Editor’s note: This story by Dorian Martin was originally published in Spirit magazine, a publication of the Texas A&M Foundation.
The 2012-13 season of MSC OPAS coincides with a major milestone—the organization’s 40th birthday. And like any major anniversary, plans are being set to celebrate OPAS’s rich history.
“A special committee has been appointed by the OPAS Board to plan the festivities for the 40th Anniversary,” said Stephanie Sale, who is chairing the committee’s efforts. The group includes OPAS board members, former OPAS student leaders, community members, and past and present representatives of OPAS Encore! (formerly the OPAS Guild).
The celebration includes many special events, including Season 40’s OPAS Gala 2012 and a spring visual arts tribute to the performing arts in a first-time-ever exhibition of 40 years of OPAS. This exhibit will be held in the MSC Forsyth Center Galleries.
“In addition to the festivities planned, the MSC OPAS 40th Anniversary committee is compiling a history of this wonderful organization, whose enduring purpose has been to inspire, enlighten and entertain,” Sale said. “We think the book, which is edited by Dr. Paul Parrish, will serve as an ‘anthology’ of memories of stellar artists and performances, student involvement in the arts, as well as university and community members dedicated to enriching the artistic and cultural experience for all.”
The festivities honor OPAS’s deep commitment to and influence on the Brazos Valley region. “OPAS is perhaps the most visible and important cultural link in the celebration and enjoyment of performing arts in the Brazos Valley,” Sale said. “Through its excellent roster of programs, OPAS draws together Texas A&M University’s extended family of students, faculty, administrators and support staff and an ever-increasing environs beyond Bryan and College Station.”
When renowned comedian, actor, author and musician Steve Martin strolled across the stage of Texas A&M University’s sold-out Rudder Theater Aug. 30, 2011, the audience went wild. Martin relished the appreciation for his banjo-playing talent and the equally dexterous members of the Steep Canyon Rangers. “I don’t think of them as my band,” he quipped with his trademark dry wit. “I look at it more like I am their celebrity.”
Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers are just one of the many professional entertainment groups that have delighted students and area residents thanks to MSC OPAS, a division of Texas A&M’s Memorial Student Center (MSC). Now in its 39th season, OPAS is a self-supported organization that brings acclaimed theater, music and dance programs such as French-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, radio personality Garrison Keillor, and the Tony Award-winning musical “In the Heights” to Texas A&M.
While MSC OPAS is well-known in the Bryan-College Station community, there is some confusion about its funding. “The great misconception about OPAS is that we’re entirely funded by the university and that we use the facilities for free,” said Anne Black, who has served as OPAS executive director for 24 years. In reality, OPAS’ $3 million budget is dependent on annual contributions, advertising revenue, sponsorships, ticket sales and student fees. OPAS also pays the university for equipment rental and operations staff for each performance.
Over the years, OPAS has expanded its programming to offer entertainment through three series: Main Stage, Intimate Gatherings and OPAS Jr. The organization also provides educational outreach programs that take artists into public schools. “Camp OPAS will mark its 10th anniversary in May,” Black said. “For the past decade, 250 fourth graders from the Bryan and College Station school districts have spent a day immersed in the arts. They rotate through sessions in which they learn about music, dance, theater and storytelling. The day culminates in a brief performance that pulls together all of these elements.”
In addition, thousands of students have attended OPAS’ School Performances over the years. “Everything from children’s classics to Shakespeare has come alive on Rudder Stage for students of all ages, many of whom might never have had the opportunity to experience live theater,” Black said.
An MSC OPAS permanent endowment was established in the late 1980s through the Texas A&M Foundation by Donna and Don A. Adam ’57, Dr. Michal Barszap, Parten Wakefield ’78, Margaret A. and Charles W. ’77 Zipp, and Robert Waltman ’80. The endowment grew by $1 million thanks to a successful fundraising campaign that focused on the Bryan-College Station community in 2002. These funds enabled OPAS to schedule internationally recognized artists who have to be booked several years in advance. Additionally, the endowment is used to keep student ticket prices affordable. As a result, Aggies have the opportunity to not only experience world-class entertainment, but also to participate in event planning and promotion through the OPAS Student Committee.
A second fundraising campaign scheduled to kick off in fall 2012 will coincide with OPAS’ 40th anniversary. This campaign, which has a goal of $1 million, will also be used for program enhancement and student access.
