Thoma to Lead Opera House


May 22, 2023

BARRE — Dan Casey’s recent career change left trustees of the Barre Opera House with a performing arts venue to run and some big shoes to fill. Fortunately, Chair Bill Koch says, Kurt Thoma has similar experience and skills, putting the historic venue in good hands.

Eight years removed from the year he spent as executive director for the Chandler Center for the Arts in Randolph, Thoma, who just started a similar gig for the Barre Opera House, isn’t a one-hit wonder.

Just ask Koch, who said Monday Thoma boasts 22 years of administrative, educational, technical and outreach experience in theater, music and the arts, and has a resume that popped to the top of the list in a search spearheaded by Trustee John Brugger.

The search attracted several applicants but Koch said none were nearly as impressive as Thoma.

“It was a pretty clear-cut decision for the board,” he said. “(Thoma) was head and shoulders above everyone else in terms of what we needed.”

Koch said Thoma had the added advantage of being “a bit of a known commodity,” having assisted Casey with technical management and lighting design for the past year.

“It almost had the feel of a hiring from within,” Koch said. “We (trustees) were familiar with his (Thoma’s) skill set.”

After 18 years running the opera house, Casey left to run the Central Vermont Solid Waste Management District.

“We were looking for someone who understands how to build relationships with the community and with the board,” Koch said, suggesting Thoma checks both of those boxes and has a track record of being a successful fundraiser.

Then there is the part of the operation you don’t want to leave to chance because it is what puts people in the seats.

“We need someone who understand performing arts and what sells and what doesn’t sell,” Koch said, noting that was a clear strength of Casey’s.

“Dan Casey had a remarkable … skill for picking what would be a good act, and was very good at contract negotiation, and Kurt (Thoma) has that skill set.”

Thoma, who started settling into his new role a week ago, said Monday the transition has been seamless due to the time he spent working with Casey, and he has no plans of trying to fix what clearly isn’t broken.

“What Dan (Casey) has done here, I have absolutely every reason to continue,” he said, suggesting he will look for ways to build on an already solid foundation.

Expect a lot of outreach and for Thoma to look for ways — from programming to price points — to bring those who have felt “under-served” into what he believes is a “magical space.”

“I want to make it accessible,” he said.

Thoma said he is eager to explore the potential of making the opera house something of a training ground for students.

He said he has long been a fan of the Barre Opera House and its programming and, like the trustees, has high praise for his predecessor.

Thoma credits Casey for navigating the shutdown, renovation and reopening of the opera house during the pandemic.

“Dan’s ability to keep the community engaged in the opera house, at a time when gathering together was unsafe, is incredible,” he said.

With the help of trustees, Thoma said Casey was able to raise $1.2 million and pull off a massive renovation that made the most of the pandemic-related closure.

“They updated lighting, audio, seating, flooring, painting, and life safety, while also maintaining the historical integrity of the (opera house),” he said. “This work is astounding and shows an inimitable dedication (opera house) members, sponsors, donors, staff and board.”

Most recently employed by the Burlington School District’s Integrated Arts Academy, Thoma worked as an administrative assistant, substitute teacher, and para-educator there from 2016 to 2022. His first job in Vermont is the one that brought the Michigan Native to the Green Mountain State in 2014. Though he left the Chandler Center for the Arts after serving only a year as its executive director, he earned good reviews for the work that he did there.

The performing arts are Thoma’s wheelhouse. As a college student, he founded “Acting Up Theatre Company” — an educational school residency program in rural Michigan. What started as a classroom assignment for Thoma, blossomed into a 17-year business endeavor that served some 68,000 Michigan school children before he sold it to one of his employees in 2013.

Most, but not all of the time, Thoma served as owner and teaching artist for his theater-based business venture, his day job was working as operations manager at the University of Michigan’s 3,500-seat flagship orchestra hall, Hill Auditorium.

For four of those years, Thoma pulled triple duty — serving as tour manager and technical director for the Emmy Award-winning a cappella group, Three Men and a Tenor.

Thoma left the Chandler Center for the Arts for a more family friendly schedule with a much shorter commute to visit his now-wife, Rae Fraumann, who was living with her school-age children in Chittenden County at the time.

Fraumann is now pastor at Hedding United Methodist Church in Barre, where the couple relocated last year after the last of their children graduated from Burlington High School.

When Casey announced he was leaving, Thoma said he thought twice about applying.

“A job like this is absolutely a lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not 9 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.).”

That was his first thought.

“Opportunities like this do not come up often in a town this size, and it’s doing what I love,” he said.

Thoma has been doing it for a week and he’s hoping to do it a lot longer.

“I view it as a commitment from me to the entire area,” he said. “No one wants to see uncertainty in this type of role in a space they feel they have some ownership over.”