Project Jumpstart

Entrepreneur of the Month

New Voices Opera

Entrepreneur of the Month

New Voices Opera

Emergent. Relevant. Opera... written, performed, and produced by Jacobs School of Music students!

New Voices Opera was founded in 2012 by Chappell Kingsland to produce his doctoral thesis project Intoxication: America’s Love Affair with Oil. Since then, the organization has grown into a full student-run company that premieres two operas each year and trains young professionals in all aspects of opera production, from composing and performing to designing, directing, and administrating.

Ben SmithProject Jumpstart sat down with NVO’s Executive Director Benjamin Smith, a current doctoral student in the Jacobs School's voice department, to talk about the organization’s current work and its exciting plans for the future.


Project Jumpstart: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Ben! Can you walk us through the process of putting on an NVO production? What are you looking for when you choose which operas to perform, and what is involved in producing the chosen works?

Benjamin Smith: That’s a big question! Remember that NVO handles all aspects of producing the operas. This means everything from selecting the operas, casting, marketing and publicity, audience development, fund development, and all of the artistic design for the production from lighting to scenic design. There are so many pieces and parts that have to come together just right and at just the right time. The board works tirelessly all year round to make it all happen… so that when it comes time for the fun part, the creative, artistic side of the production, we have the resources available to us.

Reuben Walker and Natalie Weinberg in last year's NVO production of Ile.

Reuben Walker and Natalie Weinberg in last year's NVO production of Ile, by Ezra Donner.

The selection process starts with the Fall Exhibition the year before when composers submit scenes for consideration. When selecting the operas, we consider several criteria. Most important is relevant storytelling and a solid libretto. New American opera needs to speak to today's audiences and the communities in which the pieces are performed. We also consider the available performing forces: the number of singers needed, the size of the orchestra, and the feasibility of the score.

Once the pieces are selected (we like to choose two operas for a double bill to get more people involved), it's time to nail down personnel, including rehearsal pianists, scenic, sound, lighting, and costume designers, stage management, props master, and a director. Our music director usually doubles as the conductor. The composers submit the opera in stages for review, from piano/vocal, full score, to individual parts, and in the meantime we cast our singers and gather an orchestra. Then it's off to the races with designing, fundraising, marketing, and rehearsals. In whole, the process takes about two years from the call for scores to the actual production.

Project Jumpstart: What drew you to this year’s operas? What can audiences expect to see in May?

Benjamin Smith: This was a big transition year for us as we extended our timeline,  selecting operas for this year as well as next year’s productions. For this spring, we have chosen two one-act operas that will provide a cohesive theme for the evening: Kimberly Osberg’s Thump and Melody Eötvös’ The King in Yellow. This is the most cerebral and challenging music we’ve ever attempted. Thump is a psychodrama exploring the inner conflict in the character from Edgar Allen Poe’s “A Tell-Tale Heart.” The King in Yellow is a vignette from the collection of short stories by Robert Chambers with the same title. The opera's libretto focuses on one of the most intriguing stories from the collection, “The Mask,” a story of love and loss with a little sci-fi thrown in. Both stories combine to make an evening of complex drama and intrigue that is unlike any evening NVO has presented thus far.

Jake Gadomski and Bruno Sandes in last year's NVO production of Ile, by Ezra Donner.

Jake Gadomski and Bruno Sandes in last year's NVO production of Ile, by Ezra Donner.

Project Jumpstart: This year, New Voices Opera has added a National Honorary Advisory Board featuring several nationally renowned members of the operatic community. Can you tell us more about this board and how New Voices Opera has incorporated them?

Benjamin Smith: The formation of the board was possibly the biggest stepping stone this year and it all stemmed from a conversation with Ned Canty, the General Director of Opera Memphis, who was in Bloomington to direct The Last Savage with IU Opera Theater. He suggested a board of nationally acclaimed individuals in the opera world that could help guide NVO’s long term planning. The next week, I drove to Cincinnati and had the great honor of sitting down with Jake Heggie to talk about NVO. He was extremely excited about what we were doing here in Bloomington and agreed to join the board. He and Ned then put me in touch with Charles Jarden, the General Director of American Opera Projects, and after a few email exchanges, he also agreed to join the board. They have helped us plan for more community involvement, as well as look into options for regional and national expansion for the organizational model. It is absolutely invaluable to be able to bounce ideas and concepts for projects and initiatives off of this board and take their experience and advice to heart. We will be looking to expand the board in the future.

