Working A Miracle Of Music And Songs

Posted: May 14, 1989

Here comes Veda Zuponcic, a red blur streaking through the corridors of Glassboro State College, her blunt-cut blond hair fluttering in the tail wind. She sprints past the music rehearsal rooms, waving. She nimbly sidesteps a knot of students at the turnoff for the Wilson Auditorium. As she prepares to clear the lobby, she decelerates slightly, but only to grasp a pair of hands and smile.

The owner of the hands opens her mouth to speak. Too late. Zuponcic has regained her speed. Students milling around in the Wilson lobby jump back to let her pass as she jogs toward the door of the music department office.

With four days to go before the opening of the Hollybush Festival, this is how its founder and director arrives for work. Veda Zuponcic seems to believe that speeding up human motion is the antidote to having too much to do and too little time to do it.

Zuponcic was proofreading the festival program until 3:30 that morning, but here she is again at 10 a.m., perfectly coiffed and dressed for battle in a bright red, nautical, Oscar de la Renta sweater suit and a pair of sensible flats.

Her staff greeted Zuponcic with the grim news. Page boards for the program, due at the printer two days earlier: still unfinished. Paste-up artist: left exhausted at 8 a.m.

And then the worst of it: The printer had sent a courier to pick up the finished material.

Assembling the festival program wasn't the only issue clamoring for her attention. The college president was looking for her. A set of costumes was missing. One of the student volunteers had left to take a final. No one had ordered the champagne for the opening-night reception.

There was something else. Zuponcic's two assistants each held up a T-shirt - one white, one blue - with "Hollybush Festival" in silver letters. "Which one is better, Veda?"

For the first time since she arrived at school, Zuponcic stopped moving. She tapped her chin thoughtfully "My son likes black," she said, offering a third option.

"I thrive on trouble," said Zuponcic, repressing a smile.


With Hollybush, Zuponcic has plenty of trouble.

Started seven years ago, the Hollybush Festival has become one of the biggest and most ambitious cultural events in South Jersey. Two years ago, the festival attracted national attention with a rare appearance by the Kirov Ballet. The festival also has enhanced the college's reputation as a cultural center. Yet, Zuponcic said, she still considers Hollybush's existence temporary.

"In the arts business, I'm not sure there are institutions," said Zuponcic, who still speaks with a twang of her native Minnesota. "Even large, prestigious organizations are on the brink of disaster at any given instant. With changes in giving patterns, you can't count on being here from one season to the next. I consider every season a miracle. I call it the miracle of Hollybush."

This season, Zuponcic and her small staff will produce three operas from scratch, present a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet and a classical concert, and coordinate an art exhibition.

Not only has Zuponcic been able to attract top performers to Hollybush, but she has also raised more than $200,000 in grants and corporate donations to pay for them this year. The rest of the festival's $500,000 budget is paid for through ticket sales.

"Only someone with her ingenuity could get as much in grants and corporate support," said Veda Kaplinsky, a Cherry Hill pianist who occasionally plays duets with Zuponcic and has appeared at Hollybush.

To keep Hollybush in business, the state arts council has pledged $85,000 as an endowment - if Zuponcic can produce another $170,000 in private pledges over the next three years. David A. Miller, an arts council official, said Hollybush has the potential to become a festival of national importance, along the lines of the Spoleto Festival, one of the country's biggest music and dance festivals, in Charleston, S.C.

But while Spoleto has a full-time, year-round staff, Zuponcic manages to perform her miracle of Hollybush, transforming chaos into art, while also teaching two classes at Glassboro, heading the music department and pursuing a career as a solo pianist.

The Hollybush Festival has been more chaotic than usual this year. The marketing director flew off to the south of France when her husband received a job transfer. Three weeks before the festival opened on May 6, Zuponcic said she had to replace her managing director because of a dispute over his duties. The Italian baritone who was to play the king in Carl Orff's opera The Wise Woman never showed up for rehearsals. And after two days on the job, Zuponcic said, the stage manager quit because he was unhappy with the housing arrangements.

