Not yet 10 years old, Little Rock’s Opera in the Rock arts organization has flown largely under the radar. This is the case even as the company, founded in 2013, has pretty much cornered the market for opera in Central Arkansas, and boasts the title of Arkansas’s only professional company member of Opera America.
Maybe that’s because, though Opera in the Rock has staged major works every year, it’s never had an address of its own. Puccini’s “La Boheme” and other works went up at UA Pulaski Tech’s Center for the Humanities and Arts, one-acts have been staged at The Studio Theatre and gala events have been hosted at Wildwood Park for the Arts and the Junior League Ballroom.
Things are changing for the company, though. In December, Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott cut the ribbon for Opera in the Rock’s new downtown office space. The company won’t be staging full-blown operas there, but the group has purchased and installed a gleaming new Steinway piano that will aid with workshops and fundraisers. There have been changes to leadership, too, with the October hire of Fred Owens as president/CEO, who has outsized ambitions for the upstart opera company. “I want to make Opera in the Rock a key player in the arts community in Arkansas and in Little Rock,” Owens said.
Owens doesn’t look like most of his peers in the opera management world, where leadership is predominantly white. An African American native of Pine Bluff, Owens got a degree in theater from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “I am passionate about all of the arts,” he said. “I come from a theater background. My super passion is theater because that is where I started. I have always been interested in arts management. Anytime you can create positive change is interesting. I see this as an organization that has a lot of potential.”
The attraction of Opera in the Rock for Owens was in what he calls the company’s “progressive” programming. The company hasn’t been afraid to wade into politically minded works, like Derrick Wang’s “Scalia/Ginsburg,” or to take on contemporary work, like Bonnie Montgomery’s “Billy Blythe.”
“They did ‘Troubled Island’ and the cast was African American,” Owens said. ‘They have done ‘La Traviata.’ They have done lesser-known pieces. They have integrated other art forms and other forms of music into what they do.”
Glenn Sergeant Sr., who has been on the Opera in the Rock board for four years and president for a few months, compares Owens to “Star Trek’s” bold Captain Kirk. “He’s already moved us ahead,” Sergeant said. “He is going where no person has gone before. He is expanding our world. He is bringing in new kinds of people who haven’t been involved in opera or this world before.”
“Opera has traditionally been a rich and white person’s outlet,” Owens said. “We are wanting to change that and make [opera] more universally accepted. Opera can provide some amazing stories to people who haven’t experienced it before.”
Joking that he missed “seeing trees,” Owens is back in Arkansas after 20 years living and working in New York City. For six years, he served as a marketing and PR associate for Broadway’s Nederlander Organization. He watched New York’s theater landscape change due to a certain hit show.
“We want to do what ‘Hamilton’ has done for Broadway,” Owens said. “That is the model which we want to duplicate. When you have an NBA star like Steph Curry driving down the street with his daughters in the car singing songs from ‘Hamilton’? That is a huge transformation for Broadway. We want to create that kind of diversity.”
Before Opera in the Rock can have a breakout success like “Hamilton,” Owens understands the company has to develop a stronger identity. Opera in the Rock has offered fully staged operas year in and year out, but the group has been hampered by having to move to different stages for each production.
“Opera in the Rock has been floating around town and working at the mercy of those different venues,” Owens said. “We are in the process of announcing a permanent home [for Opera in the Rock]. This summer we will announce our season months in advance. We just moved into our new offices and we had a ribbon cutting. We are setting up roots to let the public know that we are here, and we are here to stay.”
As for funding those ambitious plans, he mentions the key element of partnerships. “For Opera in the Rock to remain solvent and move forward, we are going to have to explore partnerships,” Owens said. “[We’ll] partner with the arts organizations of the city and beyond. Partnerships are the key to the future and a more sustainable organization.”
Owens hopes for his company to use the power of hip-hop to teach school students about opera. “It’s based on a theory out there on how to build new constituencies,” Owens said. “We want to create an arts education curriculum to implement in some schools. We will have teaching artists going into schools.”
And Owens sees the company doing more than the well-worn work of the opera canon.“ We won’t be stuck doing big-name operas every year,” Owens said. The vision he has for Opera in the Rock is broad and even includes commissioning new work that reflects the diverse audience that he hopes will count on his company being a cultural home.
“There are a lot of stories in Arkansas and a lot of untold stories in opera. We want to be on the forefront of that.”