn eloquence. The music is similarly clear and direct in its emotional impact.”

The composer’s chosen a selection of Kooser’s blizzard poems that best dramatize the sequence of events. His own research included poring through Nebraska state historical archives and reading David Laskin’s book The Children’s Blizzard. Given that the storm victims were mainly Lutheran he felt it appropriate to write an original chorale that suggests the lamentations of familiar Protestant hymns.

Religious themes are used by Moravec throughout. There’s an excerpt from the Book of Job in the prologue. A psalm. Plaintive prayer-like pleas for mercy. Who could blame people for ascribing the storm to God’s wrath? Moravec incorporates Mary Elizabeth Frye’s poem “In Remembrance” to speak to the everlasting spirit of those that died and those that commemorate their loss. He said his composition draws on historical sources, but is thoroughly contemporary.

For the Lincoln dramatization Kooser found skip rope rhymes he used as bridges between the spoken poems and as counterpoints to the raging blizzard.

“I modified some of the traditional ones to resonate with the blizzard experience,” he said. “Others are intact as originally used. These are a part of American folklore, and not attributable to actual writers. American folk rhymes are quite wonderful.”

One of Watie White’s images for Blizzard Voices 

 

 

Moravec’s retained these skip rhymes in his oratorio. The rhymes, in conjunction with the poems, the psalms and the prayers, express a sense of innocence lost.

The composer and poet met once during the piece’s evolution. Just as history informed Kooser’s poems, his blizzard works informed Moravec’s compositions.

“Since then we’ve exchanged a few e-mails, but early on I gave Paul complete freedom to do whatever he wanted with the poems, and the only input he’s asked me for involved minor historical information,” said Kooser.

To convey the blizzard’s power musically the costumed orchestra, chorus and soloists project full-out. To interpret its force and impact in more than purely musical terms Robertson commissioned Omaha artist Watie White to create images for projection on large screens. “I did see the drawings just the other day — and I thought they were just right.” Kooser said. Lighting will also play a role in setting moods. At the heart of it all though are the blizzard voices’ spoken and sung words. Kooser’s eager to see how the complete oratorio gives voice to his work.

“I have not seen any of it during development,” he said. “When I go to the premier it will be as fresh to me as to the rest of the audience.”

He hopes the production’s successful enough that it tours.

 

Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

April 27, 2018 1 comment

 

Photographer Jim Scholz and his lifelong mission to honor beauty

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the May 2018 issue of the New Horizons

 

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Photographer Jim Scholz of Omaha finds beauty wherever life takes him. The 73-year-old former Roman Catholic priest began making images growing up in the St. Cecilia Cathedral neighborhood.

“I started shooting pictures in high school for the yearbook and ever since it’s been a real passion and interest for me,” he said

He recalls “the magic of that first print when I put the white piece paper in the developer and an image actually came up on it.” It happened in the Cathedral High darkroom. From that moment on, he said, “I was forever hooked by the magic that this is more than just reality. It’s a powerful thing.”

“I started off with a 35-millimeter camera because everybody had one. You could buy the film pretty inexpensively. You could develop the film in your own darkroom. I shot with that for a long time.”

He was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming during the Second World War. His father saw U.S. Army duty in the Pacific. After WWII, his father was offered a job with an Omaha company. Jim was 5 when his family moved here. His father worked management jobs at various Omaha firms. His stay-at-home mom eventually went back to work in her chosen field, dietetics, at area hospitals.

Serving a higher purpose

Scholz kept right on developing his photographic eye at seminary in Denver, Colorado, doing graduate work at Creighton University and serving metro parishes as an Archdiocesan priest.

“It was always a hobby.”

He doesn’t say it, but there’s a sacred dimension to capturing the essence of humanity and nature. As a priest ministering to his flock, he was called to mirror Christ’s unconditional love and to share the liturgy’s sublime peace. As a photographer, he reflects back what people project or see. Sometimes, he shows what they’ve never seen before. Surely, there’s something inspirational, perhaps even spiritual in that.

Omaha fashion designer Mary Anne Vaccaro admires his fidelity to beauty.

“Jim is very grounded and spiritual. As a photographer he embraces his creative gift with love, discipline and respect. He sees beauty in unexpected and unlikely places. His attention to detail and quality is amazing. His passion for his work drives him to excellence.”v

Tom Sitzman, owner of Connect Gallery in Omaha, sees in Scholz’s photography the same sensitivity and compassion that infused his ministry.

“I first knew Jim as my pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Omaha. His homilies were conversations, not lectures, filled with examples of everyday people living everyday lives. Those sitting in the pews could see themselves in those situations of the human condition – funny, sad, enlightening, tragic and giving – knowing he understood. His photography is deeply rooted and grounded in Jim the man and priest. They depict everyday events we too often take for granted. A moon rise over the city. Dark, foreboding storm clouds moving across a still sun-lit hay meadow, An old timber building. Jim knows where to stand to get the feel of size and distance as well as where the light is coming from. They are the works of a well-trained eye that knows how to compose a scene with his camera the way he did with words in a homily.”

Scholz ministered in Elgin, Nebraska and at St. Bernards, St. Cecilia and St. Leo in Omaha. The parish he served longest at was Sacred Heart in North Omaha, where he helped found Heart Ministry, which has grown to serve residents needs in the city’s most poverty-stricken neighborhood.

“I feel lucky to have been not only in that space but other parishes where I served or other jobs that I worked at. When you’re around someplace for awhile you’re hopefully going to make a contribution and I feel good about when I look back at something that helped people and continues to help people.”

Scholz received the 1995 Omaha Archdiocese Sheehan Award (then-the Presidential Citation) recognizing clergy as outstanding leaders in their communities.

Sacred Heart years

During his 1981 to 1998 Sacred Heart tenure, he took over an integrated parish in decline, its ranks thinned by white flight. Mass attendance was abysmal. Gospel already had a hold there, thanks to Father Tom Furlong introducing it in the ‘late ’60s-early ’70s.

“It was a very conservative, quiet little neighborhood parish,” Scholz recalled. “Most of the members were longtime parishioners, many of them quite elderly. Physically, the place was dilapidated. I felt we had to do something dramatic.”

He got the idea for more spirited, gospel music-based “uplifting liturgies” from an inner city parishes conference in Detroit. He was by impressed how churches in similar circumstances turned things around with the help of gospel. He saw the music as a homage to black heritage and a magnet for new members.

