Inspired by Opera

By Laura Valenza, October 23, 2023
Allison Swenson ’07 shows opera and Omaha her love.

Allison Swenson ’07 wants everyone to know that opera is not boring, expensive, or outdated. As a matter of fact, “opera is alive” with “new operas being written all the time.” And yes, there are English subtitles. As general director of Opera Omaha, Swenson is setting the scene for optimum community engagement: “We’re here. We matter. We’re fun.”

But she admits she fell asleep during her first opera (Marriage of Figaro) at age 11. It wasn’t until her teen years that she gave Mozart’s The Magic Flute a standing ovation, and her passion for opera seized center stage: “It was like someone had turned on a light switch, and I went, ‘Oh, this is what it’s all about. This is what my life is going to be.’”

Music informed almost every aspect of Swenson’s early years. She took piano and trombone lessons and sang at events while one of her parents played the piano. Her parents, who were both music teachers, took out a Metropolitan Guild membership in her name as soon as she was born. “I felt different,” she said. “There weren’t a lot of other 12-year-old opera fans in rural central Pennsylvania, and I had great friends growing up, but I always felt a little bit on the outside.”

Ithaca College, at last, gave her a true sense of belonging. A trip to Boston with the college’s women’s choir shines in her IC memories. She spent the bus ride with fellow student Victoria, talking about so much more than music—movies, books, at least an hour on Jane Austen alone. “I really found my crew, the group of people who understood me and accepted me,” said Swenson. And she found

“It was like someone had turned on a light switch, and I went, ‘Oh, this is what it’s all about. This is what my life is going to be.’”

Allison Swenson

Of her time at IC, she said, “I was cared for, but I was also free to make my own decisions.” Between Professor Craig Cummings, who challenged her in advanced music theory, and the voice lessons of Deborah Montgomery-Cove, Swenson gained the experiences that would help her become the strong and compassionate leader she is today. As a music major with an outside field in marketing communications, she saw getting the title role in Handel’s Acis and Galatea as her crowning achievement, despite having only had half the voice lesson time of other music majors. That experience now helps her have empathy for the performers at Opera Omaha.

Swenson is on a mission to prove opera is not out of reach: “We employ people from out of state to come to Nebraska and share their talents with the greater community of Omaha. Everything is tailor-made for the audience here in Omaha. To be here, to matter, to have fun form the foundation of a community as much for those who want to work in opera, as well as for those ready to feel inspired by a night at the theatre.”

“If you’re running an opera company, the best quality you can have is a love of opera,” she said. “And I have that.” She noted the words of her mentor Charles MacKay, general director of the Santa Fe opera, who said, “Never underestimate where your love of opera will take you.” Swenson’s experience has borne out that statement: “I am one of the very lucky people who gets to do what they’ve always wanted to do.”