Posts Tagged ‘Opera’

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

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 (


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.”

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.”




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.”

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



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

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 ( 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 (


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

Opera Omaha enlists Jun Kaneko for new take on “The Magic Flute” – co-production of Mozart masterpiece features stunning designs setting the opera world abuzz

February 1, 2013 7 comments

Opera and Omaha may not be synonymous in your head but this grand and venerable art form and this conservative Midwest city have quite a relationship.  In fact, Opera Omaha has a reputation for groundbreaking work that you wouldn’t expect from a company its size and or from this part of the country but for many years now Opera Omaha has taken on ambitious productions, staged American and world premieres, and given the stage to phenomenal artists.  In recent years the organization has developed a relationsip with Omaha-based and internationally acclaimed artist Jun Kaneko, whose designs for an original Opera Omaha production of Madama Butterfly drew raves and toured the nation.  Now, Opera Omaha has partnered with several other companies to have Kaneko design a new production of The Magic Flute and it too is setting the opera world abuzz.  My Metro Magazine cover story about Kaneko and his Magic Flute follows.







Opera Omaha enlists Jun Kaneko for new take on “The Magic Flute” –  co-production of Mozart masterpiece features stunning designs setting the opera world abuzz

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Metro Magazine


A new Opera Omaha co-production of Mozart’s masterwork The Magic Flute featuring costumes, sets and animations three years in the making by internationally acclaimed Omaha artist Jun Kaneko is making waves in the opera world. Following performances on both coasts the opera comes home to the Orpheum Theater February 22 and 24.

Flute finds Opera Omaha in good company

Opera Omaha’s among five producing partners of this Flute, whose world premiere last June in San Francisco earned raves for Kaneko’s boldly imaginative designs. The coproduction of San Francisco Opera, Opera Carolina, Washington National Opera, Opera Omaha and Lyric Opera Kansas City is expected to draw national attention here.

Not since the Kaneko-designed Puccini classic Madama Butterfly in 2006 has the metro’s hometown opera company been in the spotlight like this. Executive director Roger Weitz says sharing the production with the likes of the prestigious San Francisco Opera “puts us on a similar footing as these major opera companies,” adding, “It maintains and furthers Opera Omaha’s reputation as a company known for quality, exciting, adventurous new work. Companies of our size aren’t always able to be that adventurous and cutting edge and Opera Omaha has a reputation over its history of national and world premieres, commissioning artists like Jun Kaneko and launching singers like Rene Fleming.”

He suggests Flute represents the best Omaha has to offer:

Great cities have great arts and the fact that Opera Omaha can be a producer of great art is really important. We’re a cultural exporter, and that’s great for Omaha.”

Collaborating with others also has “a practical” side. “When you think about these amazingly complex and expensive operas in these big houses, we could never afford to have the kinds of production values we have in this without combining our resources together and entering into a coproduction,” he says.






Kaneko’s process

The visual palette that stands this Flute apart is entirely Kaneko’s and only came to him after he repeatedly immersed himself in the opera’s music.

“I listened to it at least twice a day for two or three months,” Kaneko says. “That’s the only way I know how to start an idea for opera – in a very true, direct way. Without music there’s no opera anyway. You can’t help it, that is the foundation.  And, sure, theater, the visual part of it, the set and costume designs, those things are part of it but music has to be the starting point.”

Much of his process involves leaving himself open to inspiration.

“My way of working is pretty much intuitive. I don’t have any (preconceived) ideas when I start. You start developing an idea and it’s just like a big river running in front of you. You cant say stop and say, ‘I’ll be back tomorrow and start again from that point.’ It doesn’t work that way in my mind. Once it gets going you have to go with it.”

The concept for the seamless projected animations that distinguish his Flute revealed itself as he searched for a way to streamline the many set changes he felt interrupted the opera’s flow.

“That sort of bothered me, that it’s not graceful enough, so I started to think, Can I do something to change all that? That’s how I started to think about projection. I started to play with that idea and after a couple months it just made sense for me to get that basic movement of the opera change really smooth using projection.”

Omaha’s Clark Creative Group animated his abstract paintings.

“I wasn’t trying to do something new or crazy,” Kaneko says. “At first the producers weren’t sure. They felt this might really be too much. So we had a lot of discussions and finally they said, ‘We think we can handle it.'”