“What the music said was we are reaching out to your traditions and we’re trying to make you feel comfortable to come to our church,”

Scholz found a first-rate choir director in Glenn Burleigh, under whom the church’s full-blown entry into gospel began at the Saturday night Mass. The 10:30 Sunday liturgy remained ultra-traditional and sparsely attended.

“Six months later we’d gone from a Saturday service with 30 to 35 people, with hardly any music, to standing in the aisles full with a wonderful ensemble,

“Glenn wrote special music almost weekly for the service. People started to come out of the woodwork once the word got out. It was such a refreshing thing.

“We didn’t grow exponentially in black membership, although we did grow some. What we grew in was white membership.”

When Burleigh was hired away by a mega-Baptist church in Houston, Scholz tapped his assistant, William Tate, to take over. Scholz recruited a new choir director, Mary Kay Mueller, to energize the 10:30 Sunday service. For inspiration, he referred her to The Blues Brothers. So it came to pass the movie’s Triple Rock Church became a model for the expressive Sacred Heart liturgy. No, Scholz weren’t interested in “people doing somersaults down the front aisle. But he wanted “to come up with that spirit.” Unbridled. Joyous. Free. “We really need to come alive here,” he told Mueller. Thus, the Freedom Choir was born. The rest is history as that rollicking Sunday service began packing the pews and still does three decades later.

An abiding passion for photography 

All the while Sacred Heart grew its base, Scholz made photographs.

“When I had a little time off, an afternoon, or before I’d go to bed at night I’d probably spend the last half hour of my waking life that day by reading about photography or studying photographers like Ansel Adams and all these heroes of mine.

“The more you get into it then you start studying other people’s work and you try to emulate what they do and improve what you do. Ansel Adams wrote a series of books on the camera, the lens, photo development and so on. I checked them out of the library a number of times and studied these things to learn how he developed film and how he arrived at his vision.”

Other photographers Scholz has admired and studied include Wynn Bullock and Edward Weston.

Scholz followed his cleric calling for 27 years. After much deliberation and prayer, he shed the collar in 1999. He is still Catholic and regularly attends Mass. Now, he’s nearing 20 years in his second career as a full-time architecture, portrait and fine art photographer.

He describes his own aesthetic this way: “Probably at the baseline is a sense of beauty, whether color or color harmony or composition or subject. That would be the underlining thing. I love landscapes. I love abstracts, I love people, you name it.” He finds beauty in it all. “There are certain patterns hardwired into the fabric of our beings that produce pleasure, and we declare them beautiful. This is also true of music and other art forms. We are better because of what Michelangelo and Beethoven created and left to us;”

Ideas for projects are not hard to come by.

“I probably have more imagination than time. Every now and then I’ll get cranked up about a certain theme or methodology. I started a project photographing Omaha and Nebraska artists a few years ago. I just wanted to do that. I know a number of artistsand i started taking their picturesI’m about half way through that and hopefully I’ll have a show.

He envisions an exhibition in which each of his artist portraits is displayed next to a work by the artist, whether a sculpture or painting or whatever it might be.

“I’ve talked with a couple gallery owners about it. It might also be a book. We’ll see what happens.”

Catherine Ferguson is among the artists Scholz has photographed. He’s also photographed her work.

“Jim and I worked together to produce photographs of my stacked glass series,” Ferguson said. “He is a generous artist ready to help another artist see their vision realized. Jim is a patient, calm, gentle perfectionist. He gives me all the time necessary to have the prints exactly as I want them, no hurry, no pressure. I feel he is under-recognized as an artist in our community.”

Another artist friend is Shelly Bartek.

“I’ve known Jim from the time he was a priest at Sacred Heart to now where he is a successful national photographer,” Bartek said. “He is an authentic, all-around photographer serving to bring his clients the best quality images that represent their brand. His personal

passion to create art in his work has inspired us all through his concept and technical perfection.

“Best of all, he’s a great friend.”

About a decade ago, Scholz collaborated with writer Leslie Little on a museum quality book about Paris.

“I made the Paris Icons book images during two short visits to the city in 2007,” Scholz said. “It then took several months to edit, layout and in general prepare for print. The result was well received and we were awarded three international awards for the publication.

“It is always a joy to produce something of beauty that people appreciate.”

By choice, he’s not little documentary work on the gritty margins of life. “That’s a whole journalistic approach I respect greatly – it’s just not me. I like to show the best of people.” That includes showcasing the works of makers’ hands. Then there’s the joy he takes in picturing the natural splendor of God’s handiwork.

Expanding and honing his vision

Shooting Opera Omaha rehearsals and productions has deepened a long-held appreciation for music.

“What it’s done is it’s really stretched me in terms of my knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the whole operatic canon. My vision has been broadened.”

Photography has opened new vistas for him.

“If I never made another photograph, if I never went click again, I still think my life would be much richer because as I look at the world I see things that before I would never have noticed. The angle of the light or the color or whatever. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I would never have paid attention to, but the discipline of seeing as a camera sees forces you to see these things.

“I can sit an airport waiting for a plane for two hours and not be bored at all because I’m looking all around, seeing a grandma with little kids, the light coming in the windows, the big airplane rolling up on the tarmac outside. All this stuff.”

Cultivating a vision of what he wants to shoot and executing that vision, he said, is “a process.”

“It’s a lot more the work you put into it then the gizmo that goes click. The ultimate satisfaction is the process itself – getting to see things maybe in a little bit unique way and presenting them so that people say, ‘Oh, look at that, I never noticed that, I walked by this every day and never saw it.’ It’s finding what’s interesting.

“You’re expressing it from your perspective. You bring a whole life history and all kinds of things to color that.”

Photographers like him prefer to say they “make” rather than take photos.

“There’s a distinction.” Scholz said/ “You see something and you have a vision of how you want to present it.”

He saw in his mind’s eye what he wanted to achieve with his portrait of the late sculptor John Walz before ever shooting anything. “I had a vision of what I wanted to present, so I exposed the film to achieve that and I printed the print to achieve that.”

Walz turned a former Burlington Railroad Station power plant into his home-studio.

“I did the photo shoot with him part way through the remodel,” Scholz said. “I wanted to show him in his art creation, but we wanted a little mystery, so that’s why his face is a little in shadow.”

Contrasting elements can communicate mystery, energy, texture, whimsy, depth of perception, the passage of time, et cetera.

