MIOpera Summer Season Preview
We sat down with John and Tracy Koch, founders and directors of MIOpera, to learn more about the Bloomington–Normal opera company and its upcoming summer season. The husband-and-wife duo founded MIOpera in 2011 as the Midwest Institute of Opera, a training program for singers, conductors, and pianists still in school or early in their careers. Participants learned, coached, and performed full opera roles in their original language under the tutelage of seasoned professionals. The institute was operated under the auspices of Illinois State University, where John has been on the vocal faculty since 1997.
The Kochs first had the idea to start the Midwest Institute of Opera when they were driving home from a summer young artist program where they had been on the teaching staff. “The program was run so poorly,” Tracy said. “I’m watching these singers and their living conditions. The scheduling was crazy, and people were exhausted. [John] actually got sick from the venue that we stayed at.”
Unfortunately, this experience is all too common for singers at young artist programs, which are considered a necessary stepping stone between undergraduate/graduate programs and a professional opera career. The opera companies that run these programs promise their young artists training with top teachers and coaches, performance opportunities, and professional connections that will help launch their careers. In reality, these young singers are all to often overworked, underpaid (if paid at all), mistreated, and leave having not received the support, stage experience, or tutelage they expected.
John and Tracy were determined to do something about this. “As we were leaving this emerging artist program,” Tracy continued, “I looked at [John] and said, ‘No, we can do better. And I think that we need to do better for these young emerging artists.’” The Midwestern Institute of Opera was thus created to give young singers an opportunity to perform a full opera role, which many universities—and even young artist programs—cannot provide everyone. In addition to performing experience, participants also gained the practical and interpersonal skills needed to launch and sustain a professional career.
As the program developed and the patron base increased, John and Tracy decided in 2019 to strike out on their own and turn the Midwest Institute of Opera into a professional opera company for emerging artists. Retaining the initials of Midwest Institute of Opera, MIOpera (pronounced “mee-oh opera,” “mio” being the Italian word for “my”) was born, becoming the only professional opera company in Illinois south of Chicago and north of St. Louis. John serves as the company’s general director, while Tracy acts as the artistic director and resident stage director for the company’s productions.
Though MIOpera is still focused on nurturing the careers of young artists, the singers the company now engages are often in the transition stage between being a young artist and a professional or have just embarked on their professional careers. Many have already won major competitions and participated in prestigious training programs but need more professional credits on their résumés. At MIOpera, these emerging professionals have the opportunity get a role under their belt that will serve them well later in their careers. Tracy explained that many go on to sing the role at other regional companies or bigger houses. “For us, it’s about getting them to do the role more than once,” she said. “We’re building careers.”
MIOpera also launched a vocal competition in 2019. The competition, which went online during the pandemic and will stay virtual going forward, has attracted applicants from all over the world. “Many singers that I would never have heard or discovered came through our competition,” Tracy said. These singers are then often hired for MIOpera’s productions or recital series, Music at the Manor. “That’s more experience, more work, and more chances to improve their craft and to get their name and voice out there,” she added.
MIOpera’s 2023 summer season begins with the beloved Gilbert and Sullivan classic The Pirates of Penzance (June 23, 24, 25). Tracy, who will be stage directing, calls it “one of the best comic operettas ever written” and likens it to Monty Python. The story centers around Frederic, a pirate apprentice indentured to the Pirate King until his 21st birthday, and his love interest, Mable, the daughter of Major-General Stanley. Hilarity and hijinks ensue when Frederic discovers his birthday actually falls on Leap Day—February 29—meaning his 21st birthday technically won’t occur for decades. Torn between his sense of duty and his love for Mable, Frederic is in a predicament: will he and Mable find their happily ever after?
When asked what audience members can expect when they walk into the theater, Tracy said, “Number one is live orchestra.” Though you might think this was a given, she explained that many productions these days, especially in musical theater, use prerecorded instrumental tracks. Working with an orchestra is not only integral to MIOpera’s mission of giving its singers the professional experience they need, but it also ensures the production is on the same level as that of a regional opera house or traveling musical theater company.
Never been to an opera before? Fear not. “You’re going to be received warmly by our staff and our ushers,” Tracy assured. “People think opera is stuffy, but I’m probably the least stuffy person you’ll ever meet! …You’re going to get a night of fun and gorgeous voices and stunning music.”
Plus, MIOpera has a new home this year in the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts. When the company was starting out, the operas were staged in schools and at a community college. “Every venue that we’ve had we were able to utilize and make work for us,” Tracy explained. “But now that we’re in this actual theater…it’s just given us that extra boost and extra exposure to get more people involved.” The grander scale of the theater also allows for more elaborate sets and projections, so you can expect “all the fireworks that you would normally see at a really good regional company,” Tracy added.
Later in the season will be Charles Gounod’s adaptation of the Shakespeare tragedy Romeo and Juliet (July 21, 22, 23). The French opera will be a total contrast to The Pirates of Penzance both musically and dramatically. Though Tracy assured that the opera has its lighter moments, she said, “If you know me as a director, I get very dark…What you’re going to feel on the stage is tension—tension between love and hate, tension between families, tension between characters.”
One of MIOpera’s core missions is collaborating with other nonprofits and arts organizations in the area. For Romeo and Juliet, MIOpera will be working with the Springfield Ballet Company. MIOpera also partnered with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra last February in a concert titled “Scintillating Shakespeare.” Soprano Madison King and tenor Carl Rosenthal sang excerpts from Romeo and Juliet and other operatic settings of Shakespeare to give audiences a preview of the vocal talent that will grace the stage this summer. John and Tracy believe such collaboration not only increases the burgeoning opera company’s reach but is also a way for arts organizations to bolster each other.
You can purchase tickets for MIOpera’s summer season here. Keep an eye on your Clef Notes newsletter for more details regarding MIOpera’s fall show, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which will run November 17–19.