The technical challenges of realizing his vision are immense. A state-of-the-art projection system must work in concert with the lighting, the music and the action on stage to create a harmonious balance with his cascade of images.

“To me, all of those elements have to work as one piece. I’m always thinking about the total stage,” says Kaneko.

He made sketches, he worked with a scale model maquette of the stage and saw digital renderings of his designs. When he finally saw them full size,, he says, “It really surprised me. It was much better than what I thought.”







A mosaic completed and brought to life

“I think he really has created among the most spectacular evenings in the theater I’ve been a part of,” says Flute stage director Harry Silverstein. “The movement of these spectacular animations he’s done have the effect of a painting unfolding. It’s a combination of stunning artistry and real technical brilliance that brought this production to the stage.”

Weitz says Kaneko and Silverstein pushed things to such a limit creatively and technically that it made him and his fellow opera company directors nervous.

“Because he’s such a unique artist and his Flute designs are so new we just weren’t sure. But it’s beautiful. The digital projections are on these large floor-to-ceiling screens and these images are all moving – swirling, dripping – and they’re so well done. The images and costumes are so vibrant and crisp. It’s just like a living, breathing Kaneko. You got the sense you were witnessing something new. People were just enthralled.”

The thunderous reception that followed, including a standing ovation for Kaneko, affirmed for Weitz “this is what Opera Omaha could be doing and should be doing. It was just a warm, exciting feeling. I thought, Wow, wait till it comes to Omaha.”

The wait is over. For tickets, visit or call 402-346-7372.

Catherine Ferguson’s exploration takes her to Verdi’s “Aida” and beyond

August 1, 2010 2 comments

Nymphaea lotus.

Image via Wikipedia

Opera Omaha has a history of drawing attention for its innovative programming and collaborations. In recent years, the company has caused a splash by commissioning renowned artists outside the opera world to design sets and costumes for productions of classic operas.  First, the company had internationally acclaimed ceramicist Jun Kaneko, who lives and works in Omaha, design for Madama Butterfly.  Then, the company had noted sculptor and installation artist Catherine Ferguson of Omaha design for Aida.  I missed out on an opportunity to write about Kaneko and his Butterfly, and so when the chance came to profile Ferguson and her work on Aida, I leapt at it, and the following article is the result.  The article is another example of my plugging into an artist’s passion and expressing that to a general readership.  This is the first time the story’s been republished since its original appearance in the New Horizons a couple years ago.


Catherine Ferguson’s exploration takes her to Verdi’s “Aida” and beyond

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the New Horizons


The boundless limits of Omahan Catherine Ferguson’s art may be traced to a childhood that fostered her ever inquisitive nature.

When Opera Omaha commissioned the noted installation artist and sculptor to design the sets and costumes for its new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida she did what she always does for a project — search out every source to inform it.

That meant close studies of the Egyptian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, viewing a King Tut exhibit, reading books, watching productions of Aida and listening to the opera over and over and over again. Her research led her to the primary motif for her designs — a recurring hieroglyph of the blue lotus, actually blue water lily. It’s found in a pillar or column called the djed and in all manner of Egyptian artifacts, from pottery to jewelry to tombs.

“Once you start looking at Egyptian artifacts you find the lotus almost everywhere in different forms,” she said. “It’s just embedded in lots of place. Very stylized.”

The blue lily holds a yellow golden center remindful of the sun, which ties into the myth of an Egyptian King transfigured into a sun god, Ra. She found another deity, Ptah, also associated with the flower. Ferguson said the opening of the lily’s bud during the day, its closing at night and its reopening at dawn symbolized for Egyptians the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Regeneration. It all fit the structure of Aida, whose first two acts chart the ascendance of the King and future sun god, while the last two acts, what Ferguson calls Verdi’s “lunar acts,” reflect the veil of conflict and tragedy that befall the central characters.

“I thought, well, this is the perfect imagery I’ve been searching for,” she said. With such “ubiquitous” symbols at her disposal, she said, “I just went with it. Amazingly, we don’t know of any other Aida that used the lotus as its central design motif.”

Designing Aida meant many meetings with stage director Sam Helfrich, a collaboration that tested each artist, as it was his first time working with a nontraditional opera designer and Ferguson’s first time designing an opera. Ferguson, a self-described “moderate opera fan,” was somewhat familiar with Aida, having seen previous productions. The “huge challenge and responsibility” of undertaking the design for “this iconic piece,” as she calls it, was both daunting and exhilarating. Two years steeping herself in all things Egyptian and interpreting Verdi’s masterwork is just the kind of pursuit she enjoys.

