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The Rebirth of (Light) Opera in Reno

Published June 21, 2024

The Rebirth of (Light) Opera in Reno

by Dennyse Sewell

Those of you who are longtime northern Nevada residents know that Reno used to be home to a robust and thriving opera community. Founded in 1967, the Nevada Opera Association was a resident company of the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts for over 45 years. Our historic stage hosted multiple lush, full opera productions from the Nevada Opera Association every year until 2013, when the final performance of Don Giovanni played to rapturous audiences in May of that year.

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Nevada Opera Association’s production of The Merry Widow in 2005; photo credit Stuart Murtland

Opera is well-known for being an expensive art form, with budgets requiring the costumes, sets, and backdrops of live theater combined with a full orchestra and classically trained dancers. This creates a romantic and immersive experience, but it also makes touring productions very difficult given the significant size of the cast and crew. Reno was incredibly fortunate to have a robust opera community for nearly a half-century right here in our hometown, and the absence of Nevada Opera Association from the cultural landscape has been missed by countless residents and tourists alike.

Several former members of Nevada Opera Association kept the proverbial flame burning in 2014 through Sierra Music Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the region’s talented vocalists together for “P’Opera” concerts featuring a range of light opera, jazz, Broadway, pop, and contemporary songs. Almost a decade later, a new nonprofit called Firebird Light Opera was born in 2023 to bring high-quality light opera back to the stage, reuniting those former members of Nevada Opera Association with a revitalized vision for the future of opera in our region.

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Led by Executive Artistic Director Stephen Thompson and Board President Steven Meyer, Firebird Light Opera is comprised of a talented group of artists, musicians, directors, and technicians whose repertoire ranges from classic operas to popular Broadway musicals. The company recently presented Gilbert & Sullivan’s beloved comic opera The Pirates of Penzance at the Brewery Arts Center in Carson City in May of this year. I sat down with Stephen and Steven (a dynamic duo for the ages!) to learn more about the company.

Stephen Thompson (“S.T.”) and Steven Meyer (“S.M.”), what drew each of you to the opera art form and how old were you when that love began? 
(S.M.) I was a freshman at Carson High School when I was first introduced to opera. Nevada Opera resident artist Naunie Gardner, who was also the choir instructor at Carson High School, recruited ten or so of her students to play young adult villagers in the world premiere of the newly translated (by Ted and Deena Puffer, founders of Nevada Opera) version of Tchaikovsky’s Joan of Arc (The Maid of Orleans). I can vividly remember being so completely overwhelmed by the grandeur of opera in all its splendor that it became a part of my being. After high school and a number of years working as an entertainer, I returned to the fold of Nevada Opera, where I remained as a resident artist and often company choreographer until its final curtain in 2013. I’ll never forget Deena Puffer pulling me aside and saying, ‘You have such great stage presence, you should stick with this,’ and the rest is history.

(S.T.) I started composing and writing very bad musical theatre in high school. I knew it was bad even back then, but I had a sense of where I was going. I trained at NYU Tisch in their Dramatic Writing Program, Steinhardt School (then SEHNAP), NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, and at Emerson College. This allowed me to workshop my writing and composition with live musicians and performers. There was lots of harsh and blunt critique. I was writing opera, but it was truly rock and pop opera (musical theatre, really). My first ‘rock opera’ SUBURBAN DREAMS was produced off Broadway for a month-long run in 1999 with Constantine Maroulis and Tony Award-winner Daisy Eagan in the lead roles. I continued my professional development with the New York Metropolitan Opera and began teaching opera with a grant from the Met Guild in the Boston Public Schools from 2005-2008 before moving to Connecticut and teaching at Pomfret Academy, Marionapolis Prep, and playing second keyboard for the Goodspeed Opera. My second full work JONESTOWN was produced twice off Broadway at The Snapple Theatre in 2008 and the York Theatre in 2010. My foray into Grand Opera and related idioms came a bit later and through teaching and choral adjudication where a deeper appreciation for bel canto singing emerged. In Portland, I taught theatre and opera and was Musical Director for two theatre/opera companies, pianist at Tony Starlights, and was Sacred Music Director for the Archdiocese of Portland (not opera). Only upon moving to Carson City did I fully immerse myself in the task of starting a light opera company.