“I like to work with the idea of the human figure and the natural world,” Scholz said,

For an image he made of footprints in the sand at Canon Beach on the Oregon coast, he explained, “I wanted it to convey the essence of nature and humanity. The ocean is kind of symbolic of the timeless and I had to wait for somebody to walk along the beach to produce footprints, which get washed out with the next wave or two. That’s a story about how nature is constantly washing over us.

“As humans, we think we’re so important but in the big picture we’re real new on the scene and we probably won’t last all that long either. We’re just a little part of that from the beginning-to-the-end scenario.”

For a picture he made of a nude young woman lying on a fallen redwood tree in a Big Sur Coast grove, he wanted the contrast of “the old rugged, hard-edged woods and the softness of the young human figure.”

“That was done very deliberately to hopefully make the image strong.”

On a trip to Chatterbox Falls, British Columbia, he captured for posterity a sublime setting he awoke to,

“My friends, Ron and Judy Parks, rented a Nordic Tug for the summer to explore the coast and invited me to join them for a few days. We docked there for the night and in the morning I liked the reflections from the rain on the dock and the movement of the water. I made the picture with the falls in the background.”

During a Colorado sojourn he set out to photograph one of the state’s most prominent mountains, Longs Peak.

“Since the Forest Service does not allow camping there we had to leave the parking lot at midnight and climb all night to get there just before dawn. It was cloudy at sunrise but just for a moment the clouds partially broke and I was able to get the shot.”

 

Intuitive and intentional

Sometimes, the opportunity for a picture appears as he’s driving to or from an assignment.

“I was coming from Kansas City and I took the back roads and just about sunset I saw this partially plowed wheat field with terraced ridges in a pattern. So I stopped and took a picture. But the sky was very dull – there was nothing. Driving back, I was thinking, what can I do with this? Then I decided to put a woman’s flowing hair in the sky.”

He secured a model for the shoot at his studio. He made the image and overlaid it in the picture of the field.

“That was fun. I think that sort of thing makes the image richer.”

Manipulating images on a computer or in the darkroom, he said, “is just a creative tool.”

“People have the idea that in an earlier era of photography, working in the darkroom was somehow pure. Okay, it wasn’t, it never was. As long as I can darken this part and lighten that part (or crop or burn or do any number of things to manipulate an image), it’s a subjective, editorial process.

“Just the act of making a picture, you choose what to include in the frame and what not. My act of putting a frame around that image begins to edit right there.”

He embraces today’s digital tools.

“What I love about PhotoShop is that now I can do things that even in my wildest dreams in the darkroom I couldn’t achieve. For instance, I have an image of an abandoned ore processing plant high in the Colorado back country that’s been a favorite in galleries. I made it with an eight by ten camera and black and white film. I worked and worked in the darkroom to get all the various tonalities but it was hard because the inside of the building was kind of dark.

“Well, you can only burn an edge so much in the darkroom.”

For this oversized image, he placed his developing tray on the floor and angled the enlarger on the print.

“I’m crawling down there, lightening this part and darkening that part, but you could only go so far and you couldn’t change the focal contrast. With PhotoShop you can adjust the tonality and contrast. The nice thing is once you get done, two years or 20 years from now when you hit print it’s still going to come out the same.Or you can change it.”

“I had an early ’90s show of my work in Omaha. One of the prints was very successful in terms of sales. It also happened to be a print that involved six different negatives at various exposures in the enlarger. The original print probably took me six evenings from seven to midnight and now I suddenly had orders for 10 more. By the time I got done with that whole thing, I was spent and none of the prints were exactly the same because you couldn’t exactly get it the same.”

Whether intuitive or intentional, he’s after the same result – to distill beauty and endow permanence to an ephemeral moment.

Finding a niche

Scholz depends on what he earns photographing for his living. He started his own business, Scholz Images, in 1999. He works from a high-ceilinged downtown studio with ample natural light. It’s outfitted with lights, tents, screens, filters, cases and framed prints.

Most of his time is spent not on making photographs but scheduling. marketing, billing and other business matters. Finding and juggling projects isn’t easy.

“If you’re doing it on your own, you’re always kind of dancing between jobs. It’s a constant changing. When I first started the business I wanted to mostly go in the fine art direction. What i found is that in order to really make a living at it I had to have an additional niche and architecture became the thing I gravitated toward. I realized it was something I could do and it’s a good market. The architecture puts bread on the table and allows me to pay the mortgage and that sort of thing.”

He’s shot for Omaha firms Holland Basham Architects and HDR, for Lincoln-based Clark Enersen Partners and for Denver-based Fentress and Ruggles Mabe.

Fentress flew him to Quantico, Virginia for a week’s shoot at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for an even longer shoot of the Central Terminal Expansion.

Traveling for his work brings it’s own challenges.

“When you travel a lot you get to sleep on airport floors, have bears come into your camp in the middle of the night, have flat tires on cactus in the back country, be in the center of a bison herd, have foreign police order you to not use your tripod. Just the usual stuff.”

When not flying, he travels to assignments via his trusty Chevy Silverado.

“I find I make my best photos when I have my camera and tripod with me. It can be anywhere that the moment presents itself.”

For most clients, he’ captures objective reality, though he sometimes heightens things via filters and strobes.

“With the commercial work I do, I’m called to record what’s there. Architects like to see all the bricks and everything the way it is. I then like to think of it the way a filmmaker does – how’s this going to look when the sun goes down and there’s still some light in the sky. You’re alway working with light.”

Another major commercial client is J & J Flooring Group, which has sent him on various assignments.

“It’s very challenging to get really interesting pictures of carpet.”

Buildings are easier. For his architectural work, he used to shoot with four by five film.

“In those days if you could get eight pictures a day you were doing really good, especially with color because you had to use several different filters.”

Though there’s little call for it now, he’s fond of large format film photography because he can attain certain qualities with it he can’t in smaller formats or digitially. He first moved to the bigger format in 1980.

“My father built a wooden kit for my four-by-five inch camera. I used that for years. Then I thought, well, if four-by-five is good, then eight-by-ten must be better, so I eventually bought an eight-by-ten.”

He admits he’s “a gear-head” like most photographers when it comes to camera gadgets.

What the large format offers in quality it sacrifices in efficiency.

