Isaac Selya brings 21st century innovation to opera in Cincinnati

When one thinks of the idea of innovation or the startup world, it usually calls to mind a certain cache of associated areas. Those might be areas like mobile technology and apps, consumer goods or even a new food truck in town. One phrase that doesn’t usually get brought into the discussion is “classical music." In Cincinnati, Isaac Selya is changing that perception.
In 2012, Selya founded Queen City Chamber Opera (QCCO) as an outlet for emerging artists to advance their careers by giving them valuable professional engagements in fully staged productions.
“As either a singer or a conductor, it’s very difficult to launch a career in opera because no one will hire you unless they know you’ve done something before at a very high-stakes professional situation,” Selya says. “We give them that professional situation.”
Much like many entrepreneurs and company founders, Isaac’s decision to start QCCO was a response to a challenge he felt in his own life. After getting a masters degree in orchestral conducting from Mannes College in New York, he found himself in contention but ultimately not chosen for a handful of jobs.
Since arriving at the College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) at the University of Cincinnati, where he will receive his doctorate of musical arts in conducting in the spring, he has found himself taking on new roles.
“My first year at CCM, Maestro Mark Gibson taught me some incredible tools and then threw me into a production of La Tragedie de Carmen,'” Selya says. “That’s when I realized that I could handle this on my own.”
These experiences led Isaac to create the QCCO, which has produced two shows since its inception last year, a double bill of rarely heard Mozart pieces "Der Schaupsieldirektor" and "Bastien und Bastienne," and another double bill of Mozart’s "Zaide" and Weber’s "Abu Hassan."
Currently a small company, Selya calls himself the “benign dictator” of Queen City Chamber Opera; his official title is founder and artistic director. On account of its size, QCCO is able to be more limber than most other companies, which has led it to operate in innovative ways.
For example, on the company website it states, “QCCO is unique among opera companies in the world in that our organization is structured with complete vertical integration in artistic preparation.” In laymen’s terms, this means that while there are fewer people taking on more duties for each production, the end result is that it ensures “a unity of artistic vision that is impossible in larger companies that have separate staffs.”
Additionally, since the QCCO does not have a home, like the Cincinnati Opera has in Music Hall, it has been bringing opera to new locations and attracting new audiences in the process. The first production was held at the Hoffner Lodge in Northside, while the second at the Fath Auditorium at the Cincinnati Art Museum.
“So far, we’ve seen a lot of current opera-goers coming to our productions, but we’ve also seen many new, young faces,” Selya says. “Many of those newcomers may have been there to see their friends who are performing, then they discover that they like what they see as an art form.”
Currently, QCCO is working on a production of "L’Amore dei Tre Re" by Italo Montemezzi, which will run on November 2 and 3 at the Dunham Arts Center Theatre on the west side of Cincinnati. Selya says he couldn’t be happier with the nontraditional location.
“I couldn’t believe that such a beautiful, recently renovated theater space was just sitting there,” he says. “I was totally shocked; I feel like Cincinnati is full of hidden treasures, and this is definitely one of them.”
Selya is equally excited with some of the collaborations and partnerships the opera company has allowed him. For example, QCCO’s production of "L’Amore dei Tre Re" will star Marco Panuccio, who has been a fixture of Cincinnati’s classical music scene for years, singing in the Cincinnati Opera most notably.
“Marco came to me and said, 'this is one of my favorite opers, we have to do this.' Whenever I get the chance to work with an artist of his caliber, I jump at it. He introduced me to the piece and I really think it’s going to be great. This happens to be the 100th anniversary of the opera, so we’ll also be celebrating that.”
Outside of Panuccio, Cincinnati Opera as an organization has already been very supportive of QCCO’s efforts.
“They are helping us to promote our upcoming production, as it falls during National Opera Week,” Selya says. “Their goal in this is getting more people interested in opera, and since we’ve run during their offseason, our productions have been a nice complement to the world-class offerings they put on each summer.”
Other frequent collaborators include MYCincinnati, a youth orchestra program modeled after El Sistema, Venezuala’s monumental music education program, and ArtsWave, a local nonprofit dedicated to enhancing community through arts and culture that connects people.
“ArtsWave has been incredibly helpful,” Selya says. “Both last year and this year we received funding from a CCM/ArtsWave partnership, and then they set us up with Mary Newman, an attorney at Dinsmore and Shohl,  through a new program they have called Lawyers for the Arts. That was crucial for us in terms of learning how to write contracts, structure the organization and write incorporation documents. With their help, we applied for and received tax-exempt status from the IRS. Now ArtsWave is generously supporting our November production as well.”
Selya also notes that CCM has played an important role in the early success of QCCO and he hopes that they will continue to do so.
“I think that conservatories around the country are realizing that the classical music market is not so good at the moment. Especially if you train musicians just to play and then send them out to find jobs, there are so few jobs," Selya says. "So more and more, CCM and conservatories in general are teaching musicians to be entrepreneurial, to create their own jobs. So they’ve been very supportive because this is the type of thing that creates more jobs for their graduates.”
For now, Selya and everyone else at QCCO have their sights squarely set on November for their production of "L’Amore dei Tre Re." Selya says they will then look to do another production in the springtime.
“Ideally, I’d like to grow this into a company that has a season—maybe three productions a year—so that singers that are in town, are done with school and are ready can get work so we can keep young people in Cincinnati and so we can build the opera audience during the year.”
To learn more about Queen City Chamber Opera or to purchase tickets for their upcoming production, click here.
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