How did you meet each other, and what led you to form Firebird Light Opera? Why was 2023 the right time for opera to make a comeback in Reno?
(S.T.) Steve and I met when I was Artistic Director for a local community show choir in Reno and I made a desperate plea for tenors. A mutual friend Kathy Kimmel introduced us and brought Steve on board. I quickly realized that he was much more than just a strong high voice. We started Firebird with a small, dedicated group in 2023 because we wanted to sing the type of music that we all remembered making years before; that most difficult, complex, and rewarding music that has stood the test of time. We also wanted to mount fully realized productions of masterworks for the musical stage, and we all believed in the power of live human interaction and performance with real actors in a real theater and real musicians in the orchestra. When we started Firebird, I knew that I wanted Steve’s experience and skills as a manager, leader, and artistic coordinator and I asked him to be the board president. It has been a beautiful collaboration ever since.

The company has such a fabulous and evocative name. How did you choose it, and what does it mean to you?
(S.T.) We considered other names but, as a Company, we together chose Firebird Light Opera.  We felt that it was both ear-catching and that it had a deeper meaning for us. Nevada Opera was a glorious historic entity for many years in Reno and we always acknowledge the incredible contributions of Ted and Deena Puffer to the culture in northern Nevada. Since 2014, however, Nevada Opera has produced no theatre and there has been a scarce deficit of classical theatre singing and masterworks of opera in northern Nevada. There are some wonderful musical theatre entities, but we didn’t see anybody attempting to mount full operas and operettas - and for good reason. Opera is hard!... and expensive... and full orchestras and opera singers and leads are very difficult to find. We felt that Reno deserved an opera company again and that we would ‘rise from the ashes of Nevada Opera’ ... hence “Firebird.”

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Nevada Opera Association’s production of The Marriage of Figaro in 2008; photo credit Stuart Murtland

How have the artists involved with Firebird responded to this opportunity to come together again to stage light operas and other musical theater productions?
(S.T.) I believe that these are some of the most dedicated artists and performers that I have ever worked with and that includes the professionals in NYC, Portland, and Boston. We all have other lives and virtually nobody is making a career at this, but folks arrive from work in medical scrubs to sing and act and even dance. They are truly on board with our vision, and I believe that is because of the buy-in engendered through the empowering of our performing company. We have bylaws that intentionally state that the Board serves at the pleasure of the Company and the Company of actors and singers and players decides the shows that they want to sacrifice their time and talent for. They also help determine the vision for the company and where we are going, and who we collaborate with, and where we perform. I see myself more as a ‘quality control’ officer rather than an autocratic visionary. Opera is a hard sell these days, but this group trusts the process and has a ‘growth mindset’ and so we have a mission to present these works with fidelity to the spirit of the original author/composer’s intention while making it accessible and fun for a modern audience and also for modern performers.

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The company members of Firebird Light Opera

I have to assume your audience members have been thrilled to experience live opera again!  Has anything about the community response surprised you so far?
(S.T.) The community is beginning to embrace us. Being the new kids in a small town is hard enough (Reno is after all the biggest little city) and inveterate groups have a loyal following for good reason. Opera creates another challenge for many with some stigma attached to it (highbrow, elite, difficult to understand, foreign, opulent, etc.) but opera was originally supposed to be for everybody. It was supposed to be a celebration of life and beauty and I believe that opera can be that for everybody again. We just need to adjust our understanding of all that opera can be and we need to make it more accessible. Having said that, we do not apologize for it. Opera demands something more from the audience - a keener ear, a sharper and more focused attention… and, with a slower pace, a longer attention span. People must lose themselves in opera for over two hours and immerse themselves in the experience. People embraced The Pirates of Penzance in May and some even came to our show in costume dressed as pirates! I love that. They became part of the experience and immersed themselves. I was surprised, I must admit. I don’t think people dress up quite like that for the Met. But I think it is very Nevada and I think it’s great. We hope people continue to feel comfortable and embrace the experience like that in the future and we will help facilitate that level of participation.

