Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’re by now well aware of Glee, the new Fox TV show whose first full season starts this fall. The comedy centers around Will Schuester, a young high school teacher played by Matt Morrison, who tries to resuscitate the school’s ailing show choir, and judging from the one promo episode that aired last May, it is riotously funny—P.C., the show is not. (The creator of the show is Ryan Murphy of Nip/Tuck and Popular fame.) Fox has waged an unusually long, intense P.R. campaign that started with the airing of that single episode, followed by relentless advertising, online contests, and other promos. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Jane Lynch, who plays a wickedly cutthroat cheerleading coach at the fictional high school, is in the cast—my kids have been endlessly repeating her waterboarding and hepatitis jokes all summer. Yes, in the middle of the most serious economic mess we’ve seen in a long time is an extremely silly television show about … singing. Interesting.
A few weeks before Glee was set to air on television, I spoke with Ralph S. Opacic, who is the founder, president, and executive director of the Orange County High School of the Arts. Matt Morrison graduated from OCHSA in 1997, and went on to do music theater, including South Pacific, Light in the Piazza, and Hairspray.
Opacic and I spoke about how he went about starting an arts school back in the 1980s, the ongoing effort to get funding for his school, what Matt Morrison was like as a high school student, and what on earth “show choir” singing is. Full disclosure: I am old enough that when I attended public high school “show choirs” did not exist.
Jennifer Melick: Congratulations on the success of the Orange County High School of Arts, which you founded 23 years ago. Tell me about how the school started.
Ralph Opacic: I was a high school music teacher. Before that, at age 18, seeking fame and fortune in the 1970s, I wanted to be the next Billy Joel. And I went to Cal State University-Long Beach, was working on a bachelor’s degree in piano and voice. I had gone there because the director of choral studies there was a gentleman by the name of Frank Pooler, who launched the careers of Karen and Richard Carpenter. So I came out wanting to follow in their footsteps through A&M Records. I graduated from college with a bachelor of music degree and realized I knew how to sing and play piano, knew music theory, music history and all of those wonderful things. But I had no idea how to make a living or build a career out of music. So I took a job as a high school music teacher. I was doing piano-bar and band stuff at night, trying to make my way. And as I struggled through my early twenties, I thought, gosh, wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was place where those who aspired to go into the arts had mentors to lead them there? And from my dismal failure came the idea of the Orange County High School of the Arts.
Jennifer Melick: Were you teaching in a public school back then?
Ralph Opacic: I was teaching at a public high school in Los Alamitos, California, which is also in Orange County. I was a high school music teacher, and then I wrote the grant to start the high school for the arts, so I was teaching choral music in the mornings, and I was running the high school of the arts as an afterschool program when it was in its infancy—at the same time.
Jennifer Melick: So you applied for funding to get it started. And kids have to audition to get into the school. Is it a public school?
Ralph Opacic: It is now. For the first thirteen years, it was a school-within-a-school, a school with an afterschool arts program. For the past ten years, it’s been a public charter school. So it’s tuition-free, although part of my job is to raise approximately $3 million to $4 million a year for the arts part of the day. The students take their academics from 8 to 2, then they take their arts-conservatory classes from 2 to 5.
Jennifer Melick: For each school year, is keeping the no-tuition policy contingent upon getting enough funds raised?
Ralph Opacic: Well, it’s a public school, so by law we would never be able to charge tuition. However, if the fundraising went away, the school would go away, because it’s fundraising that’s paying for the arts-conservatory part of the day.
Jennifer Melick: Between doing everything that you have to do running the place, do you do any teaching?
Ralph Opacic: For the first ten years, I was very involved in directing the musicals, and was very hands-on, because again, when we started in 1987 we had 100 kids, and for the first 13 years we had about 450 kids, so there was a small group of us that did everything. And now we are over 1,400 students, so I have a staff of over 100 staff now. So I’m more on an administrative level now.
Jennifer Melick: That’s a big staff.
Ralph Opacic: Yeah, we have 45 full-time academic teachers, about 20 full-time arts teachers, and then about 100 artist teachers that come in on an hourly basis, either one day a week, or multiple days a week to do the arts part of the day—artist teachers, we call them.
Jennifer Melick: When did you meet Matt Morrison?
Ralph Opacic: I believe he graduated in 1997. He came in about 1992 or 1993. And he came in as a freshman and just had great great charisma—as he still does—he had just natural talent and ability, and he was just very likable, one of those people that lit up the stage.
And of course in the new Glee drama, he plays the high school music teacher. And so he’s actually in the new show taking a bunch of misfits and building it into a championship show choir—that’s the fictional part. I’ve never met the producer or writers of the show. It’s coincidental that I started as a high school music teacher with 30 kids and grew it to 300 kids. And from that grew the high school of the arts. But it’s just a coincidence that my life’s path and the character he is playing are parallel.
Jennifer Melick: Do you stay in touch with Matt, and what does he say about his life since getting cast as a lead in Glee?
Ralph Opacic: I do. He actually came back in March and we showcased him in our annual gala event, which raises about $1 million for the school, and he had just started shooting Glee episodes then. And then we chat either by phone or email every few weeks. He’s basically working 20-hour days right now, and it’s very exciting and new for him, when he’s not taping, he’s in the studio recording. And it’s even different than a traditional television series because of the music part of it, the choreography and all of that. It’s long, long days. But he’s loving it—you know, he’s been on Broadway the last eight years, and it’s a completely different experience. And I think he’s really enjoying the fact that it’s such a new experience.
