I’m Leigh Holman (DMAMus’03), director of the CU-Boulder opera program, and I remember the career path that eventually led me back to CU. It’s always difficult to leave a magical place like Boulder, but I was excited to find a very good academic job even before I received my degree.
I was hired as chairperson of the voice area and founder/director of the opera program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. I was there for three years and really enjoyed my work. Then my husband was offered a job in Boulder. The day we moved I was offered an adjunct faculty position at CU.
Several things drew us back to Boulder: the university, the students, the faculty and Niwot’s curse.* On a personal note, my grandparents both attended CU-Boulder in the 1920s. William Bradley (A&S ex’27) and Gwendolyn Bone (A&S’30) met at CU, fell in love and eloped in Central City. They were married a year later while still at CU, before they told anyone about the relationship. The fact that my grandmother graduated was quite a remarkable accomplishment for a woman in the 1920s! Needless to say, the university holds a special place in my heart, and moreover the talent, excitement and possibilities here are endless.
I stayed in the adjunct position for a year before going to work as director of the Young Artists/Education Department at Opera Colorado in Denver. I worked with aspiring young opera singers in a training and outreach capacity, and had the opportunity to assist well known opera directors such as James Robinson and Ron Daniels. Then, in 2009, the CU-Boulder opera director position opened up at CU. I just had to apply. I joined the faculty as an assistant professor in the fall of 2009.
I loved my work at Opera Colorado. I had the opportunity to train young artists, stage direct their touring shows, assistant direct for the mainstage productions and develop wonderful relationships with all types of people. I’m directing a show in Italy this August (see below) and the connection I made with an Italian conductor at Opera Colorado led to this opportunity. It was a wonderful experience.
My musical career had started many years earlier. I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, Trenton, population 4,000. I applied to three universities out of state, and let me tell you, it was very uncommon to do so. Deciding to go away to a big music school was pretty controversial around town. I was offered scholarships at Carnegie Mellon, NYU and the University of Southern California. I chose USC because it had an outstanding voice department andI couldn’t wait to live at the beach! Ah, the foolishness of an up-and-coming mezzo-soprano. But I got a great education there, experienced a very different culture and learned to love USC football. Now that we’re in the Pac-12, I’m going to have to run back and forth to cheer on each side of the field!
But back to the present. I can summarize it all by saying that during the past many years it’s been a great pleasure to direct or assistant direct many operatic and musical theater scenes spanning from the Baroque period to contemporary American works.
I’m surrounded by visionaries, and that spirit comes from the top. Daniel Sher, dean of the college of music, is a visionary. He likes to take risks, grow and keep students first in all we do. That paradigm resonates with me and of course, I was more than thrilled to be offered the opportunity to build a career in directing, research and teaching at Cu.
Among other visionaries at the college of music is Patrick Mason, baritone and voice faculty member. He believes in developing new work but more importantly he understands that introducing our students to the process of working with living composers is invaluable.
The students are the true visionaries though. They bring their talents to the table, have the energy, youth and wide-eyed optimism to see what is possible. But in talking about visionaries, I’m afraid we’ve opened a can of worms. I could go on for pages about all of the people, including the entire voice and opera faculty, that work together to make CU Opera exciting. We’ve even pulled former CU Opera director Robert Spillman out of retirement to join our team!
We’ve recently started a program in the summer celebrating and performing brand-new American operatic works, called CU NOW. We’ll be performing in the Black Box Theater in the basement of the ATLAS building using all kinds of cool technical gadgets in an intimate setting. Our summer audiences have the chance to participate in talk backs with the composers and performers after every performance, and their questions and feedback really influence the shape of these works in progress.
CU New Opera Workshop grew from a project I worked on at Opera Colorado and brought to CU when I came back two years ago. It’s my baby and I’m VERY excited about it. It’s something I can give back to help develop the art form further in this country. We know it is valuable to composers to have the opportunity to workshop their new operas, but more importantly, it’s invaluable to our students to work with living composers. I often refer to CU NOW as a mini Conference on World Affairs for opera. The process is exciting as well as the feedback the composers, artists and design/production team get from the audience following every show. I couldn’t be more thrilled to be a part of this in the summer at CU.
This month, opera composers Kirke Mechem (Pride and Prejudice) and Herschel Garfein (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: The Opera) will arrive on campus to work with our students to help make these two new works come to life on stage. Our students will have the chance to inhabit some of literature’s most famous characters within new operas this summer, from Elizabeth and Darcy to Hamlet and the Player King.
In August, we will begin a year-long collaboration with the Piccolo Festival in the Friuli region of Italy. I’ll be directing Rossini’s Il cambiale di matrimonio, and four of our students will sing there as well. We decided to make the upcoming opera season at CU a celebration of Italian opera and will present Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica (a double bill), then close our season with a remount of Il cambiale di matrimonio after this production’s summer premiere in Italy. It’s sure to be an exciting and busy year!
For more information or tickets to any CU Opera or CU NOW events, call 303-492-8008 or go here .
*Chief Niwot, or Lefthand (c. 1825-1864) was a tribal leader of the Southern Arapaho people who lived where Boulder is today. He is purported to have said, “People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”