What does it mean—as a faculty member of more than 30 years—to leave a legacy at a place?
Retired Professor of Voice and CU Opera Program Director Dennis Jackson says, years after making his mark on the College of Music, it’s not something he thinks about much. “I always pictured myself as custodian of the opera program. Somebody who was here and building the program, making sure the students got the tools they needed,” he says.
It’s a modest response from the man who built the opera program into what it is today, establishing the precursor to the touring Opera Theatre Singers and creating a three-performance opera season—still rare for university music programs.
But ask his self-proclaimed former “right hand man” and current Eklund Opera Program Director Leigh Holman, and you’ll get quite a different response. “He was a wonderful producer. He knew how to establish a vibrant active program. Many of the things he started, I continued on.”
Holman says Jackson’s positive attitude and his philosophy of always putting students first were foundational to the flourishing program she now leads. He was a friend and mentor to her during her time as a doctoral student in the late 1990s—as he was to many of his students. It’s odd to think, then, that such a driving force in CU opera started off as a history student.
Taking a turn
As an undergraduate student at Texas Western College, Dennis Jackson was active in choir, but his major was in history and government. He says someone noticed him in the choir and recommended he give music a more serious try. “Howard Skinner, who was a faculty member at the University of Northern Colorado, was at Texas Western at that time and was the choral director. He's the reason that I went into music.”
Jackson says the transition from history to music wasn’t too drastic: Instead of spending his time in the library, he was spending it in the practice room. And he says his diverse background gave him good context as he shifted to the arts.
“The history of music and the history of politics are intertwined much of the time,” he says. “When I was on my first trip to Europe, that really struck me.”
From Texas, Jackson went on to receive a master’s degree from Wichita State University and a doctoral degree from the University of Michigan, where he studied with internationally known tenor John McCollum and legendary French baritone Pierre Bernac. He also coached with Dalton Baldwin and Eugene Bossart. With that training under his belt, he came to Boulder in 1971 as an assistant professor of voice with a specialty in French art song and French diction.
Legacy as an educator
For the next three decades, Jackson built a legacy: He would bring a long-running Gilbert and Sullivan festival to Boulder—often featuring the beloved steward of the duo’s operettas, John Reed—establish a traveling outreach group called the Lyric Theatre Singers, oversee the foundational years of the CU Opera Program and leave an indelible mark on the students he taught, including Sarah Barber (MM ’01).
“I would describe Dennis as a professor who absolutely put the students first,” Barber says. “Of course he loves opera, but he was always on board for supporting a student in whatever way they needed.” Barber, who taught part time at the College of Music during the 2019-20 academic year, is based just down the road from Boulder in Broomfield. She’s been teaching voice and singing professionally since earning her master’s degree, and says Jackson’s influence on her life is apparent every day.
“The patience that he had with us as students, the passion he had for music and opera and the vast performance opportunities he provided gave me an invaluable foundation for my future in the music profession.”
Barber sang in Jackson’s Lyric Theatre Singers and attributes the experience to her early career success. “After I graduated, I started working for Central City Opera in their outreach program, which meant going into schools and being able to sing all sorts of styles of music and do things on the fly. The experience with Lyric Theater Singers gave me the chance to first build those valuable, flexible performance skills under Dennis' expert direction,” Barber recalls.
Like Barber, Leigh Holman says Jackson provided her with an important lesson as she was beginning her teaching career. “When I got a job as head of the voice department at the University of Arkansas after graduation, I was charged with starting the opera program there. I remember telling Dennis that directing and teaching didn’t make me nervous—it was fundraising I was worried about. And his advice was, ‘The most important thing you have to do is be a missionary for your work.’ And that quote stays with me even now.”
Jackson says one might define his legacy by the team he surrounded himself when CU Opera was getting off the ground. Professor of Vocal Coaching Mutsumi Moteki and former opera music director Robert Spillman came to the college on his watch, along with current Technical Director Ron Mueller and recently retired costumer Tom Robbins. Marilyn Cohen in the Dance Department was a part of the production team. He also instituted a longtime partnership with New York scenery designer Peter Dean Beck.
“I don't know any school or university in the United States that had a better production team than that,” he says.
When Jackson retired from the College of Music in 2001, faculty and students gave him a send off worthy of his devotion to opera, putting on a concert in the Music Theatre. Ever humble, Jackson says it was one of his fondest memories. “It was hard for me to retire, because I love the students so much. And I always had the support of the administration and faculty, which made the opera program what it was.”
Rooted in excellence
In 1994, the CU Opera Program was deemed a Program of Excellence by the Colorado Commission for Higher Education. It was a designation Jackson had been working for three years to secure, for the sake of the program and his students. When it finally happened, he says it took him by surprise.
“I was sitting in the office one day when the phone rang and someone said, ‘I have news for you, but you can't tell anybody because it hasn't been released to the press. You've won. You're a program of excellence, with an award of $850,000 over five years.’”
For Jackson’s successor Holman, the news didn’t come for a surprise at all. “He was just a fun, positive leader. He was a good director and a hard worker. He really got things done.”
As he thinks about the future of his beloved art form, Jackson says opera is in good hands at CU. And that’s the important legacy, he says, that he hopes lives on at the College of Music.
“I remember a quote from Tyrone Power, who was a great actor. He said, ‘Opera is the greatest form of drama, because it combines music and drama.’ The text and story are supplemented with a music to express those emotions, and that’s what makes opera so strong.”