|Professor Vernon Opheim|
They used words like “demanding,” “fervent,” and even “obsessive,” yet these words, written by the former students of Professor Vernon Opheim on his funeral guest book page, were written with admiration, gratitude, and love. Opheim, who passed away on Oct. 25, 2011, was a choral director at UMD from 1972-1992 and conducted the University Singers and the Elizabethan Singers.
Sonja Rasmussen (’81), who sang with both choral groups, was struck by the outpouring on Opheim’s facebook page as well, when former students learned of his passing. After talking with former choral members and classmates, she knew they should do something to honor his memory.
On Sun., Mar. 4, in Weber Music Hall at 3 pm., approximately 45 former students of Opheim’s, including Rasmussen, will join the current University Singers, under the direction of Stanley R. Wold, professor, Department of Music, to sing “Let Us Break Bread Together” a song that Opheim arranged. The piece will not only act as a tribute to Opheim, it will also launch a scholarship: the UMD Dr. Vernon Opheim Choral Scholarship. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the Weber Music Hall box office at 218-726-8877.
They are on track to raise $10,000 this year, in order to be able to award the first scholarship in 2013. Already friends, family, and former students have contributed to the fund. “The scholarship will go to someone who is interested in becoming a choral director,” she said.
Rasmussen connected with Opheim’s former students through his facebook page. People that she contacted, alerted others, and a momentum built. “There’s been an overwhelming response,” she said. “Even people who can’t come to the concert have talked about how much he meant to their lives.”
While many of the former students who will be coming together for the concert will be strangers to one another, they all have a common link through Opheim. “He was a larger than life figure. His goal was for us to create as close to perfect music as was possible. He was always trying to get to that magical moment,” she remembered.
Rasmussen echoes the words on the guest book page. “He was demanding. You couldn’t miss a practice. But we were working towards the goal of making perfect music. For me, it was working on something that was bigger than any one of us,” she said. “He was always challenging us with harder music – it wasn’t a slam dunk.” And while he may have been demanding at times, “when you did your best, he noticed,” she added.
There was great camaraderie among the singers. “Being a part of the Elizabethan Singers meant we all spent a lot of extra time together. It brings you closer to people,” she said. Opheim and his wife, Avis, also often invited students into their home for dinners and conversation. “It was a very important part of my life,” Rasmussen said. “It made me feel a part of something.”
A double major in biology and math with a chemistry minor, Rasmussen stayed an extra year so that she could go to Poland with the choir in 1981. “He loved going on the tours,” she recalled. The discipline that Opheim instilled has served her well throughout her career. After UMD, she went to graduate school and then medical school. She is now a physician with the CDC in Atlanta.
To donate to the UMD Dr. Vernon Opheim Choral Scholarship online, visit the School of Fine Arts development website or contact Rob Hofmann, senior director of development, School of Fine Arts, 218-726-7434.
Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, February 2011.