“The tradeoff is, if you get the image perfectly you’ve got great quality to work with, but you can only make a small number of images, whereas with a smaller camera you might be able to get a hundred images in the same amount of time. So you have to pick your tool for what you want to do

“The larger format allows for more clarity and tonality. You can make increasingly large enlargements that still look good. But it comes at a great cost. The equipment is expensive but the really big cost is hauling it around because it’s heavy and awkward. It’s really tough flying. I much prefer to drive – that way I can load up the truck with lighting gear and I don’t have to worry about it being broken or arriving late or getting lost. When I fly, it really has to get edited down to the very essentials, plus backup. You cant check it – it will end up broken or lost. I carry it on board and stow it overhead.”

Old habits die hard.

“I sometimes think about getting rid of the four-by-five and eight-by-ten but occasionally I do have a client that comes along that wants something in large format film and I’m one of the few guys left that can do it.”

In order to stay current, he’s adapted to digital cameras.

He’s remained true to certain brands.

“I settled in on Nikon for whatever reason and have stayed with it because once you invest in a bunch of lenses then you can use them forever. I can still shoot with the Nikon lenses I got back in the 1960s. I don’t use them all that often anymore, but I can still use them on the camera because they never changed the lens body.”

Standing out from the crowd

For portraits, he uses whatever best serves the subject. A favorite portrait is of a corporate CEO whom Scholz wisely took out of the stuffed shirt, sterile office setting for something more fun and authentic.

“The guy needed a picture for an annual report. I could see in talking to him he just wasn’t into it at all, so I asked, ‘What do you like to do? ‘ He said, ‘I just bought a motorcycle and I like to ride it Sunday afternoons. I said, ‘Okay, let’s do that.” I sat in the back of a pickup with my camera and his wife drove. We were over in Iowa and we drove maybe 30-40 miles down the highway with his hair blowing in the wind. I made lots of pictures in black and white. The whole thing was stronger to me in black and white.

“Later, I decided I wanted a little more drama, so I put the clouds in. The only parts of the image that are in color is the burnt orange gas tank and front fender. It was a custom color designed just for that particular motorcycle. I like black and white because color sometimes is so pretty people stop there without looking deeper, where with black and white you’re reduced to light and dark contests that make your image pop.”

After decades making pictures for public display, Scholz is a fixture on the local photographic scene.

“In general, I think the photographic community here is pretty open and receptive. Most people like each other and get along.”

He counts as peers such well known shooters as Larry Ferguson, Andrew Baran, Monte Kruse. Patrick Drickey, Kat Moser and Sandy Aquila.

He’s talked shop with Omaha native Jim Krantz, who now enjoys a national and international reputation based out of Chicago.

“One of the local people I really admire is Vera Mercer,” Scholz said, “Her work to me is outstanding. I really love what she does.”

His work has shown at Gallery 1516 and Connect in Omaha, at the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney and at galleries in Kansas City, Missouri, Santa Fe, New Mexico and other locales.

His work is in public and private collections around the nation and even in in other countries.

Photography equals opportunity 

He makes images to be seen. Naturally, he likes it when people respond favorably to his work. Another fringe benefit of shooting for hire is gaining entree to people and places he’d otherwise not get.

“Being a photographer often times opens doors to things. You get admitted to a lot of places and things you wouldn’t otherwise have access to. For instance, maybe 15 years ago I got a call from a company here in town sponsoring ex-president Bill Clinton to give a keynote talk at an event in Aspen, Colorado. They wanted a lot of pictures of bill involved with people, so they flew me out to Aspen to do that. I spent three days with Bill. Hilary (Clinton) was there. I made all the pictures. Well, this repeated itself in Miami, once here in Omaha, and several times in Aspen.

“That’s not a world I would normally have access to at all, but it was really fun. I remember once in Aspen Bill got there in the afternoon. He was pretty tired having been on the road a lot. He checked into the hotel and decided he wanted to go for a walk downtown. He didn’t get more than a block when he was surrounded in this park by a hundred mothers with little kids. You could see him getting energized. It was fun to see over the course of several events how he would wk with crowds. He had a magic about him

“I remember prior to a cocktail party and dinner he was keynoting there were some guys waiting for his arrival and they were talking about how when they saw Bill Clinton they’re going to give him a piece of their mind. Well, Bill shows up and if by magic those guys are the first people he walks up to. He’s got his hand around one guy telling him a joke and within 10 minutes he totally won them over. I saw that hundreds of times.”

Being a photographer also means forever chasing perfection that can’t be attained.

“My photographer friends and I all know there are certain images meant to tease us into spending a lot of time and effort but we never quite get them. They’re always just a little beyond us.”

Scholz feels it’s good to have something to chase just beyond your grasp in order to stay sharp and hungry. “If you could roll a 300 game every time you bowl, you wouldn’t bowl. It wouldn’t be any fun. It’s the same thing with golf and shooting par.”

The same when making pictures.

“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Hits and misses come with any creative art. There are times where from start to finish you work it right through and, boy, the whole thing just comes out great.”

The magic of first seeing an image he’s just made still enthralls him. Hooked for life.

Visit http://www.scholzimages.com.

BRAVO! Sing for the Cure

May 22, 2016 1 comment

I recently found a trove of stories I have written and had publshed in pint but that I had never gotten around to posting on my social media platforms – until now. This is one. It is about a charitable Opera Omaha concert from 2010 that was staged as a fundraiser in support of breast cancer awareness and research. The moving personal stories of survivors were integrated into the concert. The program was called Sing for the Cure. I wrote about it for Metro Magazine.(http://www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/).

 

BRAVO! Sing for the Cure


It used to be the mere mention of cancer connoted a fatal prognosis.Thanks to medical science advances, however, many forms of the disease are highly treatable and survivable today. While it’s true the “Big C” doesn’t mean a sure death sentence anymore, it’s still a scary, serious, and often life-threatening condition. Indeed, cancer is so prevalent in America that almost everyone at some point is affected by it directly or indirectly. The diagnosis, even the word, still conjures feelings of anxiety, fear, resentment and other intense emotions.

Genetic and lifestyle factors play a role, but cancer is largely indiscriminate in who it attacks. Everyone close to a cancer patient is impacted in one way or another. Behind every cancer case is a human story of life, pain, hope, and healing.

Art is a powerful medium for honoring life and death experiences, which is why Opera Omaha and the Nebraska Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure have partnered to present Sing for the Cure: A Proclamation of Hope.

