"My sister lives in Pleasanton and she said, 'Why don't you come here and see if you like it?'" Nealy recalled.
Nealy has a degree from Boston University in painting but had detoured into the world of business, doing marketing communications in documentary film production.
"When we moved here I wanted to get involved with the arts, and I was going into the city to see the opera and the symphony," Nealy remembered. "My sister said, 'We have opera right here.'"
Nealy checked out Livermore Valley Opera and was pleasantly surprised at the quality productions, crediting artistic and music director Alexander Katsman.
"It has the strongest volunteer organization of any opera company," she also noted, lauding the board for its professionalism.
As it happened, LVO was looking for leadership.
"I was the first executive director," Nealy said. "I had the honor and pleasure of producing several years of wonderful opera there."
She also became a civic arts commissioner in Pleasanton.
"We think of our role as stewards of the cultural arts mandates of the city," Nealy explained.
The commission just completed the city's cultural plan, it works on selection and placement of art works in the city, and it chooses recipients for the city's arts grants.
Then a few years ago, Nealy heard that the larger Festival Opera in Walnut Creek was doing a nationwide search for a new executive director.
"Everyone kept calling me and saying, 'You should apply,'" Nealy recollected, "so I said I'd throw my hat in the ring."
She was offered the job in 2011, just as she was staging Livermore Valley Opera's "Madama Butterfly" at the Bankhead Theater in Livermore as well as a mini-opera that she'd written at the Firehouse Arts Center.
"It was a very tense time period," Nealy said.
By the end of Festival Opera's summer season, she'd begun to sort out its finances and found them grim.
"Unfortunately the company had accrued a tremendous debt, over $200,000," she said.
She knew the opera needed drastic measures, so she sought feedback from the community -- board members, former board members, artists, council members and other community leaders.
"Their responses were: Festival Opera is a treasure," she said, so she acted boldly.
"By January we moved out of our office, sold all our furniture, and I had to fire staff over several months," she said. "For a short time I had the blessing of an intern, but I've pretty much been on my lonesome with the board, which had some attrition as well."
Musical America recently chose Nealy for its Profiles in Courage in the Arts, honoring those who go the extra mile. Citing Festival Opera's large deficit, its profile on Nealy enumerated her opera-saving actions.
"She immediately scaled back the company's large, grand-opera productions and focused on reversing its slide into debt. She produced a 'Make Our Garden Grow' concert in which over 30 artists, several conductors, chorus and orchestra, all donated their services. She presented a chamber opera titled 'About Face -- an Opera Experience,' and revived the company's popular Opera in the Park concert," the profile said.
"Her bold leadership and years of experience as a consultant in the for-profit world kept the company afloat. At the same time, Nealy began re-envisioning the company's future."
Nealy puts a positive spin on it.
"When you get into a situation that's so challenging, you can look at what the opportunities are," she said. "Doing the same things we'd always done was not working. How could we be relevant?"
She refocused Festival Opera on chamber works, which are shorter and more affordable to produce, as well as one mainstage opera each year. There were two Holocaust chamber operas in 2014, "The Emperor of Atlantis" by Viktor Ullmann and "Another Sunrise" by Jake Heggie. This year two Indian operas will be performed: Gustav Holst's "Savitri" and Jack Perla's "River of Light." Next year, it will be Chinese.
"We are focusing on the diverse cultures in our community, cultures that aren't spoken to through standard repertory opera," Nealy said.
She added that mainstage operas continue to be important.
"We will do one of the top 20, a recognized opera, to preserve the art form," Nealy said. "When people bring their children to an opera to introduce them to it, they like it to be a standard opera -- and there is so much beauty in them."
In 2013, Festival Opera staged a co-production with West Bay Opera of Verdi's "Othello," performing both in Walnut Creek and Palo Alto, which reduced the cost by nearly 50%.
Nealy said in general opera is alive and well, with many new works being done, and she called the Bay Area a "rich cultural ecosystem for the arts."
"We see more and more HD broadcasts in movie theaters," she pointed out. "It's controversial -- some celebrate this as making it accessible."
But, she added, nothing is like live theater, and the challenge is to get people away from screens to experience it. Opera also has an image problem.
"It's facing a long tradition in Hollywood and the media that portray opera as stuffy, for the elite rich white person."
"It's anything but that," she said, noting that originally in Europe, "It was a 'people's theater.' But because it's the most expensive art form to produce, over the years there has been the necessity to attract wealthy donors and patrons."
"All year long we are in the process of interesting individual donors and supporters, applying for grants, talking to corporations about sponsorships, forging collaborations," Nealy said.
This is true for other arts groups, she added, but an opera is the most expensive, with a chorus, a union orchestra, lighting, costumes, makeup, designs and often dancers.
Nealy looks forward to an exciting 2015 season, with the double billed Indian chamber operas, Opera in the Park on Father's Day (June 21) and the mainstage production of R. Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," which combines opera and comedy.
"Everybody lives -- and laughs," she said.
As does local opera, under her tutelage.
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