Iowa City – One of the newest theatre companies in the area is Old Capitol Opera. Last year, they produced the musical Chicago, and more recently staged a night of two short operas – Hansel and Gretel and The Impresario. We had the opportunity to ask founder Megan O’Brien about the company.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
I am originally from Spencer Iowa, but I tell people who are unfamiliar with Northwest Iowa that I’m from Okoboji, which is where I usually spend my “vacations.” I am actually an Iowa alumn, and received my Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance at the University of Iowa. I then went to UNI to get my Master of Music, and the day after I walked across the stage for my diploma, I drove right back down to Iowa City to open my voice studio O’Brien Studios in May of 2012. I have lived in Iowa City for a total of 9 years, and definitely consider this to be my adopted home. I have been involved in quite a few opera programs throughout the years including Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, Asolo Song Festival (Italy) and Opera NEO (San Diego). I have been singing professionally for about 8 years, and many would classify me as a Dramatic Coloratura –however I’m willing to sing everything from Velma (Chicago) to the Queen of the Night (The Magic Flute). Although being a singer is my first love, being a teacher -of voice, stage, and performance- is my destiny.
Why did you decide to start an opera company?
As an opera singer, I don’t fit the usual mold. I am not naturally competitive, and I have little motivation to keep traveling across the country for auditions. Once any singer is out of grad school, the opera world becomes a scary place, so I wanted to offer performance opportunities to my ridiculously talented colleagues in order to fill their professional resume. I was raised in a family of entrepreneurs and business owners, so being successful in my world means to build something out of nothing. I love singing, teaching and directing, so it only made sense for me to start a company where I could perform on my own schedule, and give performance opportunities to my students and my colleagues. Old Capitol Opera has always been my goal. I’ve had the name in my mind for about five years, and the opportunity arose when I got the idea stuck in my mind to produce Chicago: The Musical. From some sort of miracle, the stars aligned and I luckily secured the rights for Chicago, AND convinced the Englert Theatre that I can put on a good show (and I don’t mean to brag, but it really was an overwhelming success!) Because I wanted my students to be involved, I originally was going to produce the musical through O’Brien Studios, but decided to take the plunge, and began Old Capitol Opera LLC, although we are now a non-profit organization (OCO, Inc.) based in education. I also utilize local talent by turning those professionals into teaching artists who educate younger students of the arts. I also fervently believe in paying professional level musicians… with money! (Not just exposure) OCO’s mission is to involve as many local artists as possible and offer a collaborative educational experience between all levels of performers.
Who is involved? Do you have a board of directors?
You may not be surprised to find out that I play both roles of Executive Director and Artistic Director, while also acting as the Stage Director and Producer of every production. We do have a Board of Directors. Jill Beardsley is our Secretary and acts as our costume designer as well as choreographer; Justin Evans is also involved in the board, and helps with marketing and networking. We are open to finding one or two more members who are a good fit, and really care about OCO’s success. I hope someday we will be financially ready to take on a Managing Director who can help unload some of my responsibilities, however since this organization is my baby I have not yet lost my love for being in charge…of everything!
I noticed that your first show was Chicago and this summer’s show is West Side Story. Neither of those shows are ‘operas’ per se, though neither has been done in the Iowa City area for quite a while. How do they fit into your mission?
They are definitely not operas, you are correct! But in today’s world, many opera companies are adding musical theatre productions to their seasons, because, frankly, it’s what the audience wants to see. I also want to note that duos like Gilbert & Sullivan, Rogers & Hammerstein, and composers such as Kurt Weill and our very own Leonard Bernstein (West Side Story), were forward thinkers by evolving the genre, and ultimately straddling the fence between opera and musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim then continued this evolution, and the rest is history! When it comes to our Musical Theatre Boot-Camp that OCO holds every August, we are able to attract younger students with famous Broadway hits, and also get them involved in a plethora of classes (Acting, Voice, Comedy, Dance etc…) that can only be combined in this one genre that we call Musical Theatre. For this reason and many more, these shows are necessary to continue our mission. We also hire classically trained singers who can show the audience what it is like to have a bigger voice behind these roles. *Refer to: Kevin Blakeslee in the role of Billy Flynn (Chicago 2014) hitting a high B natural, that lasted 8 measures (or so), at the end of “All I Care About Is Love.”* I want to make sure I find the right mix of singer/actor for all upcoming roles, and with West Side Story, it is almost necessary for Tony and Maria to be classically trained.
Can you tell us a little bit about your upcoming production of West Side Story? I heard a rumor that the lead is being played by one of City High’s choir directors? True? Who is directing West Side Story?
For the next three months, I will be talking of nothing but West Side Story! We just held our “Last Chance” auditions on Sunday June 7, and those who came out of the woodwork to audition were so very VERY talented! We are still looking to cast two more men, but the rest of the cast is phenomenal. OCO has the perfect mixture of beginners, dabblers, semi-pro, and professionals. And yes you are correct about James Thompson, a choir director at City High, playing the lead role of “Tony.” You will have to come to the show, to read his incredibly impressive resume. Mr. Thompson is also hired as a teaching artist for the boot-camp, and will be acting as the choir director for rehearsals. Let me add another element of excitement and intrigue – we also cast the Regina High choir director, Caroline Marcotte, to play the role of “Maria”! To everyone’s surprise, I again will be the stage director of this production (Chicago was Co-Directed with Ken Van Egdon), as well as playing the firey role of “Anita.” Our choreographers for this production are none other than Doug and Jill Beardsley, and just like last year all of the rehearsals will take place within a two-week time period from August 3-15th! (Performances August 21-23 & 28-30) Some people call me crazy, I say I’m just crazy enough!
This year’s children’s outreach was so much fun, and had a very successful children’s matinee for Hansel and Gretel. Next year we are planning to produce Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and I have plans to include a truncated “Story Time” performance for the children’s matinee, where the three Spirits tell an interactive story book version of the production. As development continues throughout this year, I am sure we will be inspired with many more ideas to get kids involved!
I also noticed part of your mission is to mentor amateurs, age 14 and up. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
You are referring to our Musical Theatre Boot-Camp that not only rehearses for two weeks, but includes classes for students ages 14 and up with Acting Workshops, Voice Masterclasses, Stage Craft & Improvisation, Stage Combat, and Yoga/Pilates/Zumba to keep their bodies healthy and active, while also promoting performance energy throughout the rehearsal process. We are an education based non-profit, so our responsibility is to keep teaching students of the arts!
What’s on the slate after West Side Story?
Our Black Tie Gala at the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts (November 2015), our Christmas Caroling Quartet (Holidays 2015), a Cabaret Fundraiser (April 2016) Mozart’s The Magic Flute (May 2016) and there are rumors that our boot-camp next year will be a production of Rogers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music (August 2016). We definitely want to make sure our shows are of the highest quality, so we chose not to fill the year with productions, but instead we add a smattering of smaller interactive performances to complement our bigger shows.
Where would you like to see Old Capitol Opera in 10 years?
It is definitely a dream of OCO’s to have its own rehearsal space, and even its own opera house! I personally, would love to have a full roster of employees to help make this organization run like a well-oiled machine. We want to be a staple in the Iowa City community and I hope that we will become as highly regarded as the other wonderful theatre companies in the area.
What else would like us to know about Old Capitol Opera?
As a theatre company, we could not make these shows possible without community support, and are always eagerly looking for patrons of the arts. If you feel as though Old Capitol Opera has potential, and you believe in furthering our mission please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.