Sing for the Cure concerts, like the Opera for the Cure, help raise awareness and funds for breast cancer care and research. Five dollars of each purchased ticket benefits Nebraska Komen. The performances, which kick off Opera Omaha’s 53rd season, coincide with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The dramatic, multimedia Opera for the Cure concerts are Omaha’s version of the Sing for the Cure programs. Sing for the Cure is a national program that has worked with the Komen foundation since 2000. “Opera for the Cure represents a great example of how two organizations, with completely different missions, can come together on a project that will have a powerful impact,” said Nebraska Komen Executive Director Lynette Farhart.

“While I have seen only a few of the pieces from the production, I am positive anyone who experiences Opera for the Cure will walk away inspired. It is a unique opportunity to further educate people about breast cancer as the production takes you through one woman’s journey. The production encapsulates the emotions experienced from diagnosis to treatment and recovery, and ends with a message of hope. You will walk away wanting to make a difference.”

“Throughout this emotional performance Opera Omaha will pay tribute to survivors and their families, as well as to those we have lost, through music, singing, photography and stories,” said Opera Omaha general director John Wehrle. “The performance itself is a journey, and it’s the journey of life that counts. This proclamation of hope will be uplifting and will leave the audience inspired.”

“Ultimately the message is: What are we going to do about this, and who is going to do it? It’s the community that’s going to make the difference and help each person get through it,” said Farhart.

This is why the public was invited to participate by submitting survivor and co-survivor stories and photos online at operaforthecure.org. The special website displays these inspirational tales and images through October 17. A few of the testimonies and snapshots will be variously projected on stage, exhibited in the Orpheum lobby and featured in concert promotional materials. What Angels in America did for AIDS, Sing for the Cure has done for cancer. Just as Angels used dramatic musical theater to express the searing emotions and experiences of AIDS, Sing for the Cure uses music and testimony as the prism for its cathartic look at cancer.

 

 

The concert program features classical and concert music by leading contemporary composers, including Joseph M. Martin and Michael Cox. The libretto speaks to the personal, family and communal impact of cancer, drawing on real-life stories in some cases. Professional and nonprofessional actors on stage will share various cancer stories. Dancers will help interpret the spoken and sung narrative.

Guest conductor Richard Buckley leads the Omaha Symphony, joined by the Opera Omaha Chorus and the Opera Omaha Valmont Voices in Residence, featuring: American baritone Kyle Albertson, tenor Neil Darling, mezzo soprano Jennifer Forte and soprano Alyssa Nance. Collaborating with Buckley are visiting artists Helena Binder, who directs, and Opera Omaha Chorus Master/Resident Music Director J. Gawf.

Dramatic lighting and an array of screens projecting video images will key music, words, emotions, and meanings. Musically, audiences can expect “a very accessible oratorio that speaks to the emotions of having cancer, dealing with it, how it affects all around you and the knowledge that many are there to support you in your personal journey,” said Buckley.

“The style of the music is quite popular and deals with ten different moments of a woman’s journey with breast cancer. But it is not all dark, because life isn’t. There is humor, compassion, farewells to loved ones. The music has full chorus numbers, solos both legit and jazzy.” Stage director Helena Binder worked hard to ensure the concert has a narrative flow, complete with peaks and valleys and a mix of poignancy and humor.

“I feel it’s my job to bring it to the audience in a way they can feel that range of emotions,” she said. The many expressive facets she has to play with remind her of working on operas. “It’s kind of the same thing where all these different artistic elements come together to tell a story to give an overall experience,” she said. “It’s really exciting to me because you have so many pieces and yet the idea is to weave it into a whole. It’s like a tapestry.”

She said the evening will conclude in a spirited way. “It has to be something that people walk away from with a feeling of urgency, of commitment, of hope.”

Performances are October 15th at 7:30 p.m. and October 17th at 2 p.m. For ticket information visit ticketomaha.com or call 345-0606.

 

 

Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala with “A Flowering Tree”

March 24, 2015 2 comments

In January Opera Omaha went rogue again with its annual gala, this time infiltratiing a section of the Crossroads Mall for a swank sit-down dinner given a theatrical going over with surrealist set dressings inspired by the contemporary opera, A Flowering Tree.  Live excerpts from the mythic opera were performed tableside for a rapt audience that sometimes felt as if they were a part of the dramatic and transformative experience.  A Flowering Tree’s staged production in February at the Orpheum Theater gave audiences the full measure of this beautiful and imaginative work whose ending is one of the most sublime artistic expressions I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing.  If you didn’t know it already, Opera Omaha is one of America’s leading opera companies and its reputation only grows with time.

Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala with “A Flowering Tree”

Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world

Breaking the mold to build new audiences

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

A contemporary opera all about transformation got its legs at an unconventional site slated for rebirth, the Crossroads Mall, during the January 16 Opera Omaha Gala.

The gala featured glimpses of A Flowering Tree, a 2006 opera by American composer John Adams, who adapted its romantic, mystical story from an ancient folktale from India. This saga of love, betrayal, sacrifice and redemption set in an enchanted land unfolded in a 20th century space normally associated with shopping.

A 10 p.m. after party for the millennial crowd followed the gala.

Unlike the best known works in the Adams canon that draw on historical, politically-charged events, such as Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic, A Flowering Tree is purely metaphorical. Adams co-wrote the libretto with Peter Sellars.

Kumudha is endowed with the magical gift of morphing into a flowering tree and returning back to human form. When a prince secretly observes her transformation he’s smitten and marries the enchantress. His obsession with her gift and his sister’s exploitation of it drives the couple apart. Bereft without her, the prince loses everything, even himself. Kumudha gets stuck in a hideous in-between state that makes her a curiosity. The couple can only be reunited, so the folktale goes, if true love leads them to find each other again.

The Adams Touch
Wunderkind director James Darrah, who at 30 is a rising star, says, “It is a fabulous story and a fabulous piece of theater. It’s entirely based in storytelling, with large overarching themes of humanity.”

Musically-speaking, Darrah says, “The orchestral writing of Adams is just unbelievable – he is giving an audience an entire soundscape in the way he employs instruments and chorus and voice. The way he writes for the human voice is operatic and virtuosic and familiar in that way but also really surprising and beautiful. At times it can fluctuate from feeling incredibly intimate and simple to virtuosic and cinematic.

“He has the ability to both understand and interpret the immense musical history that comes before him and to be on the exciting electric edge of innovation. He creates these worlds of sound that are sometimes totally unexpected but rapturously beautiful.”

