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Fame Thrower

Ralph Opacic's legacy through High School of Arts is more enduring than stardom.

April 30, 1998|LISA ADDISON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ralph Opacic was an 18-year-old with stars in his eyes when he headed to California from his native Virginia in hopes of becoming a pop singer.

He never hit it big as a singer, but he did as an educator.

As founding director of the tuition-free Orange County High School of the Arts, Opacic started a school that "teaches kids the business of the business."

More than 700 students from Orange, Riverside and Los Angeles counties apply each year for 125 coveted spots left by departing seniors.

"When we started the school in 1987, we had 120 students, only six staff members and little in the way of funding," he said. "Today, we have 485 students and more than 60 professionals teaching."

Many arts programs struggle with tight budgets, but this school no longer has overwhelming funding woes (Opacic said the OCHSA Foundation raises about $550,000 a year). Rather, the number of students is limited by the lack of available space at Los Alamitos High School, with which the arts high school shares quarters. The chamber orchestra practices in the back of a chemistry lab; some classes are held at a middle school.

But all that will change in 2000 when OCHSA opens an $18.2-million campus on Bloomfield Avenue in Los Alamitos. The campus will include a 600-seat theater, 6,000 square feet of gallery space and conference facilities and will allow an enrollment of 640.

Faculty includes a Warner Bros. Studios animator, a Lakers Girls choreographer, a former dancer with the American Ballet Theatre and award-winning conductors and directors. Among guest master teachers is Bebe Neuwirth, a Tony and Emmy Award-winning actress who played Lilith on "Cheers."

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Students get a lot in the way of instruction, but Opacic said they really respond when successful alumni return to speak.

On a recent afternoon, students were visited by alums Kamilah Martin, 24, who stars in the touring production of "Rent," and Susan Egan, 28, who originated the role of Belle in "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway and is starring in the Broadway musical "Triumph of Love."

"My time with the students here reminds me of why I chose this profession in the first place," Egan said. "When I was their age, Broadway seemed so very far away. But it's a lot closer than they think. I'm certain that, in a few years, I'll be working with some of them on Broadway."

Opacic, 38, isn't surprised that former pupils want to give back.

"The students who attend this school are gifted, talented and very special," he said. "When they apply here, we're looking for talent, potential, desire and discipline. When you have a person like that, they feel like they have to give back some of what they've learned."

Students, some of whom have been told their whole lives that they have special abilities, acknowledge that it can be difficult attending a school that has talent at every turn.

"We're a good support system for each other," said Jessica Loofbourrow, 18. "But it can be hard sometimes. I mean, I'm always happy when I hear someone got a role on a TV show or a part on Broadway. But it's a little hard too. We're only human."

Everyone's hoping for that big break. And it's not uncommon for students to land a part in a TV show or to ace an audition for a Broadway production.

Among those who have are Austin O'Brien, who stars in TV's "Promised Land"; Kari Pickler, a Broadway actress in "Big"; Allison Mack, of NBC's "Hiller and Diller"; and Michael Fishman, who starred as D.J. on "Roseanne."

Opacic is their biggest supporter.

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The man with a doctorate in education has an easy rapport with students. Even though his duties are more administrative these days, he gets to know many students on a first-name basis. They call him Ralph.

Early on, after Opacic realized he wasn't going to be a professional singer, he said, he considered becoming a minister or a lawyer. Instead, he majored in vocal music and graduated from Cal State Long Beach. He and his wife, Sherry, have four daughters.

"I always knew that if I didn't end up having a career as a singer, I would still be involved in music," he said. "I'm involved with music on almost a daily basis.

"I kept moving in the direction of education, and the catalyst for me was that there was no one place to go in which to learn everything about the professional side of being a performer.

"That's really how OCHSA came about. Other schools teach the fundamentals but not the professional aspects. There are many talented students out there, but they have no idea of what an agent does, how to get one, how to build an act, obtain auditions or bookings or how to get publicity to showcase their talents."

Opacic isn't bothered by inevitable comparisons of the school to New York City's High School for the Performing Arts, which was featured in the 1980 movie "Fame" and the early '80s TV spinoff of the same name.

"People get a concept of what the school is," he said. "As long as they realize that our school isn't just about having fun. The students here are very serious about their craft and work extremely hard. But they do have fun too. We should all be lucky enough to work in a field we love and in a field that's fun."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Q&A With RALPH OPACIC

Question: What is your favorite song?

Answer: It would have to be Garth Brooks' "The Dance."

Q: Name one thing you think makes a good teacher.

A: Caring about the kids.

Q: What do you think students say about you behind your back?

A: Hopefully, that I instill in them the desire to stay forever young. Sometimes, I even sing the [Bob Dylan] song "Forever Young" to students at graduation.

Q: What has been your proudest achievement as an educator?

A: Being in the audience at a Broadway show and seeing the curtain rise on one of my former students, Susan Egan, and watching her perform as Belle in "Beauty and the Beast."

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