OUR FOUNDERS

OYO Founders Rebecca Comerford & Julija Zonic  photo by Mariana Schulz

OYO Founders Rebecca Comerford & Julija Zonic photo by Mariana Schulz

Ojai Youth Opera, the first stand-alone Youth Opera Company in the United States, was formed in 2012 by lyric Mezzo Soprano, Rebecca Comerford. A recent transplant to the Ojai Valley from New York City, Rebecca made her Carnegie Hall debut in 2010 in Verdi's Rigoletto under the baton of Metropolitan Opera conductor Steven Crawford and has sung professionally in venues such as Avery Fischer Hall Lincoln Center, the Wiener Staatsoper, The Alhambra Spain, Orpheum Theater Memphis, Tanglewood Music Festival, The Getty Center and for various film scores and chamber music collaborations.

Rebecca was interested in bringing the model of Children's Opera Outreach to her new community after spending many years as a outreach performer with the Metropolitan Opera Guild, Opera Memphis, Eastman Opera Theater and as a co-founder of City Youth Opera Camp, a summer Opera intensive held at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music where she matched colleagues from the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera alongside aspiring young singers ages 7-18 years of age to co-create children's opera performances.

"Opera is a living art form. It is vital, it is fun, it is transformative and it is necessary. I am constantly made aware of this every time I see our young artists share their hearts and souls with the world. As the director of OYO, I aim to pass down the torch of this great tradition while continuing to leave room for it to grow and expand in the minds of our children". ~ Rebecca Comerford

Shortly after arriving in Ojai, Rebecca made the acquaintance of local singer/songwriter and Opera aficionado Smitty West.

Smitty web.jpg

Having seen how the art form of opera can be transformational for both audiences and participants, I am so pleased to be able to participate in this community-centered, novel approach to opera…using the best of us…our youth…as a vehicle to bring beauty and love into our world. ~ Smitty West

With Smitty's enthusiasm and support, Rebecca was introduced to the music community of Ojai and the seed for a Children's Opera Camp was planted. A few months later, Rebecca met Croatian Soprano Julija Zonic. A beloved music educator and performer in the Ojai Valley, Julija's primary vocal training was in Opera and the two friends found an instant rapport and common bond as both singers and educators.

"Once the seed of opera is planted it never leaves you. It stays with you even when you don't give it all of your attention, it stays with you through trials and tribulations, it stays with you as a mark that at some point you did something amazing and worthwhile-- something that is not musical instant Ramen noodles, but filling, slow- cooked musical masterpieces with intricate ingredients. All that on a subconscious level so a  kid who experienced opera knows and feels proud of itheir effort. With carefully calibrated challenges they all rise to their best. " ~ Juilja Zonic

Both women felt that Ojai was the perfect community and destination to build the dream of a Children's Opera Theater that could serve as a cultural institution for Opera lovers both young and old throughout the west coast and beyond to the international community.

Since 2012, Ojai Youth Opera has conducted Opera Camps in Italian, German, and Modern English. Our students have gone on to pursue vocal performance at the college conservatory level, have been cast in supporting roles with regional Opera companies in the United States, have won major scholarships and competitions for singing and continue to amaze us with their craft and dedication.

We have had the distinct honor to have an amazing collaborative piano staff from UCSB, Music Academy of the West, Thacher School, Westmont College and Opera Guest Artists from New York City Opera and the Tanglewood Music Center.

In addition to our summer Opera Workshops, Ojai Youth Opera will be commissioning and performing new works by living composers that are designed for young voices and will be holding workshops and seminars throughout the year.

We are here, together, to keep the torch of opera burning bright for present and future generations. Yours in song, Rebecca, Julija and Smitty

 

BOARD OF DIRECTORS

Rebecca Comerford

Alice Asquith Rhonda Fehr Tessie Goddard Tony Hirsch, M.D. Olga Jones Nusa Maal Jen Miller Sarah Turner Sharon West, M.D. Smitty West Julija Zonic

ADVISORY BOARD

Peter Strauss Deborah Finley Delamore Judy Vander Paula Winans

Alice de Dadelsen Asquith joined Ojai Youth Opera (OYO) to coach students in French for the 2015 Summer Camp and Italian in 2016. Fluent in four languages, she is passionate about music. Hired in 1993 by the LA Philharmonic, she was promoted to Artistic Administrator for the Hollywood Bowl and later Operations Assistant to LAPA’s new Managing Director. In 2000, she became Plácido Domingo's Executive Assistant at the LA Opera. Alice moved to Ojai in 2004 to help her late husband build and manage Ojai Olive Oil Company. She served as an Artistic Administrator pro bono for the fundraising Gala and Opera Summer Camp in August of 2018.

Rebecca Comerford, a lyric mezzo-soprano, is Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Ojai Youth Opera. Rebecca has performed as a soloist in the world’s finest opera houses, including the New York City Opera, Vienna State Opera House, and Lincoln Center. She has been a recording artist for many films, and has acted in films and in On-Stage Broadway and Off-Broadway. She is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and Actors’ Equity. In 2012, Rebecca founded the first stand-alone children's opera company on the West coast, OYO. Through OYO she offers an annual Two week Performance Based Opera Workshop Intensive for students ages 7-18 as well as an outreach program to public and private schools throughout the year. She organizes, directs, rehearses, and presents full-scale operas in Ojai’s Libbey Bowl. Rebecca is dedicated to introducing children to the operatic art form: drama, dancing, stage presence, and healthy vocal techniques.

