Nate Wheatley ’07: Bringing opera into the 21st century

19th June 2020

By Steven Krolak

(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–In the 12-minute opera Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens, Paula Deen makes her signature Lady’s Brunch Burger in her stage kitchen, takes a bite, chokes, dies, and is transported to the gates of heaven, where she is greeted by two angels who implore her to repent of her overuse of butter, but she tempts them with even more butter, whereupon God strips them of their wings, and things descend into a butter-eating frenzy.

Then the audience is served Krispy Kreme donuts paired with a local microbrew.

Welcome to Opera180, a small company in Kansas City, Missouri, co-founded by Nate Wheatley ’07.

Krispy Kremes and Butter Queens might not be what comes to mind when you think of opera. But it may be what opera needs to look like if it is to survive as an art form.

After years building a stellar reputation as a lighting designer with regional opera companies across America, Wheatley has become an agent of change as Opera180’s executive director.

That means moving away from costly productions of established and even new operas in order to serve a public that has less time and money to spend on its passions.

“As people gravitate more towards Netflix, Hulu and the like, and are working multiple jobs, it is our responsibility as artists to meet those patrons where they are,” Wheatley said. “We all love big classic opera, and don’t want it to die, but we have taken up the mantle in an endeavor to pave the way for tomorrow’s opera lovers by inspiring them today.”

Finding community

Wheatley’s path from easygoing undergrad to impresario of the future has not been linear.

After auditioning for performing roles and trying his hand at scenery, Wheatley found his comfort zone in lighting.

“Lighting became a medium in which I could paint, but when I made a mistake I could fix it with the stroke of a few keys or changing a color filter in a light,” Wheatley said. “I felt the true power of being a lighting designer.”

He also discovered two other key elements for success in theater: business chops and people.

 “It was the community found in theatre that kept me coming back and made me realize that this is where I wanted to spend the rest of my life.”

In his senior year, Wheatley spent hours in the computer lab in Knobview Hall applying for jobs: writing cover letters, stuffing envelopes, and trekking to the post office. He landed a job at the Des Moines Metro Opera in Des Moines, Iowa.

“That company has defined who I am in this business,” Wheatley said.

Over the next decade, he moved up the ladder from carpenter to electrician to master electrician to assistant lighting designer to lighting designer on the main stage.

Besides the career advancement and growth in skill, Wheatley basked in the final product.

“While I worked so many hours and overnights turning shows over in a true repertory fashion, I managed to stay awake enough to take in all the glory.”

Bringing light to transcendent moments

For Wheatley, lighting brings a different dimension to stagecraft.

“Everything takes on deeper meaning when the layer of lighting is added,” Wheatley said.

This is true on the stage, and even more important in opera, which is theater on steroids, incorporating music, dance, theater and stage effects.

“Like Texas, everything is bigger in opera,” Wheatley said. “The sets are larger, the lighting is bigger, the emotions are bigger, the crew, the cast, the musicians in the pit, everything is larger.”

Wheatley’s love of opera extends far beyond lighting.

Whether it’s a matter of keeping pace with a busy score, or creating an event to fill an otherwise ponderous interlude, or varying lighting to maintain interest in a piece that takes place within one day, each opera presents unique challenges and satisfactions. Sometimes, the satisfactions come only after viewing the entire piece from a distance.

Regardless of the demands, Wheatley is devoted to the life.

 “I have missed family events, births, deaths, nephews and nieces growing up, and so much more, because I was somewhere else in the country or working,” Wheatley said. “I don’t regret any of that, but is a part of the business we all have to deal with.”

Opera for the people

Two years ago, Wheatley founded Opera180 with friends in the Kansas City area.

They create events that are only 90 minutes long, only cost $25 and offer beer and wine at bargain prices.

“This gives us several opportunities to attract new patrons to the art form while serving established patrons with something quirky, different, and interesting,” Wheatley said.

As for the operas themselves, Wheatley’s company produces new works, but also stages their own abridged versions of operas in the standard repertoire, with streamlined casts and story lines.

The result is palatable, on all levels.

“Operagoers can sip on a quality beverage and not break the bank, all while taking some time to do something fun without missing out on the rest over the evening’s life or being able to get back home to their children at a reasonable hour.”

Enter the virus, stage left.

The last several months have been devastating to artists’ livelihoods. Wheatley is no exception.

Five contracts for the fall season have been cancelled so far, prompting him and his wife to meticulously assess their finances.

“For now, my wife and I are budgeting like crazy, and I continue to work on ongoing projects, and side-hustle like crazy,” Wheatley said. “When you love something like this, you have to do what you need to do to keep on keeping on.”

That means, like in the past, supplementing the budget by driving for Lyft and Postmates, and selling hand-made pens, ornaments and bowls on Etsy. 

Wheatley recalls a quote by English author Terry Pratchett: “Opera happens because a large number of things amazingly fail to go wrong.”

“I’ve thought a lot about that quote as we navigate all of this,” Wheatley said. “This virus is something that has gone wrong, and just as it is when things go wrong in the theatre, it will be a story of resilience we tell for years to come.”

Reflecting on his undergraduate years, Wheatley credits the theater program at IU Southeast with helping him understand how to conduct himself in the business aspects of the stage, honing the survival arts that have enabled him to succeed in it.

“It is a rough lifestyle, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Wheatley said.

Homepage photo of Nate Wheatley ’07 by Duane Tinkey.

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