Opera Singer Touts Talent in Arkansas

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Arlene Biebesheimer of Conway started singing opera in graduate school and has spent her career singing professionally and teaching, including at the University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. She is the artistic director for the nonprofit organization Opera In The Rock, which produces professional opera, including The Barber of Seville, being performed today, and makes presentations in schools and public venues.

Opera and Arkansas aren’t two words people generally use in the same sentence.

Arlene Biebesheimer of Conway can tell you, though, how they go together perfectly.

Biebesheimer is the artistic director for Opera In The Rock, the state’s only professional opera company.

“We are passionate about providing a professional opportunity for Arkansas singers to work in this great art form in a professional setting with an orchestra,” she said, referring to the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

The “we” includes Biebesheimer, a former opera singer herself, and a board of directors, two of whom also live in Conway.

It was founded in 2012, and Biebesheimer became a member of the board a couple of months later. She’s been artistic director since January 2013.

“I make all the decisions about what pieces we do, who I hire — all the singers,” she said.

Today is the last performance of The Barber of Seville, which will be performed at 3 p.m. at the University of Arkansas at Pulaski Tech in North Little Rock.

”The Barber of Seville is going to be hilariously funny,” she said prior to its opening. “There’s so much shtick.”

The opera is in English, and all the singers grew up in Arkansas.

Yes, Arkansans singing opera.

Biebesheimer, though, is a native Texan. When she was growing up in Gruver, Texas, her mother, Verna Barkley, was always singing and playing

piano at home. Biebesheimer’s dad, Howard, was shy and didn’t sing.

Her uncle — one of her dad’s brothers — Rod Barkley, was fairly famous. He was a country singer who had his own television show, The Rod Barkley Show, in the 1950s in Springfield, Massachusetts.

He sang with Johnny Cash and the like, but her uncle decided he didn’t want the lifestyle of an entertainer. He stopped to have “a normal life,” Biebesheimer said. He’s 82 and continues to live his normal life in Gruver, she said.

“Country and church music was all I knew as a child,” she said.

After telling about being 10 years old and winning the Hansford County Fair Talent Show by singing “Que Sera

Sera” and “Let the Sun Shine In,” she sang a few verses — not in an operatic voice — as she sat on the couch in her Conway home.

“I grew up thinking it was natural going up [onstage] and singing. Even then, I never, ever

considered opera. I wanted to be Doris Day when I grew up,” Biebesheimer said.

She went to North Texas State University and studied music education; she also played French horn. Her plan was to be a band director or a choir teacher.

“I never dreamed I’d someday be a performer,” she said.

At North Texas State, she saw her first student opera, which was in English.

“I was impressed,” she said. “That’s when the dream started.”

First, she got a job as the music teacher to 680 elementary schoolchildren in Richards, Texas, “and I was exhausted,” she said.

So she decided to go to graduate school.

At a music-sorority national convention, she met a guest artist from Wisconsin who was an opera singer and college professor.

“She was the next image after Doris Day of someone I said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Biebesheimer said.

She earned a — Master of Music degree from the University of Wisconsin.

“Once I got to grad school, I didn’t go in with the idea of being an opera singer. I wanted to perfect my voice, and that’s where the opportunities were,” she said.

About a year after grad school, that same Wisconsin professor said Biebesheimer should enter the Wisconsin District Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition, and she won. That launched her professional career with the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee.

Biebesheimer moved to Chicago in 1974, which is where she met her now husband, Jerry, also an opera singer. They were both in the chorus of the Chicago Opera Theater, and Arlene taught as an adjunct professor at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago.

She and Jerry married in 1980.

“It was Jerry’s dream to go to Germany and sing opera. I never thought either one of us was good enough to do that,” she said, laughing.

They went to Austria and went through a program called AIMS Graz that helps American singers prepare to audition for the European opera system. They spent their honeymoon in a dormitory in Austria, which was not at all romantic, but “we had a wonderful time,” she said.

Jerry came back to the United States for a year to get his arts-management degree in Iowa. Arlene stayed and auditioned for opera companies. She used her maiden name, though, because her German “wasn’t all that wonderful.” If you had a German last name, “they think you’re an idiot,” she said.

She was hired as lead soprano for the Passau Opera in Germany, where she worked for six seasons. “It was like a dream come true,” she said. Biebesheimer played many lead roles, including Gretel for two years in the opera Hansel and Gretel.

