Christian Elser compares the experience of running a musical theater company to a jet engine.
“A jet engine looks smooth and sleek and runs easily but it has millions of parts, and if one goes wrong that plane goes down,” Elser said.
After five years, however, Elser’s GLOW Lyric Theatre is soaring.
Though not without occasional turbulence along the way.
GLOW, run by Elser and his wife Jenna Tamisiea, has established itself as the only arts group in South Carolina dedicated solely to producing a combination of opera and musical theater.
The nonprofit has staged full-scale productions of “Rent,” “La Boheme,” “The Wiz” and other shows at the Peace Center, Greenville’s cornerstone performing arts venue.
GLOW’s repertoire has included popular operettas at Centre Stage, small-scale musical works at Fountain Inn’s Younts Center and rarely heard gems such as “The Hot Mikado” at the Peace Center.
GLOW is succeeding in the risky and competitive field of the arts, even as similar enterprises in South Carolina have failed.
Opera Charleston made a splashy, big-budget debut in 2012 and promptly crashed to the earth. Another arts group, Greenville Opera, started around the same time as GLOW but lasted only a few years.
Elser and Tamisiea, who live in Greenville, created GLOW with $700 of their own money in 2009. The company now boasts a budget approaching $200,000.
Like any good entrepreneur, the husband-and-wife team in 2009 identified a niche in the local arts community and sought to fill it.
Elser had just arrived in Greenville to become a professor of music at Presbyterian College. Tamisiea, meanwhile, was a successful stage actress working in Atlanta and North Carolina.
“I saw there was a symphony orchestra in Greenville, and there was a chorus, ballet companies and community theaters,” said Elser, GLOW’s general director, as he and Tamisiea enjoyed coffee recently at Greenville’s Spill the Beans.
“But there was no opera at all. I said, ‘Hey, let’s get our friends together and put on a show.’”
What they discovered was a hunger in Greenville for classical music theater — on the part of both fans and performers.
“We had auditions and I thought, ‘No one is going to come,’” said Tamisiea, GLOW’s artistic director. “But over 100 singers showed up, many local singers but also folks from around the region.”
GLOW’s first show was Mozart’s comic opera “The Impresario,” performed in the lobby of the Warehouse Theatre in 2010.
“It sold out immediately,” Elser said.
Other productions soon followed at various Greenville venues. GLOW brought operettas such as “The Mikado,” “Trial By Jury” and “Die Fledermaus” to Centre Stage.
Elser and Tamisiea had enjoyed professional careers as performers — he in opera, she in musical comedy — but neither had any training in how to run a nonprofit.
“As a singer, I came in, I sang and I left,” Elser said with a booming baritone laugh. “I had no idea what the structure of a company was. As far as I knew, everything else mystically happened.”
From the beginning, Elser and Tamisiea divided up the duties.
Elser, who holds a doctorate in vocal performance, handles music direction, conducting and many administrative activities, including programming, contracts, accounting and marketing.
Tamisiea, who is earning her MFA in directing, is in charge of stage directing, costumes and grant-writing.
Both share casting duties and fundraising. Typical of an arts nonprofit, ticket sales cover only a small portion of expenses. In the case of GLOW, tickets fund only about 20 percent of the budget.
Elser and Tamisiea both have learned how to run an opera company by trial and error.
“This has been like a graduate course in theater management,” said Tamisiea, who is originally from Circe, Arkansas.
One of their first lessons was to understand that the buck always stopped with themselves.
“Being an entrepreneur in the arts involves doing most of it yourself,” said Elser, who grew up in Milwaukee. “That’s the advice I give anyone, especially in classical music. You have to create opportunity. It about killed me but I had to do it.”
Luckily, Elser and Tamisiea found that they’re completely compatible as both married partners and business partners.
“It surprised me about how well Christian and I are able to work together,” Tamisiea said.
“It’s very unusual,” Elser said. “We don’t yell at each other.”
“Oh, we do,” Tamisiea added. “But it’s like baking — the combination is right. It’s very collaborative and we always want to do what’s best for the show.”
Suspense and high farce
Elser and Tamisiea discovered that running a theater company is a lot like opera itself: filled with both nail-biting suspense and high farce.
