Working Chicago Musician: Mallory Harding & Leah Rockweit, Indie Opera Dynamos

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By Lara Levitan

Leah and Mallory.

Leah (l) and Mallory (r).

When opportunities are hard to come by, make them. Piano teacher Mallory Harding certainly took this advice.

After completing her Masters of Music in Missouri, Mallory moved to Chicago with the hope of launching her opera career. But the surplus of talented singers and scarcity of jobs made the scene tough to break into.

Working with a few small opera companies run by young musicians, though, inspired her to try running her own.

Started in 2015, New Moon Opera’s artistic team is now five members strong, and includes fellow piano teacher Leah Rockweit, and Mallory’s brother Drew Harding, a violin maker and wood worker.

Recently, the team wrapped up a production of Hansel and Gretel (featuring two Piano Power students), and has also performed The Marriage of Figaro, Moonlight Serenade, a concert of operetta and Broadway favorites, an opera scenes gala concert, and a holiday concert.

still from Hansel & Gretel production

Mallory as Hansel (l) in Hansel & Gretel.

As New Moon closes in on one year, I asked Mallory and Leah to share their stories and the wisdom gained from their experience so far.

What are the major challenges of running a small opera company?

Mallory: Fundraising and getting all the props, costumes, and set pieces we need.

Leah: With such a small company, there is a lot of work to do without a lot of money or time. When people are basically donating their time for the love of the art form, it puts most of the work and stress on the artistic team.

What about the joys?

M: On closing night of Hansel and Gretel in May, a family told our stage director that they wanted to expose their two young kids to opera, but thought they would leave at intermission (it’s a long time to sit for a child). But their kids liked it so much they stayed— and demanded to come back the next night! We’re happy to introduce people to opera who are excited about it.

L: I love seeing hard work and time pay off. The musicians involved with New Moon are in it for the love of the art. Everyone puts their heart into it. That makes it both fun to do and a great production.

Mallory, what qualities are most valuable as the founder/director of an opera company?

You need to be extremely creative while very organized, and keep an eye to the business side of performance.

Leah, why did you decide to join the artistic team?

Both for the experience of learning how a company gets up and running, and because I consider the other people involved (Mallory especially) to be wonderful, talented friends, and I am happy to support them however I can.

What have you taken away from your experience with New Moon thus far?

M: We definitely chose the wrong opera to do for our first production, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. We chose it because Mozart is great for younger singers, and the opera is performed a lot so it would give our singers an experience they can use later. Plus there are so many characters with large roles, which gave everyone a chance to shine.

However, the opera has a very convoluted plot that centers around several props and disguises, and that was difficult to pull off with our budget. Also, that there are so many complicated ensemble numbers in the opera made it a beast to rehearse! So I have learned a valuable lesson: keep it simple.

The cast of Hansel and Gretel, which included two Piano Power students.

The cast of Hansel and Gretel, which included two Piano Power students.

What advice might you give to someone endeavoring to run an opera company?

M: Do lots of research! There are many opera companies all over the country doing what we are trying to do, so looking at what other groups have done helps a lot. Research possible operas for your group to perform, and know the challenges, common practices, etc. Don’t be afraid to do things in English, even musical theater or operetta. Try to appeal to what your audience knows already about opera, but also surprise and educate them so they keep coming back.

And remember, there are many good ideas but sometimes you just need to pick one and go with it. Don’t be afraid to take action.

L: Plan. Find a solid group of people that are willing to dedicate their time and effort to the cause.

Is it easy to network with other opera professionals in Chicago?

M: For me it is not so easy, because I am kind of an introvert and most other opera professionals seem to be very outgoing. And it’s hard to break into the scene mainly because there are so many amazing singers and comparatively few jobs. But the emergence of micro opera companies like New Moon has made it easier for young singers like myself to get some experience and make connections.

L: There are plenty of opportunities to meet up and perform with other musicians, and there are enough musicians that you can find people interested in being a part of your project. However, I also find– and maybe this is my small-town-girl side talking– that people in Chicago can be preoccupied with what is going on in their professional life, and don’t spend enough time just socializing with others. A lot of fun ideas can come from just fun social interaction.

Opera is tough to break into anywhere, not just Chicago. Now that I have spent a couple years on the audition scene, I’m always pleased at the amount of faces I recognize everywhere I go. It’s a smaller group of people than it seems at first, and I have generally found the people to be very welcoming, respectful, and supportive of one another.

What are your long-term goals?

M: For myself, I would very much like to sing opera professionally as my full-time job. For New Moon, I would love to be able to put on two full opera productions per year with a chamber orchestra, and be able to pay our artists at a much higher rate. I would also love to be able to have an education part of New Moon that would run an Opera and Musical Theater workshop for middle and high school students and taught by our wonderful artists.

L: I think in two year spans. In two years, I hope to be doing roughly the same thing I am now, just more smoothly. Finding balance between teaching, performing, and working other jobs to make ends meet isn’t easy. I hope in two years I have mastered this a bit more. I only have a few main roles on my resume, and a big goal is to build that up! With New Moon, I hope to become as involved as I can. I love performing, but I also love working on sets and costumes and brainstorming ideas.

Have you noticed a rise of other indie opera companies in Chicago like there are in NYC?

M: There definitely seems to be a rise in small opera companies in Chicago, but it seems many have been around for quite some time, too. Luckily, small opera companies’ intimate venues and lower ticket prices attract not only the opera lovers that attend the Lyric Opera of Chicago, but also people who have not previously seen an opera before and want to give it a try.

L: There are a lot of indie companies popping up here. As a singer, it is one of the things that keeps me in Chicago. Again, with these companies, you have to be in it for the love of it. That’s exactly why I do it. In my mind, this is the way opera is supposed to be. It’s not meant to be only for the rich and stuffy. It’s supposed to be an art form that is unlike what most people are used to. It gives people the opportunity to go outside of their normal routine and see something different.

What’s next for New Moon?

In August New Moon will perform an abridged version of Hansel and Gretel at Access Contemporary Music’s first annual Thirsty Ears Classical Music Street Festival in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. And the company is the newest community partner in Chicago Opera Theater’s Opera Underground, a young professionals group that provides immersive opera experiences in casual settings like pubs and breweries.

Want to read more from our Working Chicago Musician series? Check out our profiles of pianist Andrew Lawrence and jazz drummer Lucas Gillan.

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