Catherine Ferguson’s Aida designs for Opera Omaha production

That same sense of wonder is what’s compelled her to travel down the Amazon, visit Mexican ruins, tour the great sites in the Western European capitals, document the gardens of Italy, Japan and China, explore grottoes and immerse herself in the prehistoric earthen effigy mounds of the Midwest. The mounds’ animal-shapes, which she variously describes as “subtle” and “beautiful,” appear in several of her sculptures. “I have a very strong affinity for them,” she said. The elongated Oropendola bird nests she saw in South America show up in her work. The gardens and grottoes she photographed informed her own installations, as they are all “places that capture you for the moment and separate you from all the busyness that’s going on” outside.

She attributes this unquenchable thirst for experiential quests that feed her art to the environment she grew up in, which she said nurtured a desire for “constant exploration” and “lots of freedom to do that.” Born and raised in Sioux City, Iowa, Catherine and her older brother enjoyed an Arcadian youth in the 1950s. Their mother was a housewife trained as a teacher and their father a traveling typewriter salesman who later opened his own typewriter and accessories store.

“Growing up we lived in a neighborhood on the west side of Sioux City — only a couple blocks from open, uncultivated, untilled wild spaces,” she said. “There was a big hill called Mayflower Hill covered with these little purple mayflowers, and with the long prairie grasses on it. We would take cardboard boxes up there and slide down that hill — that’s how long those grasses were. It was fabulous.

“There was a wild plum thicket with bittersweet vine growing all over it. Over the years kids had tunneled into this thicket. There were chambers in the thicket where people played. Every season we were up there for something else. In the summer we were there playing. In the fall there was all the bittersweet to pick. And in the winter we took our sleds up there…We were outside all the time. That was a very wonderful place.”

Ferguson said the thickets and chambers of her youthful idylls “show up in my work a lot.” Her sprawling, multi-layered, organic installations, some filling entire rooms, are sacred sanctuaries filled with symbolic elements. The works often contain hidden, recessed spaces viewers come upon as they walk through them. Natural and synthesized sounds and light sources add more texture. She’s collaborated with composer-electroacoustic musician Mario Verandi on five installations.

Her sculptures, too, express elemental-spiritual dimensions. The sculptures are in a variety of materials. The visceral experience of her works encourages exploration and discovery. Her environments and objects evoke communion with spirit and nature, heaven and earth, themes consistent with an interest of hers — alchemy.

Much of her art is about transformation or transcendence and the interplay of the real with the ethereal in arriving at some purity or truth or harmony, which is a description of alchemy. Creativity, too.

“That stuff is fascinating,” she said. “Alchemy is what artists do all the time. You’re taking scraps of stuff that don’t have any meaning by themselves particularly but then you kind of wash away and get rid of the extra bits…You’re always looking for the core — and that’s what the alchemists were doing. They were looking for the Philosopher’s Stone at the heart, whatever that was.”

She likes how installations break down the elitist barriers of art that imply, she said, that “only certain people can understand it, only certain people can see it. That it’s in museums — it’s walled off.” She also likes the fact installations invite people to literally enter the work itself and, thus, respond to it in ways that are self-reflexive. As she told Joel Geyer in the NET documentary Is it Art?:

“I think with installation work…you’re not learning so much about the artist as possibly about yourself. It’s almost like having a script written but you’re the viewer. You’re also the actor, and it becomes your scene to develop once you’re in there. That’s what I’m shooting for in my work. What more do you want from art than to make you more conscious of yourself and your relationship to others? What more could one ask for? That, in itself, is beautiful.”

Seeking answers to universal questions became a habit instilled in her by the nuns who taught her at the former Rosary College, now Dominican College, in Chicago and by the Jesuits at Creighton University. These educators demanded rigorous analysis and independent thought in the pursuit of shaping the whole person.

“The nuns encouraged us to develop our minds and to express our unique selves.  We didn’t use the term feminist but they had the same philosophy about the role of women in society as the feminists espoused later,” she said.