Mistakes are bound to happen in live performances, and Biebesheimer said it’s harder to ad lib in a different language. She recalled that in one opera, she and the German tenor were supposed to speak — have an argument, get lovey-dovey — then sing. After their last lines, the music didn’t start. They started ad-libbing about what a great time it would be for a song, but the orchestra conductor didn’t catch on. The tenor walked to the front of the stage, looked down and said, “Maestro! Music, please!” The audience laughed, and the music started, she said.

During another opera, her partner, with whom she had learned all the dances, left the production after being drafted into the German army. Her part was as a circus performer, and she was supposed to jump off a pedestal into her partner’s arms. His replacement eyed her up and down and said she didn’t weigh much, so they didn’t need to rehearse it.

You guessed it. He dropped her on her backside, “and the whole audience … ”

Biebesheimer gasped, imitating the reaction. “He helped me up, and when we did our exit, I said, ‘Next time, I hope you’ll practice.’”

After Jerry finished his degree, he joined her in Germany, sang and worked with the Passau Opera and worked in the summers for AIMS Graz. They had their only child, a son, Michael, in Germany, and Arlene was a stay-at-home mom. When their son was 6, Arlene said they decided it wasn’t fair to Michael that he didn’t get to see his grandparents often.

He’s now married and the father of 19-month-old twins, Fiona and Matilda.

In 1992, the Biebesheimers came back to the United States and put their opera singing on hold. Singing opera meant a lot of traveling, and Arlene said they decided they didn’t want to be on the road.

They lived in South Carolina for 7 1/2 years, where she taught part time at colleges, was a church choral director and for a brief time was company manager for the Newberry

Opera Co. She also earned a doctorate from the University of South Carolina.

In 2000, they moved to Jonesboro for her husband to run the newly opened Fowler Center at Arkansas State University. She taught at public schools in the area, as well as The Foundation of Arts in Jonesboro.

“I talked them into having voice classes and directed and was in shows and plays,” she said.

After eight years in northeast Arkansas, they moved to Conway for her husband to be director of public appearances at the University of Central Arkansas.

“We were ready for a change,” she said.

She took the only full-time college teaching position she’s ever had as a voice and choral teacher at ASU-Beebe. After one year, she quit to get more involved in Conway.

She met and “just fell in love with” Jennie Strange, founder and executive director of Blackbird Academy of Arts in Conway. Biebesheimer taught music lessons, drama and singing for four years to home-school students.

“We loved Mrs. Arlene, as she was called,” Strange said. She said Biebesheimer was the first music teacher she hired when the business opened.

“She was just wonderful; the kids loved her. She brought a level of professionalism

to the program from Day 1. She helped set the stage for a quality, foundational

music program at Blackbird,” Strange said.

Biebesheimer also served as an adjunct professor at UCA and at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville, where she “discovered,” she said while making quote marks in the air, the male leads in The Barber

of Seville — Darren Drone, originally of Sherwood, and Jonathan Ray of Dover. The female lead is Alice Anne Light, formerly of Searcy.

Biebesheimer is not past her singing prime, either.

“I sing whenever I am asked. I will never cast myself in a role for this company,” Biebesheimer said. “I don’t know if it’s as good as it was 40 years ago, but I can still sing.”

Christine Donahue of Conway, chairwoman of Opera In The Rock’s board, is an award-winning opera singer and assistant professor of voice at UCA. She said

Biebesheimer’s “experience and knowledge of repertoire” are invaluable to her position as artistic director.

“Her experience as a performer — a huge part of it was out of Germany, so she knows how a company runs on a yearly basis,” Donahue said. “She taught voice, so she has a really good idea of what she’s looking for in singers.”

As far as Opera In The Rock, it’s a central-Arkansas company, Donahue said.

“We have so much talent in Arkansas, in general, and in the area and region, as well. It’s really nice to have a local company so people can see just how much talent there is in the local area.”

Biebesheimer said she knows not everyone will appreciate opera, and the first image many people think of is a large woman belting out a song.

“That’s exactly what I grew up thinking, some lady with horns and a breastplate,”

Biebesheimer said. “You’ve got to come see it; it’s not what you think it is.”

It’s opera in Arkansas.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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