By Jess Winans
When Peter Kozma originally moved from Budapest to the United States in 2002, he didn’t know he would end up directing an entire opera company in San Diego.
After finishing his master’s in stage directing at the University of Texas a year later, Kozma went on to serve as the resident artist sptage director of the Minnesota Opera, later moving to Columbus, Ohio to direct the opera program at Ohio State — a position he held for four years. It was there he got the idea for something new and exciting.
“I decided I wanted to do something else with my life rather than being in academia,” Kozma said. “The limitations in academia didn’t make me happy so I wanted to do something else.”
In 2010, Kozma and his wife moved to San Diego and explored how to start a young artist training program. In 2012, they founded OperaNEO — a training program for aspiring opera professionals. The opera training culminates with performances at the Palisades Amphitheater, located at the Palisades Presbyterian Church on Birchwood Street in Allied Gardens.
“For our first couple of years, we tried hosting our performances at more traditional theatrical venues like the Point Loma Nazarene University performance space,” Kozma said. “We sort of plunged into this open air theater experience in 2015. Since then, we’ve loved it so much that we basically moved all of our performances there, except our cabaret performances which we hold at the Encinitas Library.”
The OperaNEO company holds auditions in 13 different cities including Boston, New York, Chicago, Austin, Seattle and others for a $39 audition fee. Each year, they choose around 30 to 35 singers to join the program, which makes it quite competitive, considering the fact they had over 400 people audition this year.
The program lasts five weeks and attendees are housed free of charge in guest rooms with host families. Transportation from the airport to their homes and to and from classes and performances is also free.
OperaNEO offers two different programs for students. The first is a Studio Artist program for younger, less-experienced students priced at $3,600. This program offers one-on-one coaching with world-renowned artists, two voice lessons a week and coaching with a vocal coach once a week. Additionally, Studio Artist program attendees receive dramatic coaching, movement classes and master classes.
“I love working with young singers, it gives me a lot of joy,” Kozma said. “They always look at art with fresh eyes and enthusiasm and love, there’s no professional fatigue yet at all. It’s always about discovery and excitement and they look at art with curiosity.”
OperaNEO’s second program for Apprentice Artists, is for more experienced artists. Apprentice Artists receive a $800 stipend to participate in the program and free tuition. Additionally, Apprentice Artists are typically given lead roles in OperaNEO performances and are given opportunities to network with professionals.
Some OperaNEO alumni have went on to perform in famous opera companies such as the Boston Opera, Chicago Opera Theater and others.
“At OperaNEO, they teach you that the main goal for each singer is to showcase themselves as an individual versus a cookie-cutter singer,” said Rancho Bernardo native and two-time program attendee Sarabeth Belon. “If you go to these big schools like Juilliard or others, they will just fit you into a mold to market you. At this program, they encourage each person to find what’s unique about themselves so they can use it to make themselves stand out from the crowd.”
To kick off their performance season, OperaNEO is moving indoors for the “Aria Marathon 2018” on July 15 at 6 p.m. inside of the Palisades Presbyterian Church. The event is free, with a suggested $25 donation and serves to showcase the work of OperaNEO students.
From July 27-28, starting at 7:30 p.m., OperaNEO will be holding its annual Cabaret at the Encinitas Library located at 540 Cornish Drive. General admission tickets are $24 and in addition to performances, a buffet dinner will be offered.
To wrap up their summer, OperaNEO returns to the outdoor stage at Palisades for a packed schedule in August with performances of “The Merry Widow” by F. Lehár Aug. 2, 4 and “Idomeneo” by W.A. Mozart Aug. 10–11.
All August shows start at 8 p.m. and there will be food trucks available for audience members to purchase refreshments. Also noteworthy is that there will be English subtitles available for foreign performances.
“Let go of your preconceived notions about opera,” said Apprentice Artist Sara Womble. “This is not, ‘Let’s dress up in a fancy dress and sit in an uncomfortable seat and watch people sing’ type of thing. There are food trucks and a party and the show is not people in old fashioned costumes. This is people doing an adaptation of a classic with subtitles. For those who think opera is boring, I’d challenge them to ever be bored during an OperaNEO show.”
For more information about OperaNEO, visit their website operaneo.com or Facebook page, facebook.com/operaneo.
— Jess Winans is the editorial assistant at the San Diego Community News Network, parent company of the Mission Times Courier. You can reach her at email@example.com