She majored in English and minored in journalism. Art was the furthest thing from her mind. Well, not exactly. While studying in Chicago she became a habitual visitor to the Art Institute. “I’d take the L downtown and just walk around in awe. It was kind of a self-education in art,” she said. When she moved to Omaha to attend Creighton “she was really interested” in art but at that time the school lacked an art department. “I know I would have taken art courses if they had.” She continued her self-education at the Joslyn Art Museum.

Still, she said, “I was not even expecting to ever get into the art world.” There were creative aspects to her early jobs. “My first job was working for WNAX radio station up in Yankton (S.D.),” she said. “It was fun. I was writing commercials…”

She was then engaged to her husband, Terry Ferguson, who was studying at Georgetown Law School in Washington, D.C. Eager to join him, she moved to D.C., where she lived and worked in the mid-1960s. She did public relations for the U.S. Army Map Service, then engaged in satellite mapping of the moon and, she suspects, America’s Cold War enemies. She joined the federal Office of Economic Opportunity in downtown D.C. which put her near some of the capitol city’s finest art venues, including the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection.

“My work site was in between the two, so on my lunch hour I’d walk to one or the other,” she said. “Then on the weekends we’d often go to the Museum of National Art. We spent a lot of time there.”

By 1967 she and Terry moved back to Omaha, where he worked as a staff lawyer with the Legal Aid Society. He later served with the prestigious Kutak Rock Law Firm and as a senior attorney with Peter Kiewit Sons Inc. before joining the Fraser Stryker Law Firm. He’s also an adjunct professor in the Creighton Law School.

She was pregnant with their first son, George Ferguson, now a filmmaker who occasionally collaborates with his mother on her installations. The couple’s other son, Adrian Ferguson, is an Omaha architect who sometimes assists his mother in setting-up her installations.

While she was more and more inclined toward art, she said her emerging artistic sensibility “wasn’t really an epiphany moment” but more a matter of “backing into it.” She was a young housewife and new mother and to occupy herself she began taking art workshops. One in sculpture. Another in batik.

“The batik seemed at the time the easiest to deal with,” she said, “in that I could work right in my kitchen and I could get everything I needed at the Hinky Dinky. The paraffin and the dye. Old sheets I had at home.”

A phone call in the late ‘60s changed her life.

“One day Ree Schonlau called me and said, ‘I want to get together a group of people to start a craftsmen coop.’”

Schonlau was a potter and then-new University of Nebraska at Omaha art graduate with a vision for establishing what became the Craftsmen Guild in the historic warehouse district south of downtown. The once thriving wholesale produce market was in decline, its early 20th century brick buildings mostly abandoned. Where most people saw decay the Mercer family, who owned property there, and a few other visionaries like Schonlau saw potential.

Ferguson fell in with these bohemian pioneers to help transform the area into an arts-cultural haven known as the Old Market. The Craftsmen Guild, along with the Omaha Magic Theatre and the French Cafe, presaged all that’s followed.

The building Schonlau eyed, at 511 South 11th Street, now houses La Buvette amidst a string of eateries, shops and galleries. Then, however, the Market was mostly vacant. Schonlau, Ferguson, et all, joined forces to turn the vision into reality. They were young, energetic, idealistic. Together they transformed the Greenberg Produce Co. into an arts studio, complete with kilns for firing pottery.

“It was all cold lockers. The windows were all bricked up. We did a lot of manual labor and then other labor was hired,” Ferguson said. “We had a patron, Tom Davis, who helped us with part of that.”

This was the start of a most successful career by a contemporary Nebraska artist. Ferguson’s earned critical accolades and prized commissions. She cleaned up at the recent Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. Her work’s widely collected and exhibited. Several of her sculptures adorn prominent public sites, including Totem in front of the W. Dale Clark Library and Sky Fin on the south side of the Qwest Center. Her installations have been showcased at the Joslyn, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery.

Her life as an artist all began with that small coterie of fellow travelers similarly afflicted with the curse or the gift of feeling compelled to make art.

“It was a real good, exciting time,” Ferguson said. “That was my first studio outside the home. It was the first time I ever worked around other artists. Everybody else had a degree in art. They were very encouraging. It was a lot fun. I treasure most the opportunity that time gave me to meet other artists and have a studio in an unconventional milieu, a milieu conducive to experimenting. My studios have all been in locations that had some ‘grittiness’ and that has been helpful to me.”