Opera Omaha General Director Roger Weitz calls Adams “one of if not the most important American opera composers living today,” adding, “I saw a performance of Flowering Tree at Chicago Opera Theater and I was blown away by the music, by the drama, by the potential for magic and transformation on stage. I really fell in love with it.”

Outside-the-box
Snatches of the opera on gala night happened amid the empty storefronts of a closed section of the ill-fated Crossroads Mall – specifically the two-story glass atrium at the north end. The mall is slated to be razed to make room for a new mixed-use village.

A Flowering Tree will have its main stage full production February 13 and 15 at the Orpheum Theater. The same team mounting that production produced the gala – Los Angeles-based director Darrah and a cadre of collaborators. They also designed last year’s gala featuring bits from the early Handel opera Agrippina as well as that work’s main stage production. After making the nontraditional space of the Omar Baking Building into a retro Roman banquet experience inspired by Agrippina, the team’s repurposing a symbol of American consumerism into a mythological garden inspired by A Flowering Tree.

Weitz has charged the company with making its galas singular events that go beyond the standard sites and programs for such events. The Omar experiment was such a success, he commissioned Darrah and Co. to surpass it at another unexpected site – the soon defunct mall.

Darrah says. “If you’re doing something different you want a space that architecturally and energetically has flavor to it as a set. If you go to a big empty room you have to put everything in there to give people some sort of feeling. You have to create atmosphere from whatever you put into it. The thing I loved about the mall when scouting it is that even without us doing anything to it, it had this eerie energy of all these people that had been
in there.

“It’s this place that had a different purpose and now it’s this empty thing. It had so much to do for me with the socio-political stuff John Adams writes about America, and the mall is such an American icon that is changing and morphing. I like the idea of using it in a different way. This piece is all about transformation and new beginnings and new growth. The mall is going to be torn down and I love the idea we can see the echoes of what it once was.”

Then there’s the bold move of bringing opera to where people shop.

“I also think it gives us the right narrative of audacity. After last year’s success everyone was wondering what it was going to be. Well, I don’t think they knew what we’re going to do. They probably never expected what we did last time and, and they wouldn’t recognize this either. Parts of what we design felt like a sheik chic, elegant gallery. [People would] walk in and be totally in a dream.”

 

©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

Immersive
The idea is to so fully immerse audience members in this re-imagined environment that they find themselves inside the live performance. Because opera scenes will seem to spontaneously happen around them, guests will be intimate, active participants, not merely passive witnesses to the spectacle. Darrah says the same folks you have cocktails with before dinner may suddenly break into song or dance. It’s all about shattering the walls between performer and viewer so that everyone, actors and guests alike, becomes joined in the experience.

“I like the breaking of barriers in that way,” Darrah says. “It’s the whole point of the John Adams piece, and that’s what it all comes back to. It’s not about showing people the design of A Flowering Tree, it’s about saying this team has been hired to do this massive new production and if you listen to John’s music you will be exposed to the qualities of innovation.”

Darrah says the excerpts on display at the gala were intended to give guests a sense for his organic treatment of the opera.

“I didn’t want this to be a project where three singers and dancers move around them as they sing. I want people not to know who the singer is and who the dancer is.”

Collaboration
He feels privileged to have worked with a stellar roster of creatives interpreting it, including Andriana Chuchman as Kumudha, Andrew Staples as the Prince and Franco Pomponi as the Storyteller.

“It’s an unbelievably fantastic cast – a world-class, formidable group of people,” Darrah says. “I think of them as actors first who happen to have powerhouse, awesome voices. They’re all theater people who are also aware of art and culture. I love artists that have that kind of awareness and bring a lot to the table, that listen to Billie Holiday as much as they listen to opera.

When you get these well-rounded individuals willing to throw themselves into new ideas, they bring a really good energy. They fit very well with my team. Like minds do very good work.”

His team includes associate director Zack Winokur, set and lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set and properties designer Emily Anne MacDonald, projection designer Adam Larsen and costumer designer Sarah Schuessler. All but Winokur worked with Darrah on last year’s Agrippina gala and production. Together, they used lights, sets,  music and dance to turn a banally familiar existing space into an enticing dreamscape for the gala.

“[We were] not going to treat the stores – [we left] all the stores as dark, empty things, though we used certain storefronts for things like cocktail hour and catering,” Darrah says. “Beyond the tangible, this (was?) is a surreal dream you walked into.”

Atmospheric videos added to the trippy vibe.

 

Opera Omaha gala-Crossroads

©CHRIS MACHIAN/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

Mutual Admiration
Darrah says Adams took a keen interest in how the opera would be teased at the gala and produced at the Orpheum.

“He knows about this and he’s been very helpful and involved and supportive with the team and the choices. He’s very humble, so he’s not overly controlling. He answers questions. I sat down with him and he told me a bunch of things about why he wrote it, what he thought about. He’s been really great. He told me, ‘Do your thing.’”

Darrah and his team create harmony from collaborative give-and-take.

“So much of everything designers choose to do affects what a director is able to do on stage,” he says. “At the same time a director can choose moments that actually give designers lots of opportunities to create. I think the interconnected qualities of that are something that aren’t often talked about but are absolutely true.

“Here in Omaha, for many reasons, including the time and resources we’re allotted, we actually get to explore that a lot more than normal.”

According to Darrah, Weitz’s vision and enthusiasm are attractive to talents like himself and his colleagues.

“For artists like us, Roger is an incredibly adventurous, interesting, proactive part of assembling the team, crafting, casting, all these things.”

Weitz, in turn, says Darrah has taken Omaha by storm.

“The community has really embraced him and is really interested in his work. I think he feels a lot of support here and feels like this is a place where he can do what he wants to do. We’re talking about next season right now and we’ll keep dreaming. I mean, there will come a day when he’s too big for us but I hope by establishing this relationship early on Omaha will always be a special place to him.”

This year’s gala was chaired by Cindy and Mogens Bay. To learn more about Opera Omaha’s innovative approaches to performance based events, or to reserve tickets for performances of A Flowering Tree, visit operaomaha.org.