Robert Gerold as villain Retrograde in last year's NVO production of Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris, by Eric Lindsay.

Robert Gerold as villain Retrograde in last year's NVO production of Cosmic Ray and the Amazing Chris, by Eric Lindsay.

Project Jumpstart: What are some of the different ways Jacobs School of Music students can get involved with NVO or otherwise support the organization?

Benjamin Smith: There are so many needs and niches that NVO fills and we utilize about 50 talented students throughout the year. Going forward, we have several projects planned which include vocalists and pianists as well as the orchestra for the double bill. Aside from performers, we are always looking for designers for costumes, lights, sound (if needed), and set, as well as stage management. The next level of involvement would be in the administration. Currently we have a board of seven students and one alumni that run the organization in positions that include the Executive Director, Artistic Director, Music Director, Director of Development, Associate Director of Development, Associate Development of Marketing, Production Manager, and Business Manager. A few positions open up each year and we are always looking for eager and energetic individuals who want to expand their skill-set and guide the organization.

Students can also volunteer their time during tech week with load-in and strike, and can help the creative team with construction, paint, and light hanging and focusing. Spreading the word and helping with audience development is another crucial outlet where we always welcome help. If students believe in what we are doing here at NVO and want to get involved, we do our best to make a place for them.

Composers and performers take a bow after the 2014 NVO Fall Exhibition.

Composers and performers take a bow after the 2014 NVO Fall Exhibition.

Project Jumpstart: What's the next step for NVO? What can we look forward to seeing from the company in the future?

Benjamin Smith: We have big dreams for the distant future of the organization and will continue to consult with our board, but in the next year we hope to expand the administrative side to include much needed positions, especially in music direction and development. Along with expanding personnel, we plan to hold more workshops and projects throughout the year that connect NVO more meaningfully to the community. We had such good response from our Impressions of Brown County concert and are excited to design more creative and culturally relevant performance opportunities in Bloomington and the region. In the same vein, I hope to pull together a community advisory board this summer that will guide long-term initiatives. The more opportunities we can create for students to expand their experiences in the community, the better we are doing our job. We have already selected the operas for the 2016 season, but you’ll have to come the 2015 Double Bill to hear the announcement!

Benjamin Smith presents NVO's business plan at the Project Jumpstart Innovation Competition.

Benjamin Smith presents NVO's business plan at the Project Jumpstart Innovation Competition

For the long term future of the organization, we've taken a few exciting first steps: Recently, I competed in two major innovation competitions here on campus. The first was alongside the Director Development for NVO, Olivia Savage, as we competed in the Project Jumpstart Innovation Competition where we were selected as finalists. The second competition was the Clapp IDEA Competition at the Kelley School of Business where I presented a feasibility plan for possible regional and national expansion of the organizational model. NVO was named a winner of the IDEA Competition and was awarded a space in the Hoosier Hatchery, a small business incubator here in Bloomington. This an important first step for the expansion of the organization and a wonderful show of support from entrepreneurial minds in this community.

We will keep our focus on the students, on creating innovative and beneficial performance and learning opportunities that will train performers and composers as professionals for the world they will soon enter. We all need to be our own version of entrepreneurs and NVO is another outlet, another tool students can utilize in their time here to gain skills and experiences they will use for the rest of their lives. NVO amplifies the tremendous education we are all receiving here at the Jacobs School of Music and the project propels us forward to new frontiers and bridges gaps between disciplines and departments. Collaboration and innovation are keys to success and we should all have the opportunity to see what doors they will open.

You can support NVO’s continued entrepreneurial success by donating to the organization here or by attending the 2015 NVO Double Bill at 7:00 pm on May 8th at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater. Admission is free with a suggested $10 donation.


Project Jumpstart partners with the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at the IU Kelley School of Business.