Rhonda Fehr, motion picture and television producer, is known for Finding Forrester (2000), Entrapment (1999), and Just Cause (1995). Her career included the films Red October and Medicine Man, starring Sean Connery.  She and Connery created their own company, Fountainbridge Films. Their decade-long business relationship included thirteen films.  In 2000, Rhonda married actor Oded Fehr and left the Entertainment Industry to raise their three children in Ojai. Recently she stepped back into her role as producer and is developing several projects.

Tessie Goddard, long-time Ojai resident, is co-owner of ReelTravel TM, arranging travel for film and television production companies. Passionate about the arts, empowering children, and helping those in need, she has volunteered in securing funding for organizations such as The Ojai Valley Youth Foundation, Performances To Grow On, Kids' Arts, The Ojai Music Festival, Ojai Valley School, and Oak Grove School. She raised $20,000 for Typhoon Haiyan (Super Typhoon Yolanda) victims in the Philippines. She was an active volunteer member of the OYO Gala presentation in August 2018.

Anthony T. Hirsch, MD is a Board Certified Pediatrician and Adult and Pediatric Allergist and Immunologist practicing in Ojai. He was raised in an environment of music from rock to classical, and trained as a violinist and a baritone horn player. Tony was introduced to opera by his mother, a professional coloratura, at age 6 and has attended operas ever since. In 2013, he and his wife Barbara were named Living Treasures of Ojai for their work in advocating for the arts in the community.

Nusa Maal, Co-Secretary, president of Sense Smart International ©, is an innovator/scholar in the fields of multi-sensory intelligence and visual communication. Nusa visually facilitated healing & insights for NASA after the Challenger Crash; first responders & families after 9/11/01; and created a 100 ft. traveling exhibit about rebuilding communities after Hurricane Katrina. She visually maps for the World Bank, for individual strategic coaching, and for group facilitations. Her daughter and son have been part of OYO since 2013. Nusa is a passionate supporter of OYO’s mission to bring opera to the Ojai’s young people and its community.

Jen Miller is an acclaimed filmmaker whose documentaries with her production company Horsefly Films have been lauded worldwide and earned her the moniker the "Ken Burns of the Equine World." Jen was a recent finalist in Amazon's Next Great Novel contest, but her most important role is Mom to her son Rafael. Rafael is a serious competitive swimmer and singer/actor, who inherited Jen's own lifelong passion for singing. Jen proudly joined the OYO board when Rafael began singing with OYO in 2013. She was an active member behind the OYO Gala and Summer Camp presentations.

Olga Jones joined the OYO Board in December 2018 – bio to follow.

Sarah Turner, Treasurer, is a Partner and CPA with the Santa Barbara accountancy firm Nasif, Hicks, Harris & Co., LLP. Sarah is a second-generation Ojai native. She, her husband Brian, and their three daughters enjoy camping, hiking and bike riding. All three of her daughters participate in OYO. Sarah believes strongly in OYO's mission and has personally experienced the positive impact opera and classical musical training has on her daughters.

Sharon West, MD, a Veteran of the US Army, is a retired psychiatrist who serves as the OYO Co-Secretary with Nusa Maal and as Grant Committee Chair. She recently presented a program at the Jewish Community of Ojai about musical compositions previously lost during the Holocaust, featuring OYO singers, and presented a multimedia program on Civil Rights in May 2018. Sharon is the grandmother of three of OYO’s long-time participants and an ardent supporter of OYO. She enjoys all genres of music.

Smitty West, Co-Founder of OYO, is a pianist, vocalist, songwriter, and 2009 MAVRIC award winner for Song of the Year: Comedy. His dry, humorist writing style punctuates the mellow, dark tones of the “Smitty and Julija” song poetry sound. He is the principal pianist for the Ventura Jazz Orchestra, and the founder of Ojai Songwriters Anonymous, an Ojai Valley artist group dedicated to the support of local music. Smitty has served as Ojai Rotary President and an Ojai Living Treasure.

Julija Zonic, a soprano and Co-Founder of Ojai Youth Opera Company, was born in Bosnia and raised in Croatia. Julija began her music journey at an early age by studying classical music and voice as part of the world-renowned Girls’ Choir, Zvjezdice.  Her own studies and teaching are based on Italian Bel canto technique, which prepares students for a lifetime of singing.  After studying opera, Julija won a leading role in the musical Circle that toured for three years, changing the direction of her musical career. Now a US citizen, she is actively teaching voice while recording and performing.


ADVISORY BOARD

Deborah Finley Delamore is a retired attorney, having practiced litigation and mediation law for 22 years in LA, Orange, and Ventura Counties. Her focus was Family Law, and she served as President of the Barrister Assoc. and of the Women Lawyers Assoc. She has served on the Boards of the California State Old Time Fiddlers Association, Ojai Music Festival Women’s Committee, and the Jewish Community of Ojai. As a vocalist Debby sings for the Rockin’ It Old School chorus, led by OYO faculty Smitty West and Julija Zonic. Debby is a dedicated OYO supporter and enthusiastic about being on its Advisory Board.

Peter Strauss – bio to follow

Judy Vander- Composer. Bio to follow

Paula Winans - Former Director of Education, Lyric Opera of Kansas City