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John Baber Weekly Webb: Pops orchestra to honor Baber for longtime service to music community

APRIL 19, 2013 7:15 AM  •  

John Baber could have stayed on the farm in Miles City.

Or he could have become a dancer in New York City, but he picked teaching. Actually, Sister Mary McDonald helped him with that choice.

Baber was touring the West Coast in the early 1960s with a band he’d joined up with in Missoula when an NYC talent scout offered him an audition for a show Baber thought was “Camel’s Lot.” The show was actually “Camelot” and the farm kid from Montana was en route to the audition when the car he was riding in was sideswiped by another vehicle on a Portland bridge.

“I went through the windshield,” Baber said.

That was half a century ago, but Baber never forgot the pain and embarrassment of the facial lacerations he received in the accident.

“I went back to Miles City and did a pity party. I didn’t want to see anybody,” Baber said.

Then along comes Sister Mary McDonald, an educator at Sacred Heart Catholic School. She coaxed Baber, now 72, into the school by asking him to help carry in a box for her. Baber believes the box was actually empty. But when he stepped into an elementary classroom, a first-grade girl with long blond hair ran up to him, gave him a hug, and asked, “Are you going to be our new teacher?”

Baber tells this story as if it happened last week and his eyes shine when he says that young girl followed him into the teaching profession and now works in Billings. Baber taught for two years on an emergency certification in Miles City and eventually finished a teaching degree and master’s degree at Montana State University Billings, studying art, music, drama and dance. He taught a total of 44 years before retiring in 2002. But Baber never really retired.

He’s been directing the Billings Pops Orchestra for years and was a founding member of the organization when it started in 2000. The group is honoring him Sunday by paying musical tribute to Baber at the spring concert and ice cream social. The event will be held from 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday at the Shrine Auditorium. Organizers are asking that Baber’s former and current students come to honor him. Another one of Baber’s music groups, the Shrine Chanters, will also perform. Baber’s cousin, Billings mayor Tom Hanel, will emcee.

“I’ve had a busy life, a wonderful life,” Baber said. “There is just so much to give.”

Scott Corey, coordinator of music and art for School District 2, said Baber's contributions are so impressive, they can't be measured.

"John has been a tremendous mentor to many, many teachers, as well as a huge influence on probably throusands of students," Corey said. "His love of music has always been infectious, and is easily caught by those around him."

Julie Solberg, concertmaster for the Pops Orchestra, said Baber has grown the orchestra because he is so warm and encouraging.

"He is the key reason why we're still a group, why we're still together," Solberg said.

Baber has been directing the Shrine Chanters since 2004 and was a member of the that organization starting back in 1987. He’s held national state and national offices with Shrine music organizations and the Montana Music Education Association. He was named teacher of the year by the Billings Education Association in 2002 and has been Montana’s Grand Masonic Organist four times.

Still, Baber found time over the years to help found the Rimrock Opera Company direct and choreograph musicals at Billings Studio Theatre over he years, including “My Fair Lady” “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” In his spare time, he wrote a musical, “Fool's Clothes,” which he hopes to produce one day.

Gail Hein, of ROC, said Baber has been a major part of the Billings cultural scene for over 40 years.

"John Baber was one of the visionaries who worked together over kitchen tables coaxing an opera company into reality in the late 1990s," Hein said.

Baber has a way of coaxing many people to rise to their full potential. Now it's time to celebrate Baber's own journey to greatness.


Gail Hein’s first taste of opera was listening to live performances from the Met on the radio as a youngster. Now she works to promote Rimrock Opera productions.

Read more: http://billingsgazette.com/uploaded-photos/gail-hein-rimrock-opera-company/image_5da4173a-b36c-5d2d-9e53-25a2f1b4ee03.html#ixzz3XDq8sRQq


Gail HeinMash-up: Rimrock Opera's Gail Hein interviewed by magician Kameron Messmer

DECEMBER 09, 2011 12:00 AM

Rimrock Opera Company administrative director Gail Hein is interviewed by Billings magician Kameron Messmer.

If you were to expose someone to opera for the first time, which opera would you suggest, and why?

I would probably tailor the opera to the person. For a woman of any age, I would recommend initiation by means of “La Traviata” or “La Bohème,” tear-jerker three-hanky love stories with achingly beautiful music fit to rip your heart out. Men might be entertained with a hilarious opera such as “The Barber of Seville,” because they would recognize some of the key melodies from Bugs Bunny cartoons; or the high-action drama of “Carmen” with bullfighters, soldiers and smugglers, and again whistle-worthy familiar “hit tunes.” Who doesn’t know the Toreador song?