Zuponcic, 42, has three artists staying at her Cherry Hill home for the festival, including Vjekoslav Sutej, the Yugoslavian opera director who is conducting the Hollybush Festival orchestra. Zuponcic has designated her four- year-old Subaru wagon (132,000 miles) as the "Hollybush bus" because it has been pressed into service so often transporting the performers.

Because Zuponcic keeps a kosher kitchen, her guests have all been instructed in the fine points of Jewish dietary law; she maintains separate sinks, stoves, dishes and cutlery for meat and dairy foods. Zuponcic, who once ran a Haddonfield restaurant, The Argyle Rooster, is rarely home to cook these days, leaving her guests to forage on their own. "I am not one of the world's greatest hostesses," she said.

Despite this year's complications, Zuponcic appeared relatively unfrazzled the week before the festival opened. When the printer's courier arrived to pick up the program mock-ups, Zuponcic methodically examined each finished page for errors before handing it over. No matter how big the crisis, Zuponcic said, she always takes off Friday night and Saturday to observe the Sabbath.

Joan Slavin, who worked for the Hollybush Festival before becoming public relations director for Appel Farm Arts & Music Center two years ago, said Zuponcic manages to be a bulwark of calm against the pre-festival chaos. "She was constantly able to keep going and keep other people going," Slavin said. ''She ran circles around me, and I'm very active myself."

Zuponcic said that many people think the Hollybush Festival imports its opera productions fully formed and stage ready. That is not the case. Zuponcic and her staff do everything themselves, from auditioning the cast to booking rental cars. Zuponcic must hunt down corporate funding for the event as well as apartments for the performers.

While the solo performers are generally international stars - often members of the New York City or Metropolitan Opera Companies - the rest of the slots in the opera chorus and the orchestra are filled by Glassboro students and local musicians.

Giving students a chance to take part in sophisticated, professional productions was the original reason for starting the festival, said Zuponcic, who has taught at the college since 1973. Although Glassboro was known for its music and art programs, there were few cultural events at the school seven years ago. The deluxe, 920-seat Wilson Auditorium - one of the best performance spaces in South Jersey - was dark most nights of the year.

She feared that students in the music program could spend four years at Glassboro without ever seeing a professional opera, concert or dance. "It is very easy for a student coming to a state college to come in as a provincial and leave as a provincial," Zuponcic said.

Zuponcic was discussing the problem with her colleagues one day, when ''someone suggested, 'Let's put on an opera.' " It was like a scene from one of those Judy Garland movies where someone snaps his fingers and says, ''Let's put on a show," Zuponcic recalled. "I thought, 'Yes, let's put on an opera.' "

One thing led to another. One opera became a festival. And the festival became a major event, now requiring 18 months of planning. Zuponcic got the name for the event from the historic 1967 summit between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, which was held at the residence of the college's president - Holly Bush House.

Zuponcic now looks back on Hollybush's creation as a moment of naive insanity, but one that was certainly in character. "I've always been someone who has done a lot of different things at once," she said.

Several years ago, Zuponcic decided to start her restaurant. "It came about because I'm an idiot and it sounded like fun. My husband said, 'You're a good cook. It won't be too much trouble,' " Zuponcic said. She ended up working nearly full time in the kitchen, while also teaching and performing.

They eventually sold the restaurant. But shortly afterward, Zuponcic said, she was lured into another venture - a children's clothing store.

Throughout her varied career, Zuponcic said she has tried to maintain a performance schedule of about 20 solo concerts a year. She tries to practice every day, although that goal becomes impossible during Hollybush.

In January, she decided she needed a bigger challenge. Zuponcic offered to perform a new and complicated work in New York, at the Weill Recital Hall, which is part of Carnegie Hall.

"I guess it was a reaction to all the administration I've been doing. I wanted to prove I could play at an acceptable level," said Zuponcic. She had so little time to prepare, she was unable to rehearse the work before any of her colleagues. But she managed to pull off the challenge. The New York Times praised her performance for its "thunderous explorations of the keyboard."