In addition, OPAS has an excellence fund through the Foundation, comprised of annual contributions, that provides a critical financial safety net. “In a bad year, OPAS can lose a lot of money,” Black said. For instance, OPAS’ 2005 season opening productions were not well-attended because the Bryan-College Station community was focused on dealing with Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That same year, the semi-trailer truck crashed and destroyed the sets for the Broadway musical “The Will Rogers Follies,” forcing OPAS to reschedule the production.
MSC Director J. Wayne Stark initially approached the Bryan Rotary Club to sponsor and underwrite a trial run of bringing commercial acts to the Bryan-College Station area, according to Holly Rees, a senior Rotarian in Brazos County. The original offering was a performance of the musical “Porgy & Bess” in 1966. With an initial budget of $5,500, the Rotary ended up earning a $1,600 profit, which was donated to community organizations. Stark and the Bryan Rotary expanded the offerings in 1967-68 by creating the Rotary Series, which offered performances by seven arts groups throughout the academic year. The Rotary Series continued for five years until the 1971-72 academic year.
The history of OPAS—originally named The Opera and Performing Arts Society—dovetails with the construction of the Rudder Theater Complex in the late 1960s. “General Earl Rudder called Wayne Stark and encouraged him to create a wonderful program in these facilities for Aggies to enjoy,” Black said. “Mr. Stark involved the community as well as student volunteers in OPAS. The community originally provided the funds for programming while the students provided the arms, legs, heart and soul. This is still the case almost 40 years later.”
“In the early 1970s, most university performing arts organizations operated out of the student unions,” Black said. “By the late 1980s, when arts funding decreased dramatically due to the oil bust, few remained. The performing arts became a bottom line business and student volunteers were not part of that equation. Now, I believe we are the only one left in the country.”
The success and popularity of OPAS relies on a unique collaboration between A&M students and community members, who work to bring the best performing artists to the Brazos Valley. A community member presides over the OPAS board of directors while the chair of the student committee serves as the board’s vice president.
Leadership Through the Arts
Student participation in OPAS often is rooted in childhood experiences. For example, Jeremy Byrd ’00 sang and toured with the Fort Bend Boys Choir as a child. “That’s where I found my love for the arts,” he said. “I knew that music was going to be an instrumental part of my life.” During his first semester at Texas A&M, Byrd planned to audition for the Singing Cadets, but his course load would not allow it. “I went to the MSC Open House, where I stumbled upon this opportunity to volunteer with OPAS,” he said. “It seemed exciting to see the business side of the performing arts world.”
Byrd eventually became operations director, a post that gave him responsibility for managing the front of the house (such as the ushers). He also served as chairman of the program committee for two years and as vice president of the board of directors. In these roles, he worked alongside OPAS full-time staff and attended a large booking conference in New York City for three years. “That four-year, in-depth internship put me many years ahead of students from other universities when I applied for jobs in the arts,” said Byrd, who now serves as director of production and scheduling at Fort Worth’s Bass Performance Hall.
As a youngster, Mary Katherine Stout ’00 was entranced by an OPAS performance of the Bolshoi Ballet at Texas A&M. She never forgot the experience and joined the OPAS student committee during her freshman year. While learning project management and operations, she experienced an unexpected benefit—meeting her future husband, Stephen ’97. Both served in OPAS student leadership positions and made lifelong friends through their involvement. Both work in Austin—Mary Katherine for the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Laffer Center for Supply Side Economics and Stephen with the law firm of Vinson & Elkins LLP.
All three former students believe in supporting MSC OPAS financially because of what the organization gave them.
The Stouts chose to support the group’s campus home through a $25,000 pledge to support the MSC renovation and expansion project. A plaque on the OPAS executive director’s office will bear their names, forever preserving their A&M and OPAS legacies. “We decided the best way we could show our support for OPAS is through a major gift to support the MSC project,” said Stephen Stout. “Students deserve a top-rate facility and offices in which to conduct OPAS business. It’s one way we can ensure that future students will have the same opportunities we did.”
Byrd encourages his classmates in the OPAS Class of 2000 to pledge $10,000 to the OPAS Endowment, with each giving $2,000 over a five-year period. Now firmly established professionally, Byrd plans to continue to support the arts organization. “By giving to OPAS, you’re providing critical support to an outstanding organization,” he said. “A gift to the endowment will make OPAS programs even better and will help Texas A&M students become well-rounded.”