Her spacious, airy, utilitarian studio the past 25 years is a brick building at 26th and Leavenworth Street, the former Warner Auto Shop. Windows in the renovated space let in lots of natural light. Drawings and mockups for her Aida designs are displayed amid work tables, plants and sculptures. The studio’s situated in an area slowly emerging as an artists’ community.

Ferguson honed her art and deepened her knowledge by attending workshops, reading art books and viewing exhibitions. She said she sought out workshops to cultivate “particular skills I wanted. They were very helpful. They all seemed to come at a good time. I spent some time in Iowa City one summer. The workshop was taught by a man who worked for Jack Lenor Larsen, a fabric designer. The instructor realized that a lot of his artist friends in New York were starting to work with fabric and that interested him and he talked about it a lot.”

Screen-printed fabrics were among the early forms-materials she worked in. She said the young lions of American art at the time, artists like Claes Oldenberg and Robert Rauschenberg, “were all bringing in materials that were nontraditional. Oldenburg’s soft sculptures particularly influenced me.”

This period, Ferguson said, is when she “really started thinking about the difference between craft and art. Certainly that was the time when there was this opening, this shift when the line between craft and art became less distinct. I think the difference, if there is one anymore, is the intention of the maker. A craftsman is very interested in how an object functions and its beauty, and an artist is generally more interested in other qualities such as an idea they want to convey. It’s tricky to distinguish between them these days.”

One of her early works, from the ‘70s, was a meat counter, all sewn in vinyls, with a light inside illuminating various cuts. Hanging above the counter was a stylized profile drawing of a woman that pulled apart in sections, ala a puzzle.

“It was a very feminist statement about fragmentation, about being pulled in lots of different directions and having lots of different roles,” she said.

For a long time Ferguson was reluctant to call herself an artist. When she finally felt comfortable, she said, “it was liberating…empowering.” Despite all her success she still battles doubts and insecurities, sometimes even telling herself, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” She said. “It’s only at the point when I can honestly say to myself, ‘You really don’t have to do this anymore,’ that I can then do it again.” She said these anxiety jags “happen less frequently now. Maybe I finally surrendered. Maybe I kind of expect to be doing this forever.”

As she and her art evolved Ferguson fixed on new directions. Some things remain constant.“ I’m a kinesthetic-type person,” she said. “I like materials. I do like form. I like large forms. I like the interaction of the human body to an object or form.” She loves dance and often draws on dance rhythms-movements in her work.

Catherine Ferguson’s sculpture garden at the Millard South Library

Her penchant for searching out new stimuli and connecting the dots to arrive at new insights has never left her. Every project elicits new creative responses.

“When I’m in a project I’m in a kind of heightened state of alertness — a receptive state,” she said, “and the physical world is more exciting to me.”

Ideas come to her “out of the blue,” sometimes in dreams, “because you’re alert and you’re in a different state,” she said. “You just see things you would normally drive right past. That I think is actually the crux of what keeps me making art.”

She admits she gets bored without some new subject to investigate or thread to unravel. Much of her work in the ‘90s was concept-laden and she’s now actively working to get away from that kind of over-intellectualizing.

“I am actually consciously trying to be unconscious.”

An example of her attempt to be more spontaneous, more instinctual is the set of torso drawings she did during a Bemis Center residency a couple years ago. “I had no idea what I was going to do. I just stepped up to the paper and started drawing. I didn’t think about it. I just jumped in. I’d like to work more and more that way.”

Speculating on the appeal of this approach, she said, “Perhaps after working as a concept-based artist it seems more risky to work intuitively without a preconception, and for that reason the possibility is more and more intriguing.”

That said, she acknowledges “it’ll be hard to suppress” her “research-bent.”

Just as Ferguson’s become a major artist, her old colleague, Ree Schonlau, made her own mark as founder of the Bemis artists colony — now the Bemis Center — in the Old Market, where artists from around the U.S. and the world come for residencies. Among those to do a residency there was the Japanese ceramic master, Jun Kaneko, whom Schonlau married. The couple have converted several buildings in and around the Market into studio, exhibition and storage spaces for his world-renowned work. Their much-anticipated Kaneko Museum is on the way.

Catherine Ferguson sculpture  outside the W. Dale Clark Library

Ferguson has remained friends with Schonlau.