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Firebird Light Opera’s production ofThe Pirates of Penzance in May 2024; photo credit David Sherry

With all of the significant changes in the world over the last few years, why do you think opera has such staying power? What does it mean to modern audiences, and why do you think it still has a strong appeal?
(S.T.) Opera is the ultimate theatre experience. It fully embraces all aspects of art. As Wagner put it, “Gesamtkunstwerk” or “total work of art.” There is an epidemic of loneliness in our culture, and we are crying out again for community and live experience, for connection. Virtual reality and screens are ubiquitous, and we need to disconnect from them and get into a real church, or theater, or nature, or community center and actually talk to each other and sing for each other face to face. It is convenient to just stay home and have entertainment streamed in and technology has improved the quality to the point that leaving the house for these artistic and entertainment experiences is getting harder and harder and more expensive. Nobody is getting rich at Firebird Light Opera but what we hope is to always have tiered ticket prices so that ‘EVERYBODY’ can afford to experience live art and quality performance. I believe that our American culture still has a lot to offer to the performing arts and that opera is a part of that future. We just can’t get stuck in the past. We need to honor it and learn from it but invent the future anew.

Do you envision the return of full-scale traditional opera productions in our region any time soon?
(S.T.) “Soon” is a big word. As is ‘full-scale.” Someone once told me that it’s better to shoot for 10 and hit 10 than to shoot for 20 and hit 12. And yet we are always challenging and stretching ourselves or else where is the fun in doing what you’ve done before. We do hope that full-scale opera returns to Reno, and it doesn’t have to be Firebird that facilitates it. We are content doing what we can do well and for now that is fun, light, and entertaining. We intentionally put the word “Light” in our name, not just to brand ourselves as entertaining, but also to say that, for now, that is what we can do. And pulling off “light” opera is no small task. In fact, pulling off any live theatre is no small task. Many of our singers love grand opera more than anything so we have a yearly gala and other salon performances in which Company members can perform scenes and arias and choruses and duets from grand opera. I’m currently learning a duet in French by Bizet. It’s not easy but it’s beautiful… and worth it.

What do you have coming up on your performance calendar this season for our community to enjoy?
(S.T.) We have SO MUCH coming up it’s almost overwhelming. Reno is a great town with lots of opportunities and right now we are trying to pick the ones that make the most sense for us. On July 13th we are performing an evening of classic Broadway songs with the Reno Pops at Bartley Ranch for Artown. We will have an information booth that day at Dancing in the Streets downtown. We also have our own free Artown show on July 28th at The Center for Spiritual Living called Firebird and Friends. This will be an opportunity to thank our friends who have contributed and helped us grow, to invite guest friends to sing with us, and also to sing songs about friendship. Our 2024-2025 season has just been announced with a HAUNTED CABARET gala in October, DIE FLEDERMAUS in 2025, and TRIAL BY JURY next summer.

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Upcoming Firebird Light Opera performances during Artown in July 2024 (Left), The 2024-2025 season lineup for Firebird Light Opera (Right)

Are there opportunities for aspiring vocalists and musicians to become involved in Firebird Light Opera performances?
(S.T.) Absolutely! We will have open season auditions on June 23rd (fast approaching) and info is on our website. All are welcome to audition and we are looking for chorus members and not just leads. We will help train singers toward an opera bel canto sound, but the best thing is vocal lessons with a qualified voice teacher that specializes in bel canto singing. We belong to Yap Tracker and Opera America and hope to attract young talent to the area as well as being an educational organization where young singers can train beside veterans. Many of our members are music teachers or sang with Nevada Opera. Nothing beats the educational experience of being in a show with great performers to collaborate beside.

How can people keep in touch with Firebird Light Opera to follow the company’s growth and be part of its success?
(S.T.) The best way is to keep checking in at We regularly post opportunities and if you fill out the contact info form, you will get regular email blasts from our incredibly dedicated administrative staff.

More from Dennyse Sewell

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Bringing Reno to Broadway – And Beyond by Dennyse Sewell — April 12, 2024

Giving Students an Up-Close Look at Broadway by Dennyse Sewell — March 8, 2024

Inspiring the Next Generation Through the Performing Arts by Dennyse Sewell — February 2, 2024

Happy 56th Birthday, Pioneer Center! by Dennyse Sewell — December 29, 2023

The Transformative Potential of Opportunities in the Arts by Dennyse Sewell — November 17, 2023



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