Nonprofit Canterbury Voices welcomes its new artistic director, Julie Yu-Oppenheim.
Since it began as a 60-singer choir at All Soul’ Episcopal Church in 1969, Canterbury Voices has evolved into the state’s largest symphony chorus, featuring trained singers performing on Oklahoma City’s grandest stage at the Civic Center Music Hall. Collaborating with esteemed organizations like the Oklahoma City Ballet and the OKC Philharmonic and performing with the likes of Andrea Bocelli, Canterbury Voices has long been at the forefront of both emerging and established talent, and its latest chapter continues that legacy with the naming of Julie Yu-Oppenheim as its new artistic director.
The acclaimed conductor is an exciting addition for a choir that has prided itself on diverse voices. Born in South Korea, she didn’t speak English when she first arrived in the United States, but thanks to impassioned parents and encouraging educators, she found her voice in the arts.
“One teacher at a time offered support and guidance for me and others to find the path we would eventually land on,” she said. “What I love about my industry is the melding of arts, education and the culture of the community. I believe the beautiful mosaic that comes about when you combine these elements into a dialogue reflecting on the world you want to see makes everything seem possible and hopeful.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Oklahoma, a Master of Music degree from Oklahoma State University and a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of North Texas, she used her upbringing and schooling to create a career at once fulfilling and multifaceted.
“I’m very proud of my Oklahoma heritage,” Yu Oppenheim said. “I’m proud to have attended a high school with a diverse population. Since so many of us were military families, we had lived all over the world. I appreciated the importance of having [varied] worldviews and working with people of different backgrounds, but I also love the folks who are born and raised in a community and invest in it through generations. It’s that tapestry of individuals that is so beautiful.”
Yu-Oppenheim moved into the educator role when she taught at Norman High School, where she credits her co-teacher Tony Gonzalez as a pivotal mentor. “It was like getting another graduate degree every day, teaching there with him,” she said.
From there, she taught at San Jose State University and then spent 16 years educating at Kansas State University, the latter of which taught her how to build a choral program and how to appreciate the process of music-making, all while co-teaching with her husband, Joshua Oppenheim.
Eventually, though, she was called home. “Many of my colleagues who work with a symphony chorus have the opportunity to prepare large choral works in rehearsal, but then the symphony conductor will conduct in concert,” Yu-Oppenheim explained of the allure of joining Canterbury Voices. “There are few civic choruses like (it) who not only collaborate with a world-class orchestra such as the OKC Philharmonic but then have their own independent concert season prepared and conducted by a dedicated conductor.”
Not only that, she added, but Canterbury Voices invests in children’s choral arts through Canterbury Youth Voices. “It’s a thriving, growing educational program that has unlimited potential,” she said. “I am also joining a small group of female conductors and conductors of color who have the opportunity to conduct such forces and to have the collaborative opportunities I will have.”
Her aspirations with the nonprofit symphony are to not only carry on the work and vision of retiring conductor Randi Von Ellefson but to grow the audience, Canterbury Youth Voices and ensemble membership to reflect the rich diversity of Oklahoma City and the region.
Heading into her inaugural 2023-24 season as artistic director, Yu-Oppenheim teased that the first fall concert will “definitely scratch the itch of any choral enthusiast.” In the meantime, she announced that Canterbury Voices will perform Handel’s Messiah in December. “Especially after hearing Zadok the Priest at the recent coronation of King Charles III, it will be a delight to present Handel’s most famous masterwork,” she said, adding that they’re still locking down the spring concert with “what are sure to be favorites for the whole community,” including collaborations with the OKC Philharmonic and OKC Ballet.
After building a career out of constructing programs and fostering diverse singers, Yu-Oppenheim’s arrival is an apt homecoming for one of Oklahoma’s most talented voices.