“Ree and I have a good connection, not only because of our studio history in the ‘70’s but because her daughters Susan and Troia and my son George have known each other from age 6 from playing in the studios. All these children of Craftsmen’s Guild members went to Central High School and remain good friends today.”

Kaneko is someone she’s gotten to know well over the years. Around the time she got the Aida commission Kaneko was receiving plaudits for his design of Opera Omaha’s Madama Butterfly.

“I’d had many conversations with Jun during his process. He said many times, ‘I never thought it would be this much work.’ So I knew it was lot of work.”

When Aida was offered her, she was taken aback, especially when told Opera Omaha wanted a nontraditional interpretation of a classic work for which, she said, “people have such expectations. People who’ve never seen Aida feel like they’ve seen Aida. It definitely gave me pause and left me without speech,” she said. “I asked for a month to think it over. It was a huge decision to make.”

She consulted a good friend she attended high school with, Denes Striny, who’s made a career as an opera singer, voice coach and director. “I said, ‘Denes, would I be crazy taking on a new and minimal Aida?’ He said, ‘I definitely think you should do it. You can do it.’ He was very encouraging.”

Emboldened, she signed on. Sure enough, Aida stretched her in ways she never imagined. “I haven’t worked this hard for this big a period of time. Two years. Most of my other projects maybe were six months. There were moments when I thought, ‘Huh?’ I mean, I was just terrified. There still are doubts,” she said.

To inspire her designs she listened to recordings of Aida while working. She won’t know for sure how her sets and costumes will be perceived until the April production. “The proof is in the work,” she said.

Perhaps the most taxing aspect of the entire process was the costuming.

“The costumes have so much concept embedded in them. They have to tell so much. They are really storytellers in themselves,” she said. “I had no idea they would take up so much labor trying to differentiate them so that the audience would know who belongs to what group, whether the Egyptians or the Ethiopians, and what their status is within that group.

“I wanted the costumes to have definite shapes you could read from a distance and to be fairly sculptural, too. I tried to keep them simple but not so simple they weren’t interesting.”

Building costumes that met all those demands yet weren’t overly stiff, unwieldy and costly proved a fine line. Selecting the right colors and fabrics took a long time. She made trips to New York to look at fabric swatches but ended up getting the fabrics from a little shop right here in Omaha.

She’s pleased with the finished costumes.

“They’re gorgeous,” she said.

Designing the sets proved more comfortable for Ferguson, who’s used to working on a large scale and using different materials. Even though she’d never worked on an opera, her installations are a kind of “theater.” As she did with the costumes she incorporated hieroglyphic imagery into the temples and columns she designed.

The process entailed many discussions with stage director Sam Helfrich about the story, the characters and how the designs might best express them. The artists didn’t always agree. Whenever their interpretations conflicted she knew, bottomline, “it was his call.” Although she’s cooperated on projects with other artists before her work with Helfrich was something new. “It’s been a true collaboration where there’s been a lot of back and forth and creating things together. My creating things and then his reacting to them.”

Attending to all the details meant traveling to Salt Lake City to see the costume mock-ups, Portland, Ore. to see the sets under construction and New York City to meet with Helfrich and lighting director Robert Weirzel.

The indoor floral show Nature’s Inspiration at Lauritzen Gardens through May 11 keys off Ferguson’s Aida designs. A faux Nile is adorned with tropical plant life and her blue water lily artwork. Adding to the anticipation about Aida, she’s made presentations on her designs. She’s anxious for all the build-up to end and for her sets-costumes to finally breath on stage, in performance, before live audiences.

been so time-consuming it forced Ferguson to put many projects on hold. Now that the opera’s being mounted she can resume attending to them.

“I have requests for sculpture commissions and I am eager to do more drawings. Before Aida, I had started working on some smaller sculptures using wax and excelsior that were cast in bronze and I want to explore that medium more. I’ll be working with the torso theme again and drawing but with more color. Aida rekindled my enthusiasm for color.”

Someone she’s bound to work with again is Les Bruning, an Omaha sculptor and foundrer who’s fabricated or cast most of her metal sculptures. “He’s been a mentor and a tremendous resource for me,” she said. “He’s the most generously spirited artist I know.”

Once all the Aida hoopla’s done, she’ll be back working in the quiet solitude she’s accustomed to. Away from the spotlight, she’ll follow her muse wherever it leads.


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