OC Stories: Q & A with Cherity Koepke
As part of our OC Stories blog series, we’re introducing you to the people that make Opera Colorado work. We recently got a chance to catch up with Cherity Koepke, Director of Education & Community Engagement, to see what her job and life have been like during the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is your job during a typical season?
My job is really two-fold. As the Director of Education & Community Engagement, I create and deliver programs to schools and community venues, supporting teachers and students and bringing opera to them. While all of that is happening, I’m also working as a member of the Senior Team and directing the Artist in Residence Program. In that role, I vet applications and sit in auditions with Ari and Greg. Once the artists arrive, I direct their school and community performances, select their repertoire, coach them, schedule masterclasses, and give them career guidance and support. I also work closely with the other departments so that we’re telling Opera Colorado’s story in a compelling way. In short, I do a lot of everything…and I love it.
I’ve been with Opera Colorado 14 years in July and I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be (Thank you, Greg Carpenter, for taking a chance on me). I feel like the luckiest person on the planet that I get to do something that I love every day. I’m also putting both of my degrees to use. Who gets to say that?
There are long days and sometimes my to-do list is so many pages, I can’t see straight. However, to be able to create art, serve the community, and be surrounded by creative people who support and encourage you is incredible. I never take it for granted. That’s especially true now.
How has the pandemic changed that? What is the most surprising thing you’ve had to learn?
Professionally, the pandemic changed everything. In what seemed like a moment, I went from presenting live opera and showcasing the Artists in Residence, to not being able to do that. We still needed to support our teachers and serve our community and I still had a group of Artists in Residence who needed performance and training opportunities. How do you do any of that when you can’t be in the same room?
I knew I didn’t want to do things simply for the sake of doing them, whatever we did had to be meaningful. So, I set about trying to reimagine our most impactful programs in a digital format and started creating new programs to serve the needs created by the pandemic.
None of this has been easy. Building off an audience’s energy is something that you can’t capture on a video no matter how creative you might be, but we found ways to capture the flavor. I focused on telling entertaining, compelling stories in a way that’s unique to Opera Colorado. The word challenging doesn’t even convey way it’s been like, but I am so proud of how we’ve responded. Being able to look at what we can do, not just looking at what we’ve lost, has been empowering.
Working with the Artists in Residence has been its own challenge, but it’s also been a source of joy. In a normal season, they would be performing in the community and in our mainstage productions. This season, we’ve taken the opportunity to dig deeper into the artists’ repertoire and how to craft each performance. It’s been amazing. Of course, there are new hurdles because of the ways we need to work right now. I can have a max of two people singing at any one time, so that means only solos and duets. I have to be 25 feet away from them, and it’s hard to direct that way. But you make it work. (Tim Gunn has become my guru). To be very honest, we’re all just incredibly thankful to have a job. This company had taken really good care of us and put us in a position where we can still bring opera to our community.
Tell us more about the digital educational programming you have created this season. What can audiences expect?
Our digital programming has been quite a process to create and deliver. I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve put together. I need to give a shout out here to Greg Carpenter, our General & Artistic Director. I pitched my ideas, and he told me to go for it. When your boss has that kind of faith in your abilities, you just do it. I have a new sense of confidence in my level of creativity because of it.
Storytime Sessions combines illustrated book pages and video performances. It’s a bookstore that comes to life through opera. I wanted it to feel magical, and you know what? It is magical. It’s designed to get kids excited about reading and introduce opera to them through storytelling, but even adults are telling us that they enjoy the program. While we adapted Storytime Sessions from one of our live productions, Brain Breaks is a brand-new adventure.
I can’t take the credit for the idea. It came from the mind of Jared Guest. He was listening to educators, heard a need, and bought it to me. We created it together. Teachers needed a program to give their students a mental break and get them thinking creatively. I knew that we could meet that need—that’s what the arts do. So, we created a series of 10 short episodes where we teach students about elements of opera through interactive exercises. We designed them to be accessible, and each episode lasts about eight minutes, so they’re also easily digestible.
Currently, we’re working on creating digital concert performances of our Arias & Ensembles program. Audiences can expect the same quality for each program, but each is designed to have a different feel. They are engaging, entertaining, and available to anyone, regardless of where they are or how much they know about opera. I really think they’re unique to Opera Colorado. They’ve been created and adapted with our audience in mind and our community will connect with that.
What are you most looking forward to next season?
In a nutshell, giving hugs. I’m a hugger by nature and not being able to hug people or show support physically has been a major loss for me. But thinking about next season, I miss experiencing opera with other people in the room. I miss hearing more than two voices sing together. I miss hearing them sing with a live orchestra. I miss the energy that you get from an audience. I miss working teachers and supporting them in their classrooms. I miss watching the faces of kids who are seeing their first opera and hearing them yell “bravo” at the end of the performance. I miss having all the Artists in Residence in the room at once, creating stories together. I miss directing ensembles.
“I think we’re all feeling so much right now that we can’t put it into words. Opera can do that for us. It’s going to help us come to terms with everything that’s happened, give a voice to what the last year has been like for each of us.”
What am I most looking forward to? That. All of that. I know that the world is going to look and feel different on the other side of COVID, but I think we desperately need the sense of community and shared experiences that the arts provide. I’ve always said that opera is big, and it’s big because it expresses what words can’t. I think we’re all feeling so much right now that we can’t put it into words. Opera can do that for us. It’s going to help us come to terms with everything that’s happened, give a voice to what the last year has been like for each of us. I look forward to the day when we can all have that shared experience again.
What has life been like in general during the pandemic?
The past year has been one of the most challenging of my life. I lost my dad in July 2020 after a long battle with Alzheimer’s. I can’t think of another word to use to explain losing someone during the pandemic other than brutal. Even now that some time has gone by, it’s still very hard. But I’m one of the lucky ones because I have support. My mom, sister, and brother-in-law are close by and I’m grateful for that. I have an incredible network of friends and family and I include my Opera Colorado family in that comment. I know a lot of people say they have a work family, but here, we really do. We’re a small team and in the past year, we’ve had to draw close to each other. I can’t imagine going through something like this without that kind of support. I treasure all of them.
When you’re going through a dark time, you learn to see the bright spots and hold on to them. I’ve had plenty of those, too. They’ve come from the people around me and my love of what I do. I remember in October 2020, the Artists in Residence had just started their contracts and we had them sing for us for the first time. Ari and Greg and I were in the room and there was this immense feeling of gratitude—hearing someone singing live again. It was powerful. I was close to tears several times. Then there was the day I walked into the theatre where we recorded Storytime Sessions. I hadn’t been in a theatre for nine months by that point, and you have to understand, the theatre to me is like air, or Disney. It’s something I need to function. I walked in and just stood there, feeling the space. It was like coming home and it helped me understand that things were different, yes, but we were going to move ahead.
Then, there’s Bear. Yes, I have a Bear. He’s my dog and one of the brightest spots of my life. He’s a rescue and came with his own set of challenges. I had originally adopted him so that he could be company for my dad. They loved each other. But that critter has been a source of joy for all of us. He’s completely goofy, utterly adorable, and loves every single person he meets. He’s also an opera dog, which wasn’t something I anticipated. Some days, I bring him to work and when I’m in rehearsals, he will just lay down and watch, listening to the artists. He never makes a peep, he just takes it all in. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Dogs are amazing and I’m grateful that he picked me to be his human
What other questions do you have for Cherity? Have you seen any of our digital education programs? Let us know in the comments below!