Omaha native Laura Quest, who knew Lady Gaga before she was Lady Gaga, is building a musical career of her own — including a performance tonight in her hometown.
She will sing in “Opera Outdoors” at the new pavilion at Midtown Crossing/Turner Park, site of the summer Jazz on the Green series. The free event at 7:30 p.m. will preview Opera Omaha's season.
“You can come and be as you are,” said Laura, 29, a mezzo-soprano who lives in New York. “Take your shoes off and listen.”
A well-trained and versatile performer intent on an international career, she feels “most at home doing comedy and getting into character” and wants more and more people to enjoy opera.
Cast members were warned by their director not to be offended if attendees tonight are chatting with friends, as they do at the jazz series. But that's no problem for the singers.
Said Laura: “We want people talking about opera.”
Opera is not just for the elite or for bigwigs. Besides its soaring, beautiful music and edgy stories, opera is all about glamour and glitz, with elaborate costumes, makeup and, well, big wigs.
Speaking of colorful costumes, makeup and wigs, Laura is familiar with that in her other persona — the world of clowning.
She has performed for years as a clown named “Happy Heart,” and she did so on Labor Day weekend in Omaha at La Festa Italiana. When kids crowded around, she made balloon animals and even burst into Italian opera.
Clowning runs in the family. Her mother, Judy Quest, known as “Dear Heart,” was named the 2008 clown of the year by Clowns of America International.
Laura said her clown background has helped her as a professional performer.
“Clowning seems outlandish, but it's actually very similar to opera,” she said. “The most funny, joyful part of clowning is the fantasy you share with kids about the possibilities of the world.”
Growing up in Omaha, Laura performed musically at the Omaha Community Playhouse and the Rose Theater, and she took 10 years of dance lessons from Ballet Omaha. She attended her first opera, “Tosca,” at the Orpheum on her 16th birthday.
While a student at Duchesne Academy, she spent an academic quarter at a sister school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City.
That's where she met fellow student Stefani Germanotta, the future Lady Gaga. The pair sang in “The 1940s Radio Hour,” and Laura showed Stefi, two years younger, how to put socks in her locks to make her hair look bigger.
They didn't stay in touch, and Laura was shocked a few years ago to learn that the girl she had known became the pop superstar.
After high school, Laura attended Northwestern University, majoring in vocal performance and planning a career in musical theater. But as her voice grew stronger, she was pulled to opera.
And at 6 feet tall, she said, it was harder to get cast in musical theater than in opera.
After college she sang with the Chicago Opera Theater, where she met a fellow Omahan, artistic administrator Roger Weitz. Two years ago, he returned home as general director of Opera Omaha.
He and Laura ran into each other in Omaha last year, and she auditioned at the Orpheum. That led to her performing tonight.
“She's a wonderful singer, first and foremost,” Roger said. “And she's a great actress, really good at communicating character.”
Performing at Midtown Crossing is a first for Opera Omaha, part of its “Breaking Boundaries” theme this year.
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Roger, 36, said the plan is to continue mounting classic operas for longtime fans but also to appeal to younger audiences.
“Opera Omaha is looking to connect with the community outside of our mainstage, and to do more in schools,” he said. “It's really about expanding our footprint.”
Tonight's concert, with selections from “Carmen,” “Agrippina” and “Cinderella,” is part of Midtown Crossing's End of Summer Concert Series.
It's not the first outdoor performance for Laura, who sang this summer at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. She recently auditioned in San Francisco (where boyfriend A.J. Glueckert, who has relatives in Omaha, sang with the San Francisco Opera) and will return to New York for the start of audition season there.
With a friend, she is starting an online venture called Questaway to help guide people toward live entertainment, including Broadway shows, that appeal specifically to their tastes. It will feature taped interviews with theatergoers so that people won't have to rely so much on reviews by traditional critics.
Said Laura: “The idea of building a fan base that's a little bit younger and technologically savvy just thrills me.”
Laura Quest is glad to be back in town, singing arias in the area where she grew up singing, dancing and clowning around.
She admires the work of that girl she met in their teen years in New York. But she would also love for more people to go gaga over opera.