You had to strain—hard—to hear the young woman from the Ollie Webb Center, Inc., an Omaha nonprofit for people with developmental or intellectual disabilities. So soft-spoken and reserved, she was barely audible when she showed up for her first workshop with Opera Omaha’s Holland Community Opera Fellowship.
Fast forward one year after a few of Opera Omaha’s engagements with vulnerable populations across the community, and the young woman was singing a solo and dancing in Ollie Webb Center, Inc.’s musical production in front of three packed houses in an auditorium of hundreds. “Her family talked with our Fellow after the show, and her dad was weeping,” said Lauren Medici, Opera Omaha’s Director of Engagement Programs. “He was so proud and grateful for the transformation he had seen in her. You could see this was going to impact the life of this young woman and her family every day.”
The faces and stories of that kind of life-altering impact are too many to count at the six-year juncture of Opera Omaha’s Holland Community Opera Fellowship, an innovative approach to community engagement that is becoming a model for opera companies nationwide. As full-time Fellows collaborate and co-create arts-based programming with community partners such as the Intercultural Senior Center, the MICAH House for women and families facing homelessness, Sarpy County Juvenile Justice Center, QLI, St. Joseph Tower Assisted Living, and Nelson Mandela Elementary School, Opera Omaha’s groundbreaking program has been recognized by OPERA America as a national leader in civic practice.
“It’s so exciting to be a joy-bringer,” said Taylor Adams, one of the Fellows who grew up in Omaha and has worked at Opera Omaha since college. “We talk about people having the right to anticipate, and it’s awesome when people look forward to seeing you and creating with you. What’s better to hear than, ‘I was so excited you were coming, that I got out of my bedroom and made this funky Greek mask.’ That’s so cool.”
There are four current Fellows from diverse artistic backgrounds—Adams, Beatrice, NE, native Charisa Ramsey, Alejandra Sandoval-Montañez from El Paso, TX, and Jazmin Salaberrios from Delaware—who mash up a diverse mix of creative opera elements such as art, music, design, writing, storytelling, and classical vocal performance, to address pressing social issues such as homelessness, accessibility and inclusion within disability services, immigration and refugee resettlement, incarceration and recidivism, and early childhood education.
Fellows are full-time Opera Omaha staff with benefits—a unique distinction that helps attract high-level talent. All programming offered to community partners is paid for by philanthropy, making it free to participating organizations. “The Holland Community Opera Fellowship is open to arts of any discipline, but early-on, it primarily featured singing,” said Ramsey, who has an undergraduate degree in theater performance and a Masters in theater curriculum and instruction. “As we’ve connected more of the artistic practices of opera, there is more potential to impact our partners and programming in broader ways.”
As each new season begins in the fall, the civic-minded Fellows meet with community partners to determine their greatest needs with vulnerable people groups that span the spectrum from 18 months to aging populations, refugees from Ukraine to adults with disabilities, school children to youth involved in the juvenile justice system. There is never a one-size-fits-all or “here’s-what-we-have-to-offer” approach. Each onsite engagement at partner locations is unique, with Fellows having the flexibility to bring their creativity and develop custom-fit programs to meet the needs of recipients and the goals of the partners for their populations.
For Ollie Webb participants, that may mean creating and directing their own opera. For seniors at the Intercultural Senior Center, they may create flowers with craft paper to brighten their room and calm their stress. At MICAH House, programs may be designed to help women experiencing homelessness develop confidence and connection while bringing them joy and distraction from their circumstances.
“The Fellowship is a huge benefit to both us and our partners because it’s so collaborative and we focus on their partner needs and goals first,” said Wendy Kaiser, Holland Community Opera Fellowship Manager. “The ideas and goals they want to accomplish are always the starting point for how Fellows can bring their tools to help support that. We listen to them to hear their voice as the expert.”
The Fellows’ efforts to “use empathy to connect with people,” according to Salaberrios, is shattering stereotypes of opera as high-brow, elitist entertainment that only the privileged few can access and appreciate. The Fellows put the many artistic elements of opera on the shelf where all can contribute, transformation is possible, and all are welcome. Community partners are offered free tickets to Opera Omaha performances, and program participants often accept and are delighted to see a friendly face in their Fellow at an event they would have considered off-limits before.
“It’s hard to break the stigma of what opera is and who it’s for,” Salaberrios concluded. “But the intimate moments we can have by connecting through the arts is creating unique breakthroughs. We break barriers of access and representation for people who don’t believe they should have access and representation. It’s rewarding and beautiful.”
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