The Straz Center’s Manager of Special Events Nicole Stickeler dons a bum roll to change into her next role for Opera Tampa.
Nicole Stickeler in costume and make-up for Opera Tampa’s Madama Butterfly.
In show business, you’re considered a triple threat if you can sing, dance and act.
In the performing arts, you’re considered a triple threat if you can sing, act and raise money.
The Straz Center’s Manager of Special Events Nicole Stickeler plans TASTE @ The Straz, the Broadway Ball and the Opera Tampa Grand Gala as well as 27 other special events designed to raise money for The Straz’s many programs and educational efforts. Then she warms up, hits the Rehearsal Hall and auditions for Opera Tampa. A trained opera singer but also someone who has a full-time day job, she jockeys for roles in the chorus often landing a few roles a year. You’ve probably seen her over the past few seasons in Tosca, Romeo and Juliet, Madama Butterfly and Die Fledermaus although our costume department does a fantastic job of rendering her (almost) unrecognizable. This week, she suits up for the grand finale of the opera season, La Boheme, which runs Friday evening and Sunday afternoon.
Nicole’s first “audition” happened accidentally, when, on our President/CEO/General Director of Opera Tampa Judy Lisi’s birthday a few years ago, Nicole stood around the corner of Judy’s office and sang “Happy Birthday” dramatically in Italian while our VP of Development lip synched in the doorway. The gag worked like charm—it was a great birthday surprise, but the biggest surprise was the effect of Nicole’s voice. Nicole had just started a position as our development coordinator, so no one knew she could really sing. Judy, who happens to be a trained opera singer and Puccini expert herself, took Nicole’s arm and suggested she try out for the next chorus auditions for Opera Tampa.
Nicole did, embarking upon a pretty amazing side hustle. Caught in the Act sat down with Nicole to talk about her artistic life, her admin life, and what it’s like getting to perform her artistic passion while doing critical work for the performing arts as well.
Nicole at her “day job” at The Straz.
Caught in the Act: Where did you study? Did you have ideas for a vocal career, but then you ended up in fundraising? What was your path?
Nicole Stickeler: [dramatically] Well, it started on a snowy day in New Jersey … [laughs] No, I’m just kidding. I mean, that is actually how it started, though.
CITA: We’re intrigued.
NS: I probably really started singing in middle school.
CITA: Did you know you had a good voice?
NS: No. The first time I sang was fourth or fifth grade, and I auditioned for the chorus. It was literally like stand there and sing for the music teacher. I got in, but you could only do one extracurricular. I had already said yes to being a patrol, and so I chose being a patrol over being in the chorus.
CITA: A patrol? Like a hall monitor?
NS: Bus patrol.
CITA: Oh, okay. Yeah … we totally understand why you would want to choose that versus starring in a show …?
NS: [laughs] I guess I liked telling people what to do. But, in sixth grade, I chose chorus for my elective. That’s probably when I learned I had a good singing voice. I got my first solo in seventh grade and surprised my mom. I didn’t tell her that I got a solo.
NS: I was so nervous, but I got up there and sang. She was so surprised … You sing along when you’re doing stuff at home and all that, but I don’t think she knew I was a singer.
Nicole in costume for La Traviata.
CITA: Is she a singer?
NS: My mom is not a singer. My dad’s not a singer. My grandma sang, but there are not many musicians in my family. My sister did music. I think I saw her and thought, ‘oh she’s good, let me try it, too.’ For college, I ended up auditioning at the University of Florida, and I really liked their music school. I auditioned for vocal performance, which is classical voice studies. I had diction classes and music theory classes. I had my private voice lessons, and everyone had to be in a choir. Then I also took an opera workshop class. Every year we would do one big opera. I got a major role my sophomore year when we did Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.
CITA: What role?
NS: I was one of the mean, old ladies—the ones who are mean to Susannah. I remember the line that was always really funny and ended the first act. At the church, they have this gathering, like a potluck, and everybody comes. Susannah brings black-eyed peas or something. At the end I’m like, [singing] “I wouldn’t touch them peas of hers!” Blackout! [laughs] My junior year we did The Magic Flute, and I was one of the three spirits, so that was fun. Two of my roommates and best friends were the other two spirits. So that was a lot of fun. My senior year we did Die Fledermaus. I was Prince Orlofsky. It was first “full pants” role. That was also a lot of fun.
CITA: Were you in Die Fledermaus here this season?
NS: I was. I was in the chorus.
CITA: Was that a full circle moment for you, or were you like ‘I was a better Prince Orlofsky’?
NS: [laughs] No. Sara [Nordin as Prince Orlofsky] was fantastic! But it was kind of full circle, like, ‘oh my gosh. I did this in school. It’s so much fun to be doing it again, and on a bigger stage and with a bigger audience’. It was neat just to relive the experience.
Opera Tampa’s Die Fledermaus. (Photo: Will Staples)
CITA: What about a career just in music? Did you consider that after college?
NS: I did think after undergrad that I was going to go to grad school and continue studying music. Then, it just didn’t work out that way. After I graduated I moved back home to Brandon. I got an email from UF that they were starting a graduate certificate program in Arts Administration via distance learning. It was all online courses, and I was kind of figuring out what I was going to do working my part-time job I had back in high school. I thought, well, why don’t I do this? The last course was doing a practicum in arts admin. That led me to start looking for internships, and I found one in development with the Orlando Philharmonic. During my interview process, the general manager noticed I had a background in opera. At the time, there was no opera company in Orlando, so the Philharmonic was putting on operas. They were getting ready to do Madama Butterfly. He had asked if I wanted to be a second assistant stage manager on it, which would start before my official internship with development there. So, I did.
