Omaha's masterpiece

Before October 2005, there was a hole in Omaha's art scene.
The Holland Performing Arts Center filled it beautifully.

By Betsie Freeman / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, October 10, 2015

When it formed more than 10 years ago, Omaha Performing Arts came up with a three-part mission statement:
» To present the highest level of performing arts productions for the community.
» To be good stewards at its two venues, the Holland Performing Arts Center and the Orpheum Theater.

Under the direction of Omaha Performing Arts, the Holland Center has brought us countless memorable performances while opening up a new world of options for the Orpheum Theater. We look back on its first decade and what's still in store at

» To present education and community-engagement programs.
The nonprofit group has had success with all of those things, said its president, Joan Squires.
But because the Holland Center and OPA were brand new, they focused more on the first two out of necessity.
Squires has brought many of her “dream acts” to Omaha since 2005: hit Broadway shows “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon,” the legendary Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Radio City Rockettes and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — “iconic performers that Omahans deserve to see in our community,” she said.
And OPA has taken good care of its halls, investing a combined $25 million in both venues since 2002.
Now it’s time for the third part of the group’s mission to get more love.
A three- to five-year strategic plan calls for a major focus on initiatives that teach both kids and adults and involve as many area residents as possible in programs, Squires said. One way to do that is to attract artists who have a passion for sharing their expertise.

“As we look at the breadth of artists, we are seeking people who present excellent education and community engagement. That plays into our choice (of acts),” she said.
Another way is through programs such as the Nebraska High School Theatre Awards and the Musical Explorers, which offers a curriculum and other activities from the Carnegie Hall Weill Music Institute for kids from kindergarten through second grade. About 500 Omaha Public Schools pupils are participating in the classroom-based program this academic year.
Squires, her staff and the OPA board have big plans for the high school awards. In addition to rewarding student thespians for good work, it offers programs in schools, tickets to shows, master classes and workshops.

World-Herald artist Matt Haney painted the Holland Center's Kiewit Concert Hall. To order a glossy print, suitable for framing, go to or visit The World-Herald customer service counter. A portion of the $12 price goes to Omaha Performing Arts.

“Our goal is to be providing programs across the state in the next several years,” Squires said. “We’ll take it to them because they can’t always come here.”
Elkhorn South High School senior Emma Kate Brown participated in the high school awards program this year. Through an audition process, she eventually won a study trip to New York City, where she stayed at New York University and performed at the same Broadway theater that showed “The Lion King.” She’s one of 16 teens who will take the stage with singer Kristin Chenoweth at the Holland Center’s Celebrate 10 concert.
Brown, who plans to study theater in college, said it was an invaluable experience.
“The opportunities that are presented to high schoolers through OPA and this program are amazing,” she said.
Such efforts go beyond youths. Several artists, including Grammy-winning jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, have worked with the University of Nebraska at Omaha Jazz Clinic while they were in the city. Singer Bobby McFerrin, members of the Radio City Rockettes and even cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma have given masters classes for aspiring Omaha performers.
To engage the community, OPA staffer Kendra Whitlock Ingram came up with a songwriting contest tied to the run of the Broadway musical “Once” last May, aimed at teens and young adults. Two winners received a studio recording session with musician and producer Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes.

LEFT: Jil Aigrot brings the voice of Edith Piaf to life at the Holland Center on March 19, 2007. RIGHT: B.B. King plays The Holland Center on his farewell tour at a stop on April 1, 2007.

Another event that ran in conjunction with the Joffrey Ballet’s appearance in 2013, during its 100th anniversary year, engaged about 250 dancers representing 15 diverse Omaha groups — from African Culture Connection to belly dancers. That competition challenged dancers to create their own work around the themes of the ballet performance.


  • 1972: The Knights of Aksarben organization purchases the closed Orpheum Theater, built in 1927, from a private owner for $135,000 and donates it to the City of Omaha.
    1975: The renovated Orpheum reopens as a city performing arts center.
    1997: Omaha Symphony officials commission a group of consultants to do a facilities study of the Orpheum.
    1999: A group of community leaders hires Heritage Services, a local fundraising organization, to work with HDR Architecture of Omaha on a design for a possible performing arts center.
    2000: Omaha Performing Arts Society becomes a registered nonprofit organization.

