Making Community Where It Counts: Holland Fellows bring Opera Omaha engagement to a new level through dedicated civic practice
by Leo Adam Biga
In this woke era, organizations are called to be mindful about engaging all different sectors of their communities. Matters of identity are more problematic for some entities than others. In the performing arts world, mainline presenting and producing groups have historically done a poor job of representation. In particular, Opera has operated in a bubble of exclusion and privilege. In its traditional surface outreach, opera has dictated the terms of engagement, rather than letting the community lead. Even with heightened awareness and appreciation around equity, opera companies have been slow to make deeper, more authentic community connections and embrace inclusive spaces. An exception to this rule is Opera Omaha, which has adopted dedicated civic practice into the fabric of its mission. The cornerstone of this focused engagement is the Holland Community Opera Fellowship, whose cohort of civic-minded Fellows serve the expressed needs of diverse partner organizations, most of whom operate in the human services arena.
The artists who work as Fellows – singers, writers, educators – are the community ambassadors for Opera Omaha’s strategic vision moving forward. It’s a simple yet profound belief that opera and the arts add value to a community’s quality of life in direct proportion to the intentional engagement they make. Through the program, which launched in 2017, Opera Omaha offers Fellows as resources to meet specific partner needs geared to the clients they serve. In the exchanges that follow, Opera Omaha staff actively listen to what partners need or hope to achieve. Then, together, Fellows and partners co-create interactive programming that aims to uplift and inspire. Personal creative expression flowers, barriers and stereotypes fall away, and participants get empowered to be the best version of themselves they can be. Relationships are made that transform the lives of individuals and organizations. It is about opera artists showing up as neighbors and guests in their own community in a spirit of collaboration and service.
This paradigm shift has made Opera Omaha a leader in civic practice among American opera companies and a model held up by Opera America for others to follow. Opera Omaha executive director Roger Weitz traces the program’s genesis to a 2014-2015 strategic planning process that identified civic practice as the means to truly connect with and make a positive difference with community.
"If we’re going to not just survive in the future but thrive in the future it’s imperative that we are relevant and accessible to more people than just those who choose to come to staged opera productions on the weekend," Weitz said. "Part of the underpinning of that is how do we thank our community; how do we show them that we appreciate and make use of the philanthropic support we get to be worthy of their support. If we want to really earn it, then we need to contribute to the community by more than just putting on operas at the Orpheum. As an organization we decided our mission is to significantly, legitimately contribute to our community to improve the quality of life of residents. That process was the beginning seed of this whole program."
The business of being a Fellow means intersecting with different communities and adapting to new realities
In their work as civic practitioners, Fellows make a two-year commitment to the company and the community. Experienced Fellows mentor newcomers. Presently, Opera Omaha has four active Fellows. Two are in their second and final year of the program. The other pair are in their first year. The selection process recently concluded for the next Fellowship class. Medici said the program draws ever greater interest nationally and internationally and attracts a strong candidate field.
Fellows bring their individual and collective expertise to work alongside experts and residents in the community.
"We select those artists who have expertise in their craft and passion to serve others," Weitz said. "They understand they're coming here to learn and to make this a truly collaborative co-creation, rather than them just coming in to present what they do. There’s nothing wrong with an artist wanting the attention and adulation that come with performing on stage, but that’s not what this program is about. It's a recognition of the fact that you don't have all the answers, you don't know what the community really needs until you meet with the community and get trained in what each partner organization does and who they serve. That training is a big part of what prepares our Fellows to work in community."
Opera Omaha’s cultivated some 40 community partners its Fellows engage with at various times. Partners inhabit a variety of locations and service missions, in keeping with the program’s tenet to meet people where they’re at, diversity in all its forms is embraced.
"Diversity doesn’t just mean having more people of color around, it means accepting everyone has differences and those differences should be celebrated," said first year Fellow Fernando Antonio Montejano. "We do workshops for many different communities. Sometimes that means differently abled communities, too."
Gotta Be Me, a nonprofit promoting the inclusion of adults with disabilities in community, worked with Fellows to write, produce and perform their very own rock opera. "During this process," GBM founder and executive director Tiffany Clifton said, "our all-abilities and disabilities crew learned how to sing from real professional opera singers, what it meant to block on stage, how to create sets, costumes, choreography, lighting set-ups, and so many more vocational-based tasks. We now have GBM crew members looking at how to work in the industry."
The pandemic’s caused the company to pivot from in-person to virtual programming, including moving Fellowship activities online.