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

December 11, 2014 2 comments

Depending on the crowd or circle you travel in, bring up opera in conversation and expect a glassy-eyed look on some people’s faces because they can’t or won’t get past some cliched notions they have about this form being tired, overstuffed, and irrelevant. Opera is in fact a living, breathing performing art every bit as vital and universal as any other, drawing as it does on the most urgent human emotions, inspirations, and themes for its bigger-than-life brand of music theater. Opera is not just one thing or the other either, it is alternately grand and spare, traditional and experimental, contemporary and classic. In the spirit of celebrating opera’s qualities, Opera Omaha, a company with a national reputation for its bold approach, has re-imagined its annual fundraising gala to give audiences an immersive experience inside the power and drama of ioera’s music, acting, and design. My story below for Metro Quarterly Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com/Metro-Magazine/The-Magazine/) describes the new take Opera Omaha took with its Agrippina gala a year ago. An upcoming story in the next issue of the mag will discuss Opera Omaha’s plans to further these push the boundaries at the 2015 A Flowering Tree gala event.

 

Breaking the mold: Opera Omaha re-imagines the gala

©by Leo Adam Biga

A version of this story now appearing in Metro Quarterly Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

Hidebound event transformed to mirror opera’s dramatic, theatrical world

If being adventurous counts for anything, then Opera Omaha’s doing what it can to be the pertinent music theater company that general director Roger Weitz envisions. From commissioning designs by world-renowned artist Jun Kaneko to teaming with elite opera companies to presenting a full range of works, it’s making waves here and beyond.

“At the National Opera Conference in San Francisco this summer there was a bit of a buzz about what’s happening here,” Weitz says. “I think the word on the street in Omaha is also positive.”Part of the excitement was generated by last year’s gala that teased a production of Handel’s Agrippina. Everything from the nontraditional Omar Baking Building site to the outside-the-box immersive-interactive approach marked a stark departure from the norm.”The standard format of a gala is you go to a hotel ballroom, you have cocktails and dinner, there’s some speeches and maybe a performance,” Weitz says. “That’s a gala that could fit for anybody. But we’re an opera company that produces music theater, so I thought why not have our gala be like an opera? That’s how we can have it reflect the work we do. We shouldn’t have a gala that could be replicated by a hospital. It needs to be theatrical, it needs to be special.”

An opera sampler
With Los Angeles director James Darrah and his production team already in tow to mount the little-known baroque opera Agrippina, Weitz decided to have them produce the gala as well. Thus, lighting designer Cameron Jaye Mock, set designer Emily Anne McDonald, costume designer Sarah Schuessler and projections designer Adam Larsen brought Agrippina to life both for the site specific gala performance and for the main-stage Orpheum production.”I wanted to give guests a preview of what Agrippina was going to feel and look like from the team designing the production. What James and his team bring is innovation. He has both total fidelity to the music, to the composer’s intentions, and to the librettist’s intentions. What he brings to that is storytelling that can make even an opera hundreds of years old feel modern and relevant. At the end of the day that’s what I want this company to be – relevant.

“To me, opera is not a dusty museum piece, it’s a living, breathing, growing dynamic art form that a lot of young composers and artists are excited about and interested in creating. My vision for Opera Omaha’s mission is to make sure this community receives a balanced program that represents the repertoire. That means we’re going to do the classic greatest hits of opera – we’ll always have one of those every year – but we’re also going to do early, contemporary and new opera.”

With programming open to that full spectrum, he says, “it enables the company to take artistic risks and also to do things that are exciting possibilities with the potential to grow and build audiences.” For Weitz, there’s no gain without taking risk and to his delight he’s finding audiences are right there with him.”We’re taking a bold step that is not cautious. Every year I think we go a little bit further and every year the response has been all the more positive and enthusiastic.”

Opera Omaha supporters Paul and Annette Smith, who chaired the gala, appreciate Weitz’s daring.

“He’s taking a very fresh and exciting perspective to opera. He knew we needed to break some boundaries and to try some things that hadn’t already been done,” Paul Smith says.

Up close and personal
Though an 18th century work, Agrippina has enough sex, violence and politics to resemble a modern soap or news scandal. It’s why Weitz opted to hold the gala previewing it at a restored former bakery in the inner city. Darrah’s team crafted a surreal and intimate environment inspired by the retro industrial digs and the historical opera. A banquet table served as the “set” centerpiece. Screens acted as visual markers and breaks.

“We created a combination of live performance with installation art visuals amid dinner, drinks and conversation to immerse people,” Darrah says. “We had shot video portraits of the entire cast in slow motion closeup against a black background, which Adam Larsen then edited into video projected on transparent screens throughout the space. So you had characters from the opera walking on screens that would disappear and reappear on the other side of the room.

“It was all about illusion.”

Playing off the opera’s story of the emperor Nero and his mother Agrippina fiddling away in circles of deceit while Rome burns, Darrah and Co. created a neoclassical setting in which non-costumed actor-singers suddenly broke into dramatic song during dinner. These live pop-up scenes plunged audience members into the thick of performers enacting lusty, blood-thirsty, full-throated action.

“The vision for the evening was always very exciting and unconventional,” Smith says. “But at its core, James wanted every person at the event to taste a bit of the Agrippina experience and to want to be at the opera when it opened. He worked to create an engaging, exciting space where we all felt like we were intimately close to the opera. Ultimately we were so close that the characters seemed very real to each of us.

“It was very exhilarating to have the performers from Agrippina perform a piece from the opera on the middle of our table with such amazing vigor, as if they were literally on stage, ripping flowers from the vases and angrily throwing them with no regard to the ‘audience’ seated only a foot or two away. It truly felt as if you were experiencing the anger and malice of Agrippina directly.”

Smith says the experience had the desired effect Darrah sought.

“It helped us understand how incredibly exciting opera can be and it made us want more. Others we talked with told us that after the gala they wanted to experience more opera.”

It’s all part of Opera Omaha’s aim to shake up people’s ideas about what the art form is or can be. Darrah says that effort begins with Weitz giving artists like himself the freedom to interpret a shared vision.

“He lets the creative people he hires do their job, He puts a lot of trust in the team, which is an incredibly great thing to feel as artists.”

He also likes that Weitz brings the company and the community together through accessible events.

“He brings you to the community to do work and introduces you to people in the community and supports you as part of the community.”

Once more with feeling
Fresh off the success Darrah and his team enjoyed last year Weitz has brought them back to design the January 16, 2015 gala to be held at another unexpected site, the Crossroads Mall. It will be a tantalizing sampler of an original production of the John Adams opera A Flowering Tree at the Orpheum in February. For the gala the team is transforming the mall’s atrium into the opera’s mythological, nature-filled landscape. A world-class soprano, two leading pianists and top dancers will join featured cast members in fleshing out this romantic fairy-tale.

