by Betsie Freeman
Opera Omaha hired a singer to play the lead character in the upcoming “Falstaff” two years ago. On Dec. 19, less than a month before rehearsals began, he withdrew from the show because of a medical emergency, which wasn’t life-threatening. That left Opera Omaha with a big problem: Who would be their Falstaff on such short notice? “We thought about people we knew, what other singers were performing it this year,” said Roger Weitz, the company’s general director. “We looked for the best Falstaffs out there today.”
They needed a singer who already knew the role. They found their man — Iceland native Olafur Sigurdarson — in Germany. He was scheduled to make his United States premiere in March in “Rigoletto” for the Minnesota Opera and then would play Falstaff for Opera Colorado in May. That’s great, Opera Omaha officials thought. He already has a work visa.
Not so fast.
His visa was good only for his previously scheduled performances. Opera Omaha would need a separate one — and work visas take at least several months to procure. That wouldn’t do. Opera Omaha — with help from Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer’s office and other friends — mobilized to cut those months to mere weeks — less than four, in fact. And, as a result, Sigurdarson’s first performance in the United States will be in Nebraska instead of Minneapolis, a coup of sorts for Opera Omaha.
Weitz said it’s rare for his company to snare a foreign singer’s American debut. Opera Omaha predominantly hires American singers. Sigurdarson is eligible for an Extraordinary Ability Worker Visa, awarded to foreigners who have outstanding prowess in science, arts, business, athletics, television or education. They’re not easy to obtain: Individuals must prove that they have received national or international recognition in their fields. In a matter of days, Opera Omaha had to produce a dossier including reviews, recordings of Sigurdarson’s performances, letters from opera experts and other papers to submit to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Here’s where it gets interesting: Though Sigurdarson’s Omaha appearance would somewhat diminish his engagements in Minnesota and Colorado, making them secondary to his debut, both companies shared material about the singer’s accomplishments from their visa dossiers with Opera Omaha. “It was particularly generous of them to do that,” Weitz said. Once the dossier was complete, Opera Omaha contacted Fischer’s office to expedite the visa application. Staffers there contacted Citizenship and Immigration Services’ California Service Center, which processes such visas.
“It was interesting because staff happened to get a supervisor on the phone who was a Creighton University graduate,” Fischer said Friday. “That’s kind of a fun tidbit.” Because the request was for an Extraordinary Ability Worker Visa, the center used different criteria for approval than for other work permits. “In this case, the opera that Opera Omaha was performing was a complex opera, by (Giuseppe) Verdi, and it requires a special skill set for an opera singer,” Fischer said. “USCIS did look within the U.S. to see if a singer with that skill set was available and they did not find one.” About five days after Opera Omaha called Fischer’s office, the California supervisor had expedited the application and transferred it to the U.S. Consulate in Germany.
Opera Omaha board member David Gardels, an attorney who used to work in Washington, advised opera officials as they prepared their application. His law firm, Husch Blackwell, knew whom to contact in Fischer’s office and was instrumental in securing the senator’s help. Gardels heaped praise on Fischer’s office staff for their quick action. “They make Nebraskans proud because they just picked it up and chased it down until it got done,” he said. “It was pretty neat.” Fischer said her office gets many requests for assistance with visa problems each year. “We’re working with people who are here legally, trying to work through the system,” she said.
The office will open a case file for every call, she said, including immigration and veterans issues and Social Security difficulties — “just about anything you can think of.” Sigurdarson arrived in Omaha in mid-January and has been rehearsing since that time for the Feb. 9 premiere of “Falstaff” — a Verdi work based on William Shakespeare’s character. He’s thrilled that officials were able to expedite his visa and add another show to his U.S. tour.
“I had been wanting to work in the United States for many, many years,” said the singer, who has built a successful career in Britain and across Europe. He has a week between his Omaha and Minneapolis jobs, so he will return home to see his family and get his second visa — rules prevented him from picking up both at the same time. He said he’s been having a great experience with his fellow “Falstaff” performers and is enjoying his time here, especially exploring restaurants and the Old Market.
For his part, Weitz is pleased to be hosting Sigurdarson. “He’s just a phenomenal artist,” Weitz said. “We were thrilled and delighted that this would be his U.S. debut, and thankful to our colleagues in Colorado and Minnesota.”