"If we are to be resilient and relevant amid a pandemic that prevents in-person gatherings, then we are called upon to be an active part of our community in other ways," Medici said.
In their role as creative and artistic resources, Fellows facilitated an Intercultural Senior Center (ISC) music and art project to help foster a sense of connection during this time of isolation. Each of the 60 participants, representing a diverse range of cultural heritages, drew on his/her personal experience to choose a song that brings them joy and to create an artwork symbolizing what the song means to them. Opera Omaha graphic designer Rachel Austin contributed to the resulting Great ISC Songbook.
"This switch to teaching virtually is opening a lot of doors," Montejano said. "It’s reminding us there’s a bunch of technology we can use to try and reach people that we hadn’t thought about before. The possibilities are endless for the kinds of ways we can reach people and still make it meaningful."
"With engagement programming we’ve found there’s a lot of things that work better in a virtual space, such as our Poetry & Music project," said Lauren Medici. "We were able to do writing workshops for students across the state. Instead of offering this to just under a hundred students as before, we had over 500 students experience workshops from Omaha to Scottsbluff. Some of our partners are really digging online programming. They can be more themselves in those spaces."
Second year Fellow Gwenna Fairchild-Taylor, a singer, acknowledged, "Initially I wasn’t sold on virtual workshops. It shocked me when we started programming over Zoom and we were able to make the connections we usually make. All the things I value about the work we do can continue in this time even over Zoom and that’s sort of amazing. As a teaching artist it stretches me in how I read the room in what people are feeling and what they need. That’s been good for me to grow in this time."
The power of collaboration has never been so evident.
"We all knew a little bit about how to do virtual programming and we started throwing all that on the table and we put the pieces together," said Community Opera Fellowship manager Diego Plata, "and that’s how we started getting more comfortable. Collaboration keeps proving to be the key to provide a quality service to the community."
"The Fellowship team spends a lot of their time, especially during COVID, training and learning new skills, tools and resources," Medici said. "When you’re intentional about it, technology can shift from being a barrier to becoming an asset. I think it’s always going to be an option for us going forward. If partners want virtual programming, we now know how to do it. That’s in our wheelhouse and tool box."
Rooted in relationships
When assessing prospective partners, Weitz said, "after a few conversations about needs and services it becomes fairly obvious right away if there’s a partnership fit or not." Opera Omaha only brings the Fellowship to organizations that invite it and that truly have need it can address.
Once a partnership is set, Fellows immerse themselves in the mission, core values and procedures of the partner organization.
"The thing I appreciate most about the Fellowship is the care with which the whole team goes about learning, understanding and including the different identities of the folks that we serve," said singer and first year Fellow Nicholas Davis. "For me, being new to the community, I can’t give myself fully without understanding its parts. So just by the nature of doing the work, I already feel integrated into the Omaha community."
Medici said the chemistry that develops between Fellows, partners and participants doesn’t happen by accident. "The Fellows do a lot of planning and preparation behind the scenes to create those meaningful workshop experiences."
Fairchild-Taylor, a native of Canada, appreciates the intensive concentration the Fellowship provides.
"I was doing this sort of work in Canada in lots of different communities," she said. "I was pulled in many directions and I had many jobs. What drew me here was the opportunity to get to know one community and try to be of service in one place, namely Omaha, and the many communities that exist within it."
Singer Jared Hiscock. a second year Fellow and recent DMA graduate from the Glenn Korff School of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, did educational outreach before coming to Opera Omaha.
"I was going into schools and meeting kids, wanting to spend more time with them to empower them to express themselves through music, art and their own creative exploration," he said, "and I’m able to do that in the Fellowship living in one place and serving one community. I love building relationships and here I’m building relationships on multiple levels within the team and the community and I’m able to support my family doing that, which is incredible."
Montejano, a writer, previously worked with metro-area youth as a Nebraska Writers Collective teaching artist. He enjoys the expanded engagement opportunities the Fellowship affords.
"Getting to work with a bigger population in Omaha, not just youth but adults as well, allows me to go into other communities that I want to share creativity with," said Montejano, who has personal experience with some challenges participants face. "I didn’t grow up in the best way. I’ve seen what it looks like in communities where people are addicted or homeless or not living to the best of their means. Art was a big way of how I escaped the life I was living and was able to move forward and do better. I want to give that to as many people as I possibly can so that they can also move forward in a way that helps them release but also find something different than what they’re doing or going through now."