Jennifer Melick: Has Matt—because of the show or for other reasons—become a star graduate of your high school?
Ralph Opacic: Oh, absolutely. By the way, you can go on YouTube, and do a search OCHSA and then do GALA, and you can see a clip of what Matt did with us at the gala, and you can see some clips of some of the gala performances we did, which are very Glee-like. At the school, I’ve got 350 musical theater kids, and I’ve got 120 commercial dancers, because of the nature of Glee Matt has become a big star—kids have also known who he was because he was in Hairspray, and he was in Light on the Piazza on Broadway—but this is kind of catapulted him to a different level. The school’s seventh- and eighth-graders can’t wait for the series to start.
Jennifer Melick: It definitely appeals to that age group. My two kids are anxiously awaiting the start of the Glee fall season. The promoters of the show have created a lot of advance spin on Glee. Have you been getting a lot of calls from members of the media?
Ralph Opacic: Not so much right now. The Orange County Register did a piece when they aired the preview in May—“Hometown boy makes good”—you know, alumnus from the Orange County School for the Performing Arts makes good. But really, I think that it all kind of quieted down, but I think things will pick up when it kicks off in September.
Jennifer Melick: I wanted to ask about the singing depicted on Glee. The singing that you see is a lot of pop singing and dancing and choreographed routines. There are little pieces of classical —I heard “Golliwog’s Cakewalk” in there, used humorously, and that sort of thing. Your school, does it offer that type of performing, and a range of different types of singing instruction and performance?
Ralph Opacic: Absolutely. But again, any traditional high school that has a good choral program, it really tends to be the show choir the draws kids and brings them in.
Jennifer Melick: By the show choir, you mean Broadway style performing?
Ralph Opacic: Actually, in Glee what they’re doing is a show-choir piece where there’s singing and dancing and stage movement and all of that. That’s called a show choir. And the show-choir movement, over the last twenty years or so, or more, choral directors that have been successful have moved toward a show choir format, to attract the kids and get them, because that’s something they’re familiar with, they like the popular music, they like the dancing. Then you use that format to sneak in the classical music, and you get them excited about singing, about singing parts, choral parts, and then you slowly introduce them to classical music.
Jennifer Melick: At your school, if the kids want to do, say, show-choir singing, they are also required to take other types of performance training?
Ralph Opacic: Correct. It’s all part of the package. They need to learn—they need to have some traditional experience. Especially if they’re going to continue on in music.
Jennifer Melick: How many choirs and orchestras and bands do you have there?
Ralph Opacic: Oh lord. Um, we have eleven conservatories, and those are a ballet folklorico group, a commercial dance group, which is jazz/tap/hip-hop, that kind of thing. We have classical dance conservatory, which is the ballet/lyrical modern dance. We have a film and television program. We have musical theater program , which is our actors and our singers. We have an instrumental-music program—a string orchestra, wind ensemble, jazz/big-band, a piano program, a guitar program. We have opera, an opera-choral conservatory. We’ve got production and design—the lighting and sound and scenic design and costuming and all of that. We have visual arts, just about everything in drawing, painting, ceramics, jewelry, sculpture, everything 2-D, 3-D. And then we have an integrated arts program where a student wants to do some singing, some dance, some design, it’s kind of more of a liberal-arts type of approach.
Jennifer Melick: Which area, or conservatory, tends to draw the most applications?
Ralph Opacic: By far, it’s musical theater—that’s the actors and singers. Of our 1,400 students, 360 of them are in that conservatory. And that’s the largest by far, probably three times the size of any other conservatory.
Jennifer Melick: And what’s the hardest arts department for you to fill, to get the minimum number you need to put on the performances you do?
Ralph Opacic: Classical-contemporary dance department, which is our ballet-modern. And our opera program, because again, both of those have more of a classical foundation. And musical theater, acting, singing, and commercial dance, everybody did their dance studio, and did jazz and tap, so those are much more accessible to the kids, and they’re much more comfortable in those genres.
Jennifer Melick: Plus, if you’re doing musical theater, you’re expected to have all those other areas. The other problem, too, with opera, is the age is a little problematic. You can start studying, but there’s a lot you can’t do until you’re older.
Ralph Opacic: That’s correct. And in reality, developmentally, the scope of what they can do is limited. But in classical dance, really it’s such a narrow field that if by 16 years old you haven’t been identified that you’ve got potential to go with a company like ABT (American Ballet Theater) or something like that, it’s a real hard road.
Jennifer Melick: As a rough analogy, would you say your school is comparable to LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts, in New York?
Ralph Opacic: Oh, absolutely. LaGuardia in New York, Duke Ellington in Washington, D.C., New World School of the Arts in Miami, L.A. County—we’re one of the more prominent arts schools in the country. I’m the president-elect of the Arts School Network, which is all of the major arts schools around the country; there are about 200 members. So I’m very familiar with all the major arts schools around the country.
Jennifer Melick: If you could wish for anything that having a show like Glee on major network television might do, what do you hope it will do for the arts, and for kids?
Ralph Opacic: I hope it brings to attention how wonderful and exciting the arts are for kids. I think every kid should have an arts experience, and I hope it awakens the educational community that the arts are an essential part of every kid’s education.
Jennifer Melick: That’s a whole other issue that’s being debated right now, trying to get that formally into the core curriculum for national educational standards.
You can watch the episode of Glee that first aired in May here.