What do you tell people to get them interested in opera?

Don’t make a judgment if you haven’t seen one! Then I nag until they agree to go. I think my success rate at conversion to opera is running about 90 percent.

What is your job and what does it entail?

My title, administrative director for Rimrock Opera Company, pretty much means I do nothing you see on stage. Although now that I think of it, I have made a few costumes and props. I still have a “cherry tree” planted in a pail of concrete for “Madame Butterfly,” dozens of tiny pink blossoms hot glued to a tree branch. Mainly my work is publicity, press releases, preparing the programs for operas and fundraising events, grant writing, and all of the other “wordy” stuff that goes on year-round. I also do some freelance writing on the side.

Any funny stories about any of the operas you’ve been involved with?

In 2004, Rimrock Opera premiered the opera “Nosferatu.” In Act 2, Count Orlock (Dracula) arrives by ship. The distance to “shore” was a bit shorter than calculated, and in dress rehearsal the bow of the ship jabbed a hole right through the scrim (sheer black curtain at the front of the stage). At the end of the opera, the heroine exposes Dracula to the rising sun and he vanishes in an explosion of smoke. Opening night was perfect, but in the final performance, there was too much powder in the charge. It exploded on cue and Dracula vanished —with a smoking wig and costume.

Most operas seem to be in languages other than English. How does someone follow the story?

They read the supertitles. People often ask why all operas aren’t sung in English. The answer is that the music is written for a particular language. It’s difficult to match syllable for note in any other language. Supertitles got their start in 1983 when opera companies discovered they could boost attendance and engage dozing spouses by projecting the text above the stage. PowerPoint makes it easier, a far cry from the noisy old slide projector. Rimrock Opera uses titles even in operas sung in English, so you won’t miss a word.

What are some common misconceptions about opera?

Myth: It’s expensive. Yes, you can fly to New York and buy a $300 seat at the Metropolitan Opera, but a top-class Rimrock Opera production costs as little as $22, about the price of one movie, large popcorn and drink.

Myth: It’s for “the elite.” On the contrary, opera has something for everyone and has it in abundance — beautiful divas, dashing heroes and vile villains, full orchestra, clever choreography, exotic costumes, panoramic sets, charming children’s choruses, and above all, “Olympic-trained” voices that can stick a high note to the wall behind nosebleed level with never a microphone.

Myth: You have to dress up for the opera. Not so. Thinking back on Rimrock Opera’s recent production of “Rigoletto” at the ABT, I saw patrons in classic Western wear, youth in jeans and flip-flops, two young men in top hats and tails, children in Sunday best, a mink stole, gowns, tuxes, and many folks in everyday street clothes. Come as yourself.

What got you interested in opera?

When I was growing up, we had no TV. I listened to the Saturday kid shows on the radio, and just left it on for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. I could whistle some of the catchy arias, but had not the vaguest notion what an opera was. My first live opera was “La Bohème” by a traveling company at the Shrine Auditorium — no sets, minimal costuming. I was hooked forever. When Rimrock Opera was in its early stages, I was invited to be a board member. I went to my first meeting with a freshly broken right arm, my brain in a pain-medicated stupor, and knowing very little more about opera than I did as a child. Over the next 11 years, opera became both my passion and avocation.

What other forms of entertainment do you enjoy?

Symphonic, choral, and chamber music are high on my favorites list; musical theater — make that just about any live theater — movies, and books, books, books. Yellowstone Public Radio is almost always on in my house and car. And the occasional bit on public television.

What aspects of opera could help other art forms, like magic for example?

Opera relies on illusion, just as magic does. Both expect the audience to suspend their disbelief for a little while. When the lighting designer flashes a streak of white across a black backdrop, coordinated with a percussion crash from the orchestra pit, the audience experiences a violent storm. When Don Giovanni is dragged from his life of debauchery into the flaming pit of hell, we feel the heat and the terror. Opera directors might do well to observe a good magician at his craft and vice versa!

What is the best thing about living in Billings?

We moved back to Billings after seven years in a large city. I can’t think of anything available there that we don’t have here and the list is endless — cultural choices beyond our ability to partake, fine dining, good infrastructure, and best of all, friendly people.