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Voicing a love for opera

Ashleigh Semkiw American soprano who sang role VavChicago
OperTheater's recent spring producti'Moscow Cheryomushki' with
Jerry Tietz GM for company. Tietz grew up

Ashleigh Semkiw, American soprano who sang the role of Vava in Chicago Opera Theater's recent spring production of "Moscow, Cheryomushki" with Jerry Tietz, GM for the company. Tietz grew up in Naperville and graduated from Neuqua Valley High School.

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Updated: October 5, 2012 6:10AM

For Jerry Tietz, a night at the opera is a day at the office.

And Tietz’s journey to his job as general manager of Chicago Opera Theater — which is presenting Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” Sept. 15, 19, 21, and 23 — began with violin lessons and was nurtured in Naperville.

“I’ve been a Naperville boy since middle school (Gregory), and was in the first graduating class from Neuqua Valley, after spending my freshman year at Waubonsie. My parents are still in Naperville, too, and I find myself there often,” Tietz said.

While studying violin at an early age, Tietz only took to theatrical music his last two years in high school, landing the leads in “Oklahoma” and “Anything Goes.”

Still, his plans were to study the stringed instrument in college with dreams of one day becoming a conductor. To reach that goal, he auditioned at several schools and decided to attend Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where he felt he could “get his hands dirty” — that is, have more direct experience than he would at a school with a larger program.

Along the way, Tietz wound up switching from violin to voice.

“What that did was allow me to speak a different (musical) language, and it opened the entire world of theater for me,” he said.

He also got involved stage managing a program at the school where students stage a show featuring scenes from operas.

Glimmer of change

To this point, Tietz said, no one had suggested the business side of music as a career option. Then, during his fourth year of studies, mentor and music professor Bonnie Koestner asked him if he was heading to grad school, mentioned arts administration and helped set up an independent study project where he could pick the brains of people involved in opera.

That led to contact with Nick Russell, artistic director at Glimmerglass Festival, an annual summer opera event in upstate New York.

Russell let Tietz sit in on an auditions being held in Chicago for a young artists program at Glimmerglass.

“That was so cool,” Tietz said.

So cool, in fact, that in 2005 Russell offered Tietz a low-paying entry-level internship with the company that led to a full-time job as artistic coordinator after his first summer.

A bit burnt out, Tietz left for Nashville at the end of 2005 to join friends in an alternative folk band — a move that lasted about six months. Tietz said he called his replacement at Glimmerglass, and with neither feeling they were in the right place, orchestrated his return to the opera company.

For more than a year, Tietz said, his job was as logistics manager, overseeing the handling of singers brought in for shows and about 100 personnel.

From there, Tietz’s career took him to New York an a position as an artist manager for singers at Barrett Vantage Artists. While that taught Tietz the art of the deal, “I ultimately discovered I was better at the administrative side of the business,” he said.

So, in September 2010, he returned to the Midwest and Chicago Opera Theater, which performs at The Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park. Already, he has held three titles — artistic administrator, director of artistic operation, and now general manager. His current role is a nuts and bolts one, Tietz said, working with the company’s departments and board, being a public face for the operation, and providing the engineering behind the general director’s artistic vision.

“The Magic Flute” was chosen by former general director Brian Dickie, who left the company on June 1 and thus will be the last production of his 13-year tenure.

Dickie’s replacement is Andreas Mitisek, who comes to Chicago from the Long Beach Opera, where he will be splitting time and where he has staged operas in parking garages and a swimming pool.

Seeking new fans

While the company will stage three operas in 2013 — in winter, spring and fall — the following year, the plan will be to offer one in a non-traditional setting, too, Tietz said.

That’s in keeping with Chicago Opera Theater’s goal of converting those who have never been to an opera to becoming fans.

“We’re very much impassioned about stripping away stereotypes so that non-opera lovers can hear and enjoy opera,” Tietz said.

As such, the intention is that shows are not gimmicky but presented in a way worth the dollars that patrons spend, Tietz said, with the realization that not all composers will be to everyone’s tastes but “you’ll come (back) because of the way we are telling the story.”

And another aim is to cultivate a following among people in their 20s and 30s. To that end, the company has occasional “Beers and Baritones” outings at Chicago bars that are part of its Opera Underground, a club for young adults who socialize and enjoy culture.

Regarding “The Magic Flute,” performances will be sung in English, and the setting will not be in some quasi-Egyptian, Masonic landscape but be given a stripped-down but “cosmic backdrop,” Tietz said, and the cast will feature rising tenor star Sean Panniker in the leading role of Tamino.

And while he works to bring opera to new audiences, Tietz said he hopes educators will take to realizing that music offers more career paths than the concert stage or the classroom, bringing students to the business side of their passion.

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