  • 2000: Acousticians Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago and theater consultants Fisher Dachs Associates of New York are hired to advise on an Orpheum renovation and new performing arts center.
    2000: The Omaha Performing Arts Society hires Polshek Partnership Architects of New York to work with HDR on the center’s design.
    2001: The society, which later changes its name to Omaha Performing Arts, announces a campaign that would include up to $10 million of renovations for the Orpheum and would fund a performing arts center downtown. Donations to the campaign eventually exceed $100 million.
    January 2002: The Omaha Planning Board votes unanimously in favor of a proposed downtown performing arts center on the two blocks bounded by 11th, 13th, Douglas and Dodge Streets. (So far, the center sits mostly on the western block bounded by 12th and 13th Streets, with space for development.)

  • April 2002: A site is purchased at 13th and Douglas Streets for the new performing arts center. The center will include a 2,000-seat concert hall, a 450-seat recital hall and a courtyard for outdoor performances.
    April 2003: Kiewit Construction Co. breaks ground for the new performing arts center.
    July 2004: Omaha Performing Arts opens Ticket Omaha, a one-stop broker for all OPA and Omaha Symphony performances. It later expanded to include Omaha Community Playhouse and Opera Omaha shows.
    September 2004: OPA names the new center the Holland Performing Arts Center in recognition of a gift from Omahans Richard and Mary Holland.
    September 2005: Construction completed.
    October 2005: The Holland Center opens to the public with a grand opening concert.

  • December 2009: The 6,000-square-foot Cassling Education Center opens adjacent to the Scott Recital Hall in the Holland Center. The center was carved out of backstage space and provides room for small performances, lectures, master classes, rehearsals and other education activities.
    March 2010: OPA assumes production of Jazz on the Green at Midtown Crossing.
    January 2011: A full-service kitchen opens at the Holland Center.
    November 2012: NRG Energy Ovations bar and lounge opens in the former Holland Center gift shop space.
    October 2013: A digital marquee replaces the old manual sign at the Orpheum Theater.

  • March 2014: A new sound system is installed in the Kiewit Concert Hall at the Holland Center.
    June 2014: Omaha Performing Arts initiates the Nebraska High School Theatre Awards program for Omaha-area high school drama students.
    September 2015: Zinc restaurant moves from its smaller space on the Holland Center’s orchestra level to the first floor, adjacent to the Ovations lounge. It will offer meal service before most concerts.

Both events got great response from the public. A free concert by the dancers drew 1,500 people, while a number of people in the community clamored for a songwriting competition that would this time include older adults, said Ingram, who is OPA’s vice president of programming and education.
Ingram plans to do more projects like that — activities and competitions that tie a performance to an opportunity for community members to directly express their creativity.
“The community really does want to engage with the performing arts rather than just being passive audience members,” she said.
Workshops and seminars also help community members find relevance in Omaha Performing Arts programming, she said.
The cast of the musical “Wicked,” for instance, helped with an anti-bullying session, and when the musical “Memphis” came to town, it prompted a workshop on race relations and social justice for both teens and adults.
As the Holland Center enters its second decade, Squires said, OPA will continue to look for new artists and performance series to keep its programming current and relevant. New series have proved popular, especially National Geographic Live and the 1200 Club, which brings cutting-edge shows to the smaller Scott Recital Hall.
OPA staffers are talking about possibilities, she said, but she didn’t want to elaborate.
Some reports say that performing arts subscriptions are losing cachet, but Squires said that’s a myth, at least in Omaha. OPA series season ticket sales are setting records this year.
When she thinks about all that’s happened in the Holland Center’s first decade, Squires can’t help but be grateful. There’s much to be proud of: numerous capital improvements to both venues, robust ticket sales, memorable performances from big-name artists and burgeoning education programs.
“It’s a testament to the generosity and leadership of our community and the vision to bring first-class arts to Omaha,” she said. “To watch people’s faces as they are touched by performances is magical.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1267,

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