That gala and production are sure to attract attention the same way the Agrippina gala and production did. The opera world’s taken notice for some time. San Francisco Opera admired Jun Kaneko’s Madame Butterfly so much they put together a team of five companies, including Opera Omaha, to build his The Magic Flute. That led to this season’s new co-production of Rigoletto, a collaboration between Boston Lyric Opera, the Atlanta Opera and Opera Omaha,

“Weitz says, “When you have opera companies of that magnitude wanting to collaborate creatively with Opera Omaha that’s a really good indicator we’re a presence making our mark on the opera field.”

Opera Omaha plans to keep folks wanting more.

“We have to keep surprising and delighting people and keep raising the bar,” Weitz says. “I think James and his team set a pretty high bar last year and I told them this year we must raise the bar again.'”

Supporters Cindy and Mogens Bay, who chair the 2015 gala, are taking the cue, “Opera Omaha’s gala last January was unique and truly special. It exceeded our expectations,” Cindy Bay says. “We’re delighted the same innovative artists are coming back this year to take on a new event with even more ambitious plans.”

A music and dance filled after-party for a younger crowd will follow the gala.

For tickets, visit http://www.operaomaha.org.

Omaha songstress Mary Carrick takes flight in new CD

July 14, 2014 2 comments

I don’t know what it is, but I keep winding up doing stories about cabaret singers.  One of the latest I’ve profiled is Mary Carrick, whose new CD Let’s Fly is an interesting collaboration with J. Gawf, a pianist who serves as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.  Carrick got to know Gawf while performing in the Opera Omaha Chorus. Impressed with her versatile voice, he began coaching her on the side.  Impressed with his musical acumen, she asked for advice about who could help her with a new CD she had in mind to do fresh takes on American Songbook standards and other tunes across the music spectrum.  He suggested himself and that’s how he became artistic producer and arranger for her Let’s Fly.  Here is my Omaha Encounter Magazine story on Carrick and her collaboration with Gawf on that CD project.  By the way, on this blog you can find my profiles of other Omaha cabret artists, including Camille Metoyer Moten and Anne Marie Kenny.

 

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Mary Carrick

Omaha songstress takes flight in new CD

©Story by 
©Photography by Bill Sitzmann

 

If the late soul master James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then singer Mary Carrick is Omaha’s hardest working woman in entertainment.

When the Nebraska Arts Council touring artist isn’t performing her own cabaret act, she’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus or acting in a musical theater production. She also does special events like the Omaha Press Club Show and Omaha Creative Institute Spring Fling.

In addition to her rehearsals and vocal exercises she attends cabaret workshops. All this comes on top of working a full-time marketing job, being married and raising two small children. Yet she’s made time to create her debut CD, Let’s Fly, with artistic producer and arranger J. Gawf, a pianist whose day job finds him serving as Opera Omaha resident music director and chorus master.

The album, available on iTunes. Amazon.com and CD Baby, showcases Carrick’s big voice, wide range, and eclectic tastes. The 10 tracks about love and desire include the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” Barry Manilow’s bath-houser “Man Wanted,” and the Jon Mitchell hit “Both Sides Now.” There’s even Leonard Cohen’s edgy “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

The project’s an intriguing collaboration between a versatile singer deeply rooted in the Great American Songbook and a multifaceted musician immersed in opera. Carrick, who can sing anything, has a voice with operatic qualities, and Gawf, who can play anything, is well-versed in popular music. He’s also Carrick’s primary vocal coach and the two have developed an aesthetic kinship and personal friendship.

Gawf has worked with world-class singers and is a great admirer of Carrick’s vocal instrument.

“It’s crystalline clear, it’s shiny, it’s got shimmer,” he says. “She has such a range to go from the high register, which I think is a beautiful part of her voice, to the low register.”

Then there’s what Carrick can do with a song.

“Well, she’s a storyteller, number one,” he says. “She comes from a theater background and she can tell a story like nobody’s business.”

Carrick’s found a niche in cabaret performances that often find her teaming with pianist-vocalist Todd Brooks.

“There’s so much artistic freedom in cabaret,” she says. “There’s really no rules. I can program whatever I want. I can do songs that are traditionally sung by men and make them my own. I can infuse myself and my own experiences into the songs. There’s a very intimate connection with the audience that I love very much. I can talk and tell stories throughout my show. I love that audience-to-singer energy that happens in the room. It’s exhilarating.”

She’s been recognized by the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards and the Theatre Arts Guild for her cabaret shows as well as productions of her own Broadstreet Theatre Company.

When Carrick broached the concept of her album, Gawf wanted in and says the chance of “doing something I’d never done” appealed to him. “Mary gave me free license.”

The songs on “Let’s Fly” have been covered many times by other artists, but Gawf was intentional in taking a new slant.

“I pride myself on not listening to other artists before I tackle something because I don’t want to get preconceived ideas of how something should be. I like to take the song off the page and then re-imagine it. After we got our arrangements together I listened to what other people did to see where ours fit in, and we’ve got some unique things. Half the fun was coming up with what works for us.”

Carrick feels she’s in good hands with Gawf.

“I put my trust completely in him. It’s just been an awesome match. I think we work in tandem really well. He totally gets me. He can tell when I’m not giving as much as I need to. There was one session where he said, ‘I don’t feel like you’re giving you’re all to me,’ and he was right. I know where he’s at, he knows where I’m at. We can sort of feel where we’re going, where things aren’t working.”

Carrick says she most enjoys “the creative process,” and with the CD she’s pleased to have gone to “a real vulnerable place in being completely true to the material. It’s a scary place to go if you really want to be an honest singer, but I think we achieved that .”

For the album Gawf assembled musicians he’s worked with before, including three Omaha mainstays in percussionist J.B. Ferguson, bass player Mark Haar, and accordion player Kate Williams. Jazz pianist Eric Andries joined the ensemble from his home in Baton Rouge, La.

The CD marked the inaugural project for Dreamtree Recording, a new studio operated by Omaha musician and sound engineer extraordinaire Marty Bierman.

The recording sessions became Gawf’s playground to have the musicians try different rhythms and tempos – adding, subtracting, mixing, matching various sounds.

“It was true experimentation all the way around,” he says. “It was fun to be able to do that, to not take it straight from the page and to work with such great instrumentalists.”

Carrick says the CD was both “a fascinating” and “massive undertaking” that “organically developed.” Don’t be surprised if she and Gawf re-team for a new project.

Follow the singer at marycarrick.com.

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