Retired teacher Marilyn Hinkle loves music, but she’s never paid much attention to opera.
In 70-some years, she had never researched the genre, never attended a performance, never even listened to an aria on a recording.
It took a diverse and lovable crew of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, their advocates, four trained singers and her volunteer job as the director of the Gotta Be Me Heartlight Choir for Hinkle to get with the program.
In fact, she recently wrote the libretto (script) for “Caleb and the Unicorn,” a rock opera that’s premiering Saturday night on the Marian High School stage. And she has a part in the show, at one point gamely trilling an example of “recitative” (operatic dialogue) for fellow cast members.
Hinkle’s work is part of a collaboration between Gotta Be Me, a nonprofit that works to include people with disabilities in everyday activities, and Opera Omaha’s Holland Community Opera Fellowship, designed to introduce people in all areas of the city to the 400-year-old craft.
She sees it as a natural partnership.
“Music is always the answer for me,” she said, and “it’s a way all people and people with disabilities can share in their communities.”
The collaboration perfectly illustrates why the Holland Community Fellowship was created in 2017. Since last fall, fellows have worked with 33 partner agencies such as Girls Inc. and area schools on 183 events, said Lauren Medici, director of engagement programs for Opera Omaha.
Opera Omaha General Director Roger Weitz is pleased with the first year of the endeavor.
“I feel like it has exceeded our expectations,” he said. “It has been a process of discovery, but one that has been exciting and rewarding and the kind of engagement that we were really seeking, which is reciprocal relationships and partnerships that are unique to each organization.”
The fellowship program seeks to introduce as many people as possible to opera, and that certainly has been the case with the Gotta Be Me project. Many — maybe even most — of the participants were like Marilyn: Opera was a foreign concept before their participation in “Caleb and the Unicorn.”
Fellows Jessica Johnson Brock, Chabrelle Williams, José Maldonado and Kate Pomrenke have been working with the cast of about 60 people since September, teaching them the various elements of opera, conducting group classes and rehearsals and working on voice technique with individuals.
Many cast members with disabilities have “velcro buddies” who deliver dialogue, push wheelchairs or just offer a boost of confidence to their partners. Right now, Gotta Be Me has more than 140 participants who range in age from 7 to 72, though 65 percent of them are between 18 and 40.
“It doesn’t matter if you can sing or if you are able,” said Tiffiny Clifton, founder and executive director of the four-year-old nonprofit. Some people hum “and some just choose to dance.”
The group has done programs in prior years, but none has been as ambitious as “Caleb and the Unicorn.”
“It’s the first time we’ve written original songs,” Hinkle said.
The show is a tribute to Clifton’s brother, who died in 2016. Born with cerebral palsy, he was the catalyst for the creation of Gotta Be Me. Caleb was about to finish school, and Clifton was worried that he would be stuck at home with nothing to do. Hinkle was his special education teacher at Burke High School.
“He was a remarkable young man,” Hinkle said. “He was hysterically funny. His language was music — he loved the Dirty River Ramblers and the Fiddle Chix (local bluegrass groups who are participating in the rock opera), and they loved him right back. (The Ramblers) wrote a song for him based on a poem one of his friends wrote after he died.”
The script uses the cast’s lack of knowledge about opera as a plot device. The show has two acts: In the first, the group decides what to do for this year’s show, and Clifton convinces them an opera is a good idea. Then the show’s creative director, music teacher Courtney Cairncross from Why Arts? Nebraska, coaches them on opera-style singing and the fellows talk about opera’s unique terminology.
The second act is their opera, focusing on Caleb’s journey with a unicorn to trees that represent things we need to succeed in life: friendship, determination, family and magic.
The show has scenery and a projected backdrop of a cityscape, and, being opera, it uses superscript screens. Cast members had plenty of input in its creation.
“They put their feelings into words,” Clifton said. “Each told us something that’s important, either about opera or what they loved about Caleb.”
They also got to choose what they would portray in the show. At a recent rehearsal, cast members gathered for the second act after changing from street clothes to costumes. There was a knight (Hinkle), a queen (Clifton), a dragon, several fuzzy forest creatures, a girl in a lei and grass skirt, a couple of fish, someone in a traditional Japanese kimono and more than a few fairy princesses.
With gusto, they sang rewritten lyrics to original tunes as well as popular songs (“Ring of Fire” and “Do You Believe in Magic” were a couple). They swayed and gestured. They applauded and hugged.
“Rehearsals are just a joy,” Medici said. “The singing is wonderful,” and they work together well.
They have no worries about the dialogue. Everyone can see the superscript screens.
“The goal for us is not that they learn the lines, but that they become who they want to be,” Clifton said.
Parent Annette Carlin, who was recruited to design costumes, said her daughter Maddie has loved participating in “Caleb and the Unicorn.” Maddie, 20, has been in the organization’s other shows, but they weren’t on a stage in a real theater with sound and lighting.
“It feels professional,” Carlin said. “Maddie can’t wait for Saturday to come. My biggest challenge has been convincing her that she needs to save her (bear) costume for the production. I promised she can wear it to my sister’s for Thanksgiving, so she’s on-board with waiting.”
Carlin praised the all-in participation of the fellows, “even attending our crew events to build sets and put together costumes.”
The Gotta Be Me project is Kate Pomrenke’s first partnership since she recently became a fellow, and it couldn’t have been better, she said. Each of the fellows is assigned to stand near one of the trees and sing about its lessons.
“It has been a very positive experience,” she said, adding that it was rewarding to see the Gotta Be Me crew learning to creatively and positively express themselves and figure out that they can sing and perform.
She said her brief time at Opera Omaha has taught her something as well.
“I’ve learned that arts are for everyone,” she said. “It’s great.”