CITA: It’s different being part of the crew on a show. It changes your understanding of the big picture, how hard it is to make a show work without incident.
NS: Yes, I have a huge respect for the crew. They have the biggest responsibilities. Actually, in that show, I had my first orchestral debut. But, then it got cut. [laughs] They wanted me to do the chains for when the ship comes in.
CITA: You were the chain player?
NS: I was, but I don’t know how to read percussion. I tried to move these heavy chains to go with the sheet music. I got to do it during the first dress rehearsal. Then the director was like, ‘Um … I think it’s better without it.’ [laughs] But I got to play with the Philharmonic, if we can call it that.
Invitations from just a few of the special events that Nicole has put on during her time at The Straz.
CITA: Did development speak to you in some way? Were you like, ‘wow, I’m good at this’ or ‘I like this’ or ‘oh my god this is an incredibly important part of arts administration’?
NS: Honestly, before doing the certificate program, I didn’t even realize that arts administration was a field to get into.
CITA: It might be common that people don’t understand arts administration is a thing.
NS: Yeah. There are so many different aspects to it, too. While I didn’t really know it was something that existed before the internship, I really learned to enjoy it. After my internship, I got a job there. I was their assistant director of development. That was a great experience, working with the Philharmonic and learning, not only about the ins and outs of arts admin, but also learning more about orchestra.
CITA: How’d you get from there to The Straz?
NS: I had previously met Frank McClain from Opera Tampa here. I was almost going to work for him but it was only a part-time, seasonal job, so I took the job in Orlando. But, when I saw the development coordinator position open, I applied. The rest is history.
Nicole’s Madama Butterfly costume.
CITA: Did you know that there were going to be performance opportunities if you took this development job?
NS: It was a bonus. I knew we had Opera Tampa here, but I didn’t know I would ever have an opportunity to work with them. When I got my first job with Opera Tampa, they were doing Madama Butterfly. It was the first opera I stage managed, or assistant stage managed, but the first professional opera I performed in, too.
CITA: That’s cool because it was the first opera that Opera Tampa produced for the Straz Center as well. So, your first performance with Opera Tampa was five years go because Butterfly was part of the 20th anniversary season, and we’re having the 25th anniversary next season. Have you done an opera with Opera Tampa for every season since, or you just pick it up when you can?
NS: I’ve pretty much done one or two operas every season, except last season because I had to organize so many events. We do a lot events around opera.
CITA: That’s true.
NS: What has been great is that even though I’m in this admin role, I’ve still been able to keep up with my singing. Getting to be on the stage, in an opera, and getting to wear the costumes and be with all of the people that love what I love is really special.
CITA: For anybody’s who’s going to read the blog who’s not an opera person: What does it mean to be in a chorus of an opera? What do you actually do?
NS: Basically, it’s the ensemble. If you think of a musical and all of the additional people on stage who are singing in a group format, that’s what the chorus is in an opera. In an opera, you’re not a choir, you’re not trying to blend and sound like one voice. Everybody’s their own individual person on stage. You don’t change the way that you sing just because the person next to you makes maybe their vowels a little bit different or something like that.
Nicole showing us the props for La Boheme.
CITA: What’s your costume for La Boheme?
NS: I have two costumes.
CITA: Are you a poor bohemian, or do you get a fancy costume?
NS: In the second act, where it’s Christmas Eve and everyone’s in the plaza, it’s a grand time. I am a flower vendor, so my costume is pretty nice. It’s green with a high neck and giant hat. I mean giant hat, so, that one’s a little fancy. Then in Act III, I’m a milkmaid. There are only six of us doing that, so it’s fun to get to do something a little bit different. Now that costume is frump city. Of course, there’s always the petticoat with the overskirt. That costume doesn’t have the bum roll, but the first costume has a bum roll.
CITA: Oh, you get a bum roll! We’re jealous.
NS: Yeah. For the second costume, no bum roll. There’s just a super baggy frumpy dress that also doesn’t reach the floor. It’s too short.
CITA: Poor, French milkmaid.
NS: Then there’s the apron to put over that. There’s this coat with a scarf, and then these gloves without the fingers. Then, this little bonnet.
CITA: It does sound adorable but not at all sexy.
NS: No, it’s not.
CITA: So people can get their milkmaid fantasies right out of their heads this moment.
One of Nicole’s costumes for La Traviata.
CITA: Of all the operas you performed, which has been your favorite?
NS: That’s a good question. I feel like just because it was also the first, Madama Butterfly, and it was also Puccini, which it was just … He’s got beautiful melodies and everything. Plus, getting to the makeup for Madama Butterfly was fun because it’s all the white powder, and the eyeliner, and the red lips. Getting to do the party scenes La traviata was fun as well.
CITA: Do you have any advice for somebody who wants to get into the opera world but maybe doesn’t want to be a career singer? Somebody who wants to be like you? How would you advise that person to achieve their dream?
NS: Ultimately, getting a voice teacher, a voice coach, that’s always a great first step. They’ll help you learn and hone your craft. They’ll know what’s best for your voice, what type of voice you have, what to learn for your voice, and all of that. The bottom line is: If it’s something you’re passionate about and you want to make the time for it, go for it. While sometimes when I’m in it, and I’m putting in these long days of working and rehearsals, I wonder why I do it. In the end, it’s just so great to be on the stage. That feeling you get when the curtain rises and the lights are shining on you … it’s worth it.
See Nicole and all the hardworking people of La Boheme this weekend. The opera runs for two performances only, so catch it while you can.