Zuponcic approaches Hollybush in much the same way she does a piano concert. "I try to be systematic in things I do," she explained. "With

piano, first you learn the notes, then the rhythm, then the nuts and bolts. I've had good experiences as a learner all my life. There are very few tasks I find impossible.

"Frequently, I hear my students say, 'I can't do that.' I say, 'Of course you can. All you have to do is start.' You start at the first step and go on to the next."

Since she was a child, growing up in Minnesota's Masabi iron range, Zuponcic has said she wanted to be a concert pianist. But she also wanted to be a librarian or a political scientist.

Zuponcic, whose name is Slovenian, was raised in Aurora, a mining town of

2,000. Her father was the town's public works supervisor and her mother, the town piano teacher. When she was 4 years old, her mother decided she should study piano seriously.

So every week, Zuponcic would board a Greyhound bus alone and travel for 40 minutes to the next town to take lessons with an accomplished pianist who had settled in a remote corner of Minnesota. Zuponcic could play the piano, but she still needed the bus driver to remind her when she had reached her stop.

While studying music at Indiana University in Bloomington, Zuponcic converted to Judaism. The religion "is very much grounded in the here and now," said Zuponcic, who was raised a Catholic. "Judaism teaches you to lead a good life. You may or may not come to faith at the end, but at least you won't have hurt anyone."

Every hour Zuponcic spends on Hollybush is an hour that she could have been practicing the piano. Instead of being invited around the country to play concerts, Zuponcic does the inviting.

She said that providing work for other musicians has become more important than her own career. "The world is loaded with wonderful pianists. They don't really need another one," Zuponcic said. "I made an artistic payroll of over $1 million in the past five years. That's a whole lot of singers' rent getting paid and musicians who don't have to be waiting tables."

Through Hollybush, Zuponcic said, musicians such as Sutej, from Yugoslavia, have been discovered by the American public. His production of Love for Three Oranges at Hollybush was such a success in 1988 that he has been hired to conduct for the Wolf Trap Opera in Virginia, the Tulsa Opera and the New Jersey Ballet. This year, Zuponcic is introducing another East European, Hungary's Tamas Ferkai, as Hollybush's stage director.

"I like making art happen. One of the main reasons I do it is to make work for artists," said Zuponcic. "It's a scandal, the way we recruit music majors, and as soon as we put a kid out there with a bachelor's degree, we abdicate our responsibility."

Since the festival was founded, it has concentrated increasingly on opera, the most expensive of the performing arts. As the productions have become more professional, Zuponcic has raised ticket prices.

Tickets for this year's Merry Widow, Carmina Burana and The Wise Woman now cost between $18 and $35. The Bolshoi Ballet is priced at between $25 and $50.

Even with prices at those levels, Zuponcic said she is crossing her fingers and hoping the festival breaks even. Like many arts administrators in South Jersey, she is concerned about the expected cuts in the state arts council budget and a general reduction in corporate contributions as businesses try to

cut overhead.

"Right now, we're not trying to expand greatly," said Zuponcic. "It's important that we just hold course for a few years."


Here is the program for this year's Hollybush Festival. All events are scheduled for the Wilson Auditorium. Telephone reservations: 609-863-7388.

* Today: The Merry Widow, by Franz Lehar, 3 p.m., $18, $25, $35.

* Saturday: Carmina Burana and The Wise Woman, Carl Orff, 8 p.m., $18, $25, $35.

* Next Sunday: A Coffee Concert, featuring Richard Kapp and the Philharmonica Virtuosi, complimentary coffee and sweets, 3 p.m. $10, $14, $18.

* June 17: Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet and Natalia Bessmertnova, performance includes Spartacus and Act II of Giselle, 8 p.m., $25, $35, $50.

* June 18: Bolshoi Ballet, 3 p.m.

* Throughout the festival: Forms to Figure With, an exhibition of paintings and sculpture by Suzanne Reese Horvitz, Ruth Davis, Beatrice Goldfine and Peter Miraglia. Wilson Auditorium Gallery. Free.

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