BEHIND THE SCENESBy MEGAN PHILLIPS,
FROM PROGRAMS TO VENUES TO FUND-RAISING, TIPPY GARNER GUIDING FORCE OF OPERA
A Jackson native, Tippy Garner has always lived in the north and northeast area of the city.
She attended Callaway High School, and she studied business at Hinds Community College and Belhaven University.
Although she only took piano lessons for a short time when she was a child, Tippy has always been a fan of classical music.
“It just didn’t stick,” she laughed about the piano lessons.
It wasn’t until she met her husband of 35 years, Bob, that his sister Linnie taught her more about the basics of classical music.
“His sister is an opera singer. After meeting her, I got more interested in opera. She taught me a lot of the basics and about the artform itself,” Tippy said.
Tippy then started working with the Mississippi Opera as a member of the board of directors in 2001, rotating on and off for 10 years.
Throughout that time, she also worked with other nonprofit organizations.
“I came back (to the opera) in 2011,” she said.
One year later in 2012, her role became more permanent, when she was named administrative director.
“That’s what brought me to the Mississippi Opera.”
Now as executive director, Tippy’s behind-the-scenes role has become the cornerstone to the organization’s success.
“When I first came in here, I called myself the administrative director. After a while, it became apparent that I was doing more than that, so it changed to executive director,” Tippy said.
She works directly with one other person, the general artistic director of the opera, Jay Dean. Together, they schedule and coordinate each performance.
“Ordinarily I have a bookkeeper, but I’m without right now. So technically for paid employees, it’s Jay and me. That’s pretty much it,” she said. “It’s very taxing at times. However, we have a lovely guild organization and some really stalwart, dedicated volunteers.”
Tippy said she is proud to be able to work with the several-hundred-member guild because they help pick up the slack whenever she needs it.
“Anytime I need anything, I can pick up the phone… and I can find somebody who can do it for me… They’re lovely people and it’s so nice to have them.”
Most of Tippy’s duties for the Mississippi Opera might seem mundane to the outsider, but they are crucial to carrying out each performance and season.
She is in charge of writing the program and finding venues for each performance, fund-raising, writing grant proposals, answering patron questions, and even selling tickets at the box office for performances.
“It’s lots and lots of paperwork, but the executive director also has a certain amount of development fundraising that falls in its lap… Grant writing, and if a patron calls us with a question, I’m the person that answers the phone. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll find the answer.”
The opera’s operating annual budget is approximately $300,000, which includes anywhere between $20,000 and $50,000 from fund-raisers and grants each year.
“I’d say a good, sizeable portion of our operating budget comes from grants,” said Tippy. “That’s probably true for most every nonprofit organization these days. Everybody depends on those grants.”
In the past, the Mississippi Opera has mainly used Thalia Mara Hall for their performances. But in recent years, they’ve used other popular Jackson venues as well.
The organization has also increased the number of shows.
“We’ve spread out. In fact, this year in our season, we’ve got nine shows this year — We are really just jam packed.”
Tippy said part of the reason for using a new array of locations is to satisfy Mississippi Opera’s patrons.
“A couple of years ago, we had a little series called opera underground. It wasn’t fully-staged operas, but it was little concerts that we were doing at Underground 119… Then I had a nice conversation with Arden Barnett, and we moved over to Duling Hall. And everybody loves Duling Hall.”
This year, the Mississippi Opera has eight events at Duling Hall, including their fall production of The Pirates of Penzance. The Pirates of Penzance tells the story of pirate apprentice Frederic, who falls in love with Major-General Stanley’s daughter, Mabel.
On his 21st birthday, Frederic is supposed to be released from his apprenticeship, but his February 29th — Leap Day — birthdate dictates that Frederic must remain an apprentice for another 63 years.
Love at first site, Mabel agrees to wait for Frederic.
The show will have three performances: “We’re going to do Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon… I can tell you right now, the Friday night (performance) is trending toward a sellout. If I had to guess, Saturday’s going to sellout too.”
For Tippy, opening night is always the most fun.
As general director, Jay Dean makes the decisions for each season, according to Tippy.
“He picks those productions, and he almost always has somebody in mind. It could be two or three years out that you would contact a principal signer and say, ‘I want you to do (this show) in Jackson in (this year).’ It could go that far out.”
Once Jay has an idea of what he wants to do for the season and who he would like to have for the principal singers, dates and secondary roles are organized.
“As you can imagine, there’re so many puzzle pieces. If we want to book something two years from now at Thalia Mara Hall, you better go ahead and do it.”
What’s more, the different arts organizations try to coordinate so as to not double-book an event or location.
“We have to coordinate. None of these performing groups can really compete with one another. We’re not going to try to have an opera on the same night that there’s a symphony. Your audience is going to be angry at you, because they can’t go see Carmen (2016) and listen to Mozart at the same time.”
Most of the Mississippi Opera’s orchestra for performances are hired through orchestra manager Richard Hudson.
“Jay will say, ‘I need four violinists and three cellists and a percussionist,’ and Richard will put us together a roster of orchestra members that we can use,” Tippy explained. “That way we don’t have to go out and audition orchestra members and that sort of thing.”
Tippy said she and Jay are already discussing what’s on the schedule for next season, which usually last from September to May.
“But as you can imagine, that sort of thing is that long range planning that you have to do… Months ago, we already had the signed contracts from all the principals and secondary singers.”
As opening day for Pirates approaches, Tippy is working on the printed program.
“The orchestra members, the synopsis, the biography of the composer, the biography and the photographs of the singers — I’ve been working on this on and off probably since August, and all of this had to go to the printer on Monday.”
Rehearsals are already being held for Pirates, and the chorus rehearses once a week.
“The week of the production of Pirates, the rehearsals will actually be at Duling Hall with partial costumes, some makeup, that sort of thing.”
Friday morning, the Mississippi Opera will also hold a children’s matinee at Duling Hall, which will include most, but not all, of the show.
“We’ll have about a good hour of the arias from that show that everybody recognizes,” Tippy said.
For the full show, Tippy said there will be several dozen people making up the full production crew. And as executive director, Tippy works on every detail up until opening night.
“It’s kind of a hurry-up-and-wait situation. You hurry and you hurry, and you get ready for the production, and you think, ‘What have I done, what have I forgotten, what did I do?’ ”
But for the most part it would seem, every performance under Tippy’s management has been completely successful.
“We were the 2017 recipient of the Governor’s Arts Award for artistic excellence, which is very cool,” she said.
For the rest of the season, the Mississippi Opera is hosting Caberet Soiree, the Alexander Awards Concert, Amahl and the Night Visitors, The King of Rock and Roll, Musically Ever After, The Eclectic Guitar, Turandot and British Invasion II.
For a full list of showtimes and dates, visit www.msopera.org.