Typically, an opera’s production staff is made up of numerous different professionals—a properties manager gathers props for rehearsals and productions; an audio engineer is in charge of setting up a speaker system, broadcasting any pre-recorded sounds and handling microphones; an electrician is in charge of light design and special effects.
But here at AVA, alum Jonathan Oehler does all of that–and more. What kind of background prepares one person to fulfill all those roles?
Jonathan relaxing in AVA’s Pavarotti room.
Growing up, Jonathan always enjoyed music. “I sang in choirs in high school and attended a community theater program in the summers, but at the time I didn’t see myself being able to make a living singing, so I tried to get into something more practical,” he explains. That’s how he chose to go to college in his home state of Ohio for a degree in Computer Science.
For fun at Ohio University, Jonathan sang in opera productions and took a music class for non-majors. “At the end of the quarter you had to take a jury examination for that class,” he recalls. “You sang for the Voice faculty and they gave you feedback and a grade.” A professor, impressed by Jonathan’s voice, persuaded him to pursue an undergraduate degree in music. So, after graduating, Jonathan decided to go back to college and get a B.A. in Voice. He then continued on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
While in Cleveland, Jonathan’s voice coach introduced him to Norma Newton, a former teacher at AVA. “I flew out to audition for AVA so that I could study with her… but I didn’t get in, so I returned to Cleveland,” he says. Fortunately, he got a call from AVA shortly after being rejected, asking him back. He happily returned to Philly, but when Ms. Newton left AVA two years later, he also departed.
Jonathan next went to work for Dr. Robert Thayer Sataloff—an internationally regarded otolaryngologist who currently treats AVA Resident Artists—to pay off his student loans. In 1998, Mr. Kevin McDowell asked Jonathan, who had helped move sets while he was a student, if he wanted to return to AVA to do stage managing. “I first came back as a sort of outside contractor and helped with specific shows,” explains Jonathan, “but after a couple years Mr. McDowell created a full-time position for me.” That’s how he became AVA’s first production stage manager.
Jonathan has in that role ever since. “The job can get complicated,” he admits. “Our production of The Magic Flute (2017) involved a lot of elements—I was handling a CD player for off-stage sounds, a light board for the light cues and a laptop for backstage projections, all at the same time.”
Behind the scenes of AVA’s The Magic Flute: a video monitor focused on the conductor; a light board monitor showing stage lighting; a laptop controlling rear projection; a CD player and audio amplifiers; an opera score with color-coded cues.
It might get hectic, but it never gets boring. “I like the diversity of stage managing,” says Jonathan. “You do something new for every opera. It never gets monotonous—the music, language and scenery changes are always different and what I end up having to do constantly varies.”
Jonathan’s ability to thoughtfully and thoroughly carry out his job is informed by his background in math, as well as by his past experience as an AVA Resident Artist. “Computer Science taught me how to break down a difficult task into smaller, more manageable ones and how to be organized,” he explains. “And having studied at AVA, I can ask myself: What did I experience here that I can help the students not worry about? What can I facilitate for them so that they can just focus on singing?”
Although Jonathan mostly works behind the scenes, you can still find him performing on stage in his free time. Every weekend, he sings at a Lutheran church with a strong music program, as well as at a synagogue. When he’s not setting up or starring in a show, he undertakes property maintenance at AVA—a substantial charge considering our building was constructed back in 1868. “If there’s something that needs to be fixed at my house, I practice at AVA,” jokes Jonathan. “This is an old building and it’s important to preserve the historic architecture.”
Whether it’s an opera or a broken computer, Jonathan keeps it running smoothly, and all of us here at AVA are grateful to him!
Written by Tania Bagan