"I think the arts has a huge capacity to help people express themselves and grow and heal in all different sorts of ways. That’s been crucial in my own life, so I really love the opportunity to give that back in ways that are meaningful and needed by communities," Fairchild-Taylor said.
For Plata, who was a teaching artist in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Fellowship marked "a great opportunity to do that type of work at a bigger scale and to impact more people." Being of service through art is a higher calling as far as he’s concerned. "I love music. It’s what I’ve been doing my entire life. So, if I can be of service and still be close to the arts world then that’s perfect. That’s why this job is so exciting for me, as an immigrant and as a person of color I feel I have the responsibility to contribute to our society and to be of service to vulnerable populations."
Instead of a one-off, the Fellowship is an ongoing program whose Fellows are full-time staff members. Their embedded work within partner organizations is ongoing from year to year. Further giving the Fellowship stakeholder status within the company is the fact that a Community Panel member serves on and reports to the Opera Omaha board.
"We don't want to just jump in, do it, and then not," Weitz said. "The goal is to find long-term partners and to build lasting relationships. What makes the Fellowship different is that artists are contracted to do community engagement full-time with various partners – working with them multiple times on projects and activities, and thus building relationships. It’s about relationships and it’s about time and they have the time specifically for that relationship building work. which we didn't have before the Fellowship. Now we have artists who are staff and a core part of our company."
Hiscock echoes his Fellow mates in feeling affirmed by stakeholders he serves, saying, "I feel truly valued by the company and the community partners." Hiscock won’t soon forget "being told by a QLI participant they felt more secure in themselves and less inhibited in their body after doing an acting workshop with us or having a parent of a participant come to our holiday sharing and cry while expressing how grateful they were to see their child light up while singing."
Nicholas Davis loves how integrated the Fellowship is in the Opera Omaha culture and in the community in terms of fostering intimate relationships with colleagues and clients. "I had come from a mostly performance background and it’s hard to feel like you’re a part of something beyond just the show you’re doing at a given time. But in the Fellowship program I value the relationships we’re able to cultivate with different folks."
On a program level, Medici said anytime a partner credits the Fellows for helping achieve an organizational goal, it’s a win for Opera Omaha, too, in knowing it’s made a positive impact.
It is understood the workshops may elicit sensitive disclosures from service providers or clients at participating partner organizations, which include shelters (MICAH House, Sienna Francis House). The Fellows and Opera Omaha support staff recognize that some of what is shared is sacred and private. For those reasons, Weitz said, "some of this work is done in safe spaces and intimate settings behind closed doors."
"I have grown very attached to all of the women at MICAH House in addition to the work we do there," Fairchild-Taylor said. "I know we’re making a difference because participants tell us we make a difference in their lives – in their outlook and their situation."
Connecting with community
Weitz believes opera’s "unique combination of many different art forms has the power to connect through all these entry points – music, dramatics, writing, dance, design." "When our Fellows are engaging with the community," he said, "they have all the tools of opera to bring to bear to the work they're co-creating with partners."
"Pop culture," he said, "does a great job associating opera with the rich and elite and not at all as something that’s for everyone. What better way to push back on all of this than through the work of the Holland Fellows. Opera is storytelling and the Fellowship is a vehicle for facilitating people telling their stories and having their voices heard. It’s an empowering thing and opera serves as the conduit and the Fellows as the catalysts to make that happen."
If one is serious about reckoning with equity and inclusion, then everyone’s voice should matter, which is exactly what the Fellowship program celebrates.
Opera Omaha doesn’t pretend it can solve systemic racism, chronic poverty, much less housing, employment, education or healthcare disparities, but it can be a convener for conversations about disproportionality and diversity.
On a practical level, Opera Omaha’s seen the number of people it engages with more than double due to the community workshops the Fellows conduct. As partnerships have grown across a broad spectrum of the community, the organization has expanded its own and others’ definition of what an opera company is and does.
"The Fellowship reaches more people than our mainstage productions do, which is what people traditionally think of as opera. Now there are all these different ways and settings in which people interact with Opera Omaha and increasingly those people and places are a part of who we are," said Medici.
In Omaha, at least, opera’s becoming synonymous with community service. That sea change in perception and practice is still in progress and its evolution may lead to ever more permutations. Meanwhile, as the rest of the opera world plays catch-up and looks to Omaha for direction on how to be good civic practitioners, the Holland Fellows roll up their sleeves and do the right thing.