One day a few weeks back, I checked my voicemail to hear the silvery tones of a tenor voice, belonging to none other than Jimmy Odom, singer of the Lyric Opera of Chicago and President of the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), granting me my request for an interview!
AGMA is the national labor union that represents onstage and production artists in the field of opera, classical dance, and concert choral performace. When I learned that their President was not only also an accomplished singer but a dancer as well, and that he had studied classical ballet at Texas Tech University under my teacher, Prof. Peggy Willis-Aarnio (then known as “Ms. Willis”), I knew that I must get an interview and hear this story.
It was soon after receiving this delightful message from a very gracious and approachable Mr. Odom that we each sat down at our respective computers to bring you this interview…
Mary Fernandez: Mr. Odom, could you tell us a bit about your work as the President of the American Guild of Musical Artists? I understand that AGMA represents dancers of American Ballet Theatre, New York City Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Boston Ballet, to name just a few.
Jimmy Odom: AGMA represents the dancers and stage managers at twenty-three different dance companies across the country, as well as choreographers at most of them. In addition, we represent the performers and production personnel at thirty-three opera companies and thirteen concert choral groups. At almost all of those additional companies, that includes any dancers who might be employed. Almost 1,500 of our nearly 7,000 members are dancers.
As president, I am the Chief Executive Officer of the union. I preside over meetings of the union, including our governing body, the Board of Governors. I work closely with our professional staff, in particular our National Executive Director, Alan Gordon, and our Director of Operations, Gerry Angel. Mr. Gordon supervises our staff, as well as contract enforcement and negotiation, while Ms. Angel deals with the day-to-day business of keeping the union running. With their help, I am able to suggest policies and strategic planning that the elected leadership of the union needs to consider.
In addition, I take some pride in being available to any member of the union. I monitor and answer all my own email, and I suspect that more members than not have my home phone number. I participate in negotiations for Collective Bargaining Agreements with our signatory companies when my schedule permits and the members who work for those companies request it. I also advise on how to deal with contract enforcement issues when members ask me. That tends to make me sound a little more accomplished than I am. Very frequently my advice is, “You need to contact Mr. Gordon”, or some other staff member.
MF: Aside from being President of AGMA, you are also very accomplished in the Arts yourself. You are a tenor with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and you also studied classical ballet as a pupil of my teacher, and a leading authority on the teaching method of classical dance, Peggy Willis-Aarnio! How did you first get interested in the Arts, and what lead you to want to learn ballet?
I remember her saying one time that he always looked “like he’s walking on air.” That struck me as something I would like people to say about me.
JO: I can’t remember not being interested in the Arts. My grandmother used to tell a story about the first time I sang in public – at the age of eighteen months. My first memory of being interested in ballet is from when I was four or five years old. I must have seen some performance on television, and although I don’t remember it, I do remember dancing around the house afterwards. My mother also had a friend whose brother was a professional dancer. I remember her saying one time that he always looked “like he’s walking on air.” That struck me as something I would like people to say about me.
I started learning piano at about that time, and started voice lessons not long after. Unfortunately, at that time there wasn’t an opportunity for me to start ballet lessons in the small Texas town that I grew up in, although my mother told me once that she would have figured out some way to get the lessons for me if she hadn’t thought I was already spread too thin for someone so young. Our town had a Community Concert Association, which brought in various performing groups throughout the year. The Dallas Symphony appeared regularly, as did the Fort Worth Ballet. I actually saw Ms. Willis perform when she was dancing with that company. Yes, there’s a story there, but it’s hers to tell.
When I was in junior high, I was fortunate enough to be able to begin studying with the local ballet teacher. That gave me basic training in the Cecchetti method, which meant that I was not completely lost when I began to study with Ms. Willis.
MF: How did you meet Ms. Willis?
JO: I didn’t meet Ms. Willis until my first class with her, at Texas Tech University. I had wanted to continue with my ballet training, but my first semester, I simply couldn’t work it into my schedule. So I was very careful to make certain I could get into the ballet class for the second semester. At that point, I didn’t really care who was teaching, I just wanted to get back into a class.
After just a week of class with her I felt stronger and more confident. Of course, after the second week I realized just how much I didn’t know.
MF: What was it like being one of her students? Could you tell us a bit about her teaching style?
JO: I thought that being one of her students was amazing. She is very focused when she teaches, but she manages to maintain that focus without losing good humor. I felt that she was always aware of what I was doing and was always right there with a gentle correction or encouragement. After just a week of class with her I felt stronger and more confident. Of course, after the second week I realized just how much I didn’t know. Ms. Willis always seemed to know when I needed a little extra encouragement, and was always there to provide it.
MF: Prof. Willis-Aarnio’s mission (and I am trying to help by spreading the word via this website) is to preserve the highest traditions of classical ballet by carrying forth the Teaching Method of Classical Dance originating from Russia, founded by Agrippina Vaganova. Do you think that you benefited from this training?
A director came up to me during a rehearsal, after I had just been choreographed into a folk dance sequence, and said, “You were a real dancer, weren’t you?”
JO: Oh, absolutely. It gave me an awareness of my physical presence on stage that has been invaluable during my career. Even now, after more years than I will admit to being old since I last took class regularly, I have directors and choreographers come to me to ask about my training. Just a few months ago, a director came up to me during a rehearsal, after I had just been choreographed into a folk dance sequence, and said, “You were a real dancer, weren’t you?” I was incredibly flattered, but it all goes back to the training. It stays with you. You may lose strength and flexibility over the years, but the technique remains.
MF: You danced the leading role of “the Peruvian” in Gaîté Parisienne, directed by Prof. Willis-Aarnio. Was that a fun experience?
JO: It was great fun! I had danced the role of the “Drummer Boy” in Graduation Ball which Ms. Willis choreographed the year before, and so I was really hoping that I would have an opportunity for another good role in Gaîté. The Peruvian was far more than I had hoped for. I’m pretty short, so partnering was often difficult for me. To be able to have those two important roles in my repertoire was a thrill to me.
Do it! Don’t hesitate, do it!
MF: What would you say to a young person who is contemplating taking ballet lessons?
JO: Do it! Don’t hesitate, do it! Give it all you have to give. Whether you ever dance professionally or ever even appear on stage, it will enrich your life in ways you can’t imagine. It will give you discipline. It will give you confidence. It will give strength and grace that you will find helpful in the most unlikely of situations. And if you do go on to a career on stage, it will serve you every day of your life. A strong knowledge of ballet will give you an invaluable tool, wherever your life’s path may lead.
This June, Jimmy Odom performed the role of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at Graham Regional Theatre, and is currently beginning his 21st season with Lyric Opera of Chicago. He will be performing in eight productions, including Otello, Madama Butterfly, Parsifal, La Traviata, Die Fledermaus, The Barber of Seville, Rusalka, and La Clemenza di Tito.
Jimmy has performed with over a dozen different companies and has appeared in close to 200 productions and concerts across the United States and Canada. He is also a noted cabaret performer, and has frequently served as a director, choreographer, designer, and notably, as a composer and arranger. In addition to his performance work, Jimmy serves as the President of the American Guild of Musical Artists, a position he has held since 2007.