And sometimes, you have to improvise on the spur of the moment.
“When a show is coming up, I know there’ll be at least three major tragedies, no matter how well things are planned,” Elser said.
Sure enough, Elser and Tamisiea encountered three big setbacks prior to GLOW’s recent productions of “The Wiz” and “The Hot Mikado” at the Peace Center in July and August.
First, a major cast member had to be replaced.
“Then, the fire marshal comes in the day before we open and says, ‘You have to change your set or we’ll shut down the show,’” Elser said.
“Five years ago, I think we would have collapsed,” he said. “This year, I thought, ‘OK, let’s get it done.’ You realize there’s always a solution.”
Tamisiea added, “It’s the theater. The show must go on. We’ll work together and find a creative solution to any problem.”
The last mishap this year involved a tour of this summer’s shows. The Oklahoma company producing the tour went out of business.
Elser, with a few years of entrepreneur experience under his belt, had secured much of the funding up front and was able to pay his actors despite the canceled tour.
But such nerve-wracking experiences do take their toll, Elser said.
“Every year it’s more terrifying than the year before,” he said.
Why do they do it?
“All it takes is seeing one person’s reaction after a show,” Tamisiea said. “Or getting a letter from someone saying, ‘This completely changed my life.’”
A particularly joy for Elser and Tamisiea is donating tickets to underprivileged children, many of whom have never been to a musical.
“This past summer, they went crazy over our shows,” Elser said.
“That’s why we do this,” Tamisiea added.
GLOW, an acronym that originally stood for Greenville Light Opera Works, at first featured only operettas.
But Elser and Tamisiea recognized a need to diversify their operations. A few years ago, they redubbed their nonprofit GLOW Lyric Theatre to signal that the company would now include musical theater in its repertoire.
“It has been about finding out where we need to serve the community,” Tamisiea said. “We decided that we might be able to do both opera and musical theater.”
Last year, GLOW became the only opera company in the United States ever to alternate performances of “Rent” and the opera on which that rock musical is based, Puccini’s “La Boheme.”
Elser and Tamisiea also decided to focus their efforts on musicals and operas that speak to social and political challenges in South Carolina.
This past summer’s “Hot Mikado” and “The Wiz,” with highly diverse casts, offered an inclusive slant on classic stories.
Next summer’s planned performances — “West Side Story” and Charles Gounod’s opera “Romeo and Juliet” — include themes of immigration and the poison of racism and hatred.
“We’re interested in producing shows that are in direct response to the social and political climate of South Carolina,” Tamisiea said. “It’s important for us not only to be accessible and entertaining but also to produce something that is current and relevant to what is going on in our state.”
Pro from the start
From the beginning, Elser and Tamisiea wanted to pay their actors — at least a nominal wage.
“We wanted this to be an opportunity for professionals,” Tamisiea said.
“Even if it was just 50 bucks.” Elser added.
Elser and Tamisiea are currently planning GLOW’s next season. In addition to “West Side Story” and “Romeo and Juliet” next summer, they’ll again stage Gian Carlo Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” at the Younts Center, Dec. 18-20.
They’re also scheduling a new Encore Series, featuring five one-night concerts, also at the Younts Center.
Elser and Tamisiea maintain two households — one in Greenville and the other in Tallahassee, Florida, where Tamisiea is completing her MFA in directing.
Both dedicate about half of their daily working lives to GLOW. Elser juggles those responsibilities with teaching voice, music history and overseeing the opera and musical theater programs at Presbyterian College.
Elser’s advice to would-be arts entrepreneurs is “don’t be afraid to fail.”
“You may fail spectacularly but that’s OK,” Elser added. “That’s the only way you can learn. A couple of failures might make a good success. Also, do not plan to do anything that you’re not prepared to do yourself. Take responsibility for it.”
With all of the challenges of running an opera and musical theater company, are Elser and Tamisiea committed to keeping GLOW alive over the long term?
“Till the day I die,” Elser said.
For the latest in local arts news and reviews, follow Paul Hyde on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7.
For more information about GLOW Lyric Theatre, call 864-558-4569 or see the website glowlyric.com.