The Opera Illinois League provides Peoria with a taste of singing and storytelling at its best.

It’s one of the grandest Italian art forms of the 1600s, but it’s not lost on 21st-century theatre goers—even in the heart of the Midwest. In 1573, the Florentine Camerata, a group of intellectuals and musicians who wished to revive Greek drama, developed the early form of opera in musica, which became the hub of upper-class musical entertainment before trickling down to the general public.

Hence began the grand tradition of evenings at the opera, always sung, never spoken, and showcased in style at elaborate public opera houses. Opera itself is perhaps one of the most unique forms of the fine arts, sung without microphones by costumed actors embracing audiences with alluring arias and airy recitatives lending fresh meaning to Italy’s bel canto, or “beautiful singing.”

And, yes, opera still plays in Peoria. The Opera Illinois League, a volunteer-led nonprofit organization, is dedicated to preserving professional opera as a vibrant part of the American cultural scene and furthering the interest, understanding and enjoyment of opera in central Illinois. The League presents house concerts, holds annual fundraisers and provides its members with extraordinary opportunities to view grand operas in cities throughout the Midwest.

“One of our goals is to create a general interest in opera throughout the area,” says Linda Hernandez, the League’s vice president. “We want to educate young people and encourage area residents to develop a passion for opera.”

Art in Abundance
The Illinois Opera League grew out of the Illinois Opera Company. Day trips to grand operas performed in Indianapolis, Chicago, St. Louis and elsewhere are offered at a nominal cost that includes tickets, transportation, lunch and a full-course dinner following the show. Excursions to professional opera performances have included trips to Chicago to see La Traviata, rides down to St. Louis for La Boheme and Lakme, journeys over to Indianapolis for Carmen, Magic Flute and Tosca, and an excursion to Watseka to view L’Elisir d’ amore.

According to Hernandez, the trips are quite popular among attendees. The bus leaves Peoria around 8:30 in the morning, and lunch is served on the bus. After the opera, participants enjoy a full-course dinner in the city, all at a cost that usually runs under $200, depending on the opera. The League also offers backstage tours to the Chicago Lyric Opera that are open to the public.

Big-city excursions are just the beginning. Each fall for the past three years, the League has presented the dinner concert Musica Che Amiamo at the Cornerstone Building in downtown Peoria, employing professional, internationally known opera singers. “This will be the fourth year we have hosted this concert,” says Hernandez. “We began with 60 people; then it grew to between 100 and 125.” The League has also cooperated with Universalist Unitarian Church in publicity and food in the presentation of Dazzling Divas, a free afternoon concert that takes place at the church.

On Saturday mornings, New York’s Metropolitan Opera Theatre telecasts directly to theatres across the nation, including Peoria’s Willow Knolls 14. In conjunction with these telecasts, the Opera Illinois League has arranged an “opera preview,” presented by Stan Ransom, a retired French teacher who also conducts opera classes for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Bradley University. About 45 minutes prior to its opening, Ransom provides a thorough overview of the opera of the day, taking the audience through it one act at a time to provide a summation of the story line. The League also provides a small continental breakfast for attendees, as well as a student rebate program whereby the League gives every student who attends the Met simulcast $10 cash back on the spot.

Large-scale event participation is greatly encouraged. At present, the League has approximately 100 members. “All of our members have a passion for opera,” says Hernandez. “We know of at least two families in the League with opera singers and maybe more. We have a nice group of fine arts lovers.”

Empowering Education
Hernandez says educating students is one of the primary goals of the Opera Illinois League. “A lot of young people really don’t know what an opera is. If I’m with a group of students and I ask how many of them have seen an opera, a bunch of hands go up. Then, I’ll ask them to name an opera they’ve seen, and most will say The Phantom of the Opera, which technically is not an opera. By definition, operas tell a story of some kind, and they are sung without microphones by actors who must know several languages, including German, Italian, French and Spanish. So, it’s The Phantom of the Opera, but the story itself is not opera.”

For Hernandez, providing students with opportunities to pursue their passion for the arts is both exciting and rewarding. The Opera Illinois League endows $1,000 scholarships for advanced music students pursuing graduate studies. They focus on students at the graduate school level because they want the serious opera student—“someone we know will stay committed.”

Annual scholarships include the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, the Jerry Hadley Memorial Scholarship at the University of Illinois, and funding of Bradley University’s summer opera workshop. In 2008, the Opera Illinois League sponsored a day-long workshop for 70 members of the Peoria Area Civic Chorale Youth Chorus. Four professional opera singers presented the event.

In addition, the League provides PowerPoint presentations designed to introduce students to classical music and explain the difference between opera and theatre. The League’s What is Opera? presentation will be given to 7th and 8th grade students in the spring of 2012. “We present at…St. Thomas and various other schools that express an interest in the fine arts,” says Hernandez, adding that St. Thomas devotes an entire day to studying the fine arts. “During one presentation, the students were given black t-shirts with gold lettering that read: Opera Rocks at St. Thomas. It’s great to see students taking such an interest.”

House concerts, Hernandez says, are also popular. “The concerts feature central Illinois professionals, as well as advanced music students who desire a chance to perform and build on their experience. These concerts look great on students’ resumes. Concerts take place in the afternoon, and food and wine is served. The events are free and open to the public. They are held in private homes as casual entertainment and are offered whenever time and resources allow.”

Students were also invited to participate in educational excursions to the Chicago Lyric Backstage Tours in 2007 and 2009. “The League desires to do its part in keeping the arts strong in Peoria.”

‘Tis the Season
Opera is always in season, especially at Christmastime with the Opera Illinois League’s Yule Walk fundraiser. “Each year, we have volunteers in central Illinois open up their homes to be decorated by area florists and viewed by the public,” says Hernandez, adding that the event features four or five homes each year, each open from 10am to 8pm.

The fundraiser, says Hernandez, entertains hundreds of people who view the Christmas floral arrangements. “The Yule Walk continues to be our major fundraiser. Homeowners can show as much of their home as they wish. We also have a hostess stationed in each room of the house. This year’s fundraiser will be held on Thursday, November 10th. It’s just breathtaking to see all the homes decorated at Christmas. It’s definitely one of the League’s favorite times of year.”

As for the future, Hernandez says the League desires to expand its membership, maintain and increase scholarship endeavors, and develop fun, creative ways for people to sit back, relax and enjoy the unique mix of storytelling and song. For more information on the Opera Illinois League, contact Linda Hernandez at (309) 231-2010. a&s


Yule Walk 2011
Tickets for the November 10th event can be purchased for $20 at the Opera Illinois League Boutique, located in Apple’s Bakery at 8412 North Knoxville, or at the homes along the tour for $25. The Boutique is stocked with new Christmas merchandise and is a great place to begin your holiday shopping. A Peoria Charter bus will run from Apple’s to the featured homes twice on the day of the Yule Walk. The first runs at 9:30am, and the second at 2pm.