The Visionary Behind OCSA: The Transformative Impact of Dr. Ralph Opacic’s Legacy

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The life and legacy of OCSA (Orange County School of the Arts) Founder Dr. Ralph Opacic, a visionary educator who dedicated 34 years of his life to building the institution that has now become a legendary center for the arts. The transformative impact Dr. Opacic had on his students, inspired them to pursue their passions and achieve success in the creative industry. Some of the distinguished alumni who have credited Dr. Opacic for his mentorship and support include actor Dante Basco and actor/director Matthew Morrison. Dr. Opacic’s enduring legacy as a teacher who not only taught his students the artistic skills they needed but also guided them to find their voice and realize their full potential has inspired generations to come. 

Dr. Ralph Opacic started the Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA, commonly pronounced “oh-shah”) in 1987. He spent 34 years as an educator at the Santa Ana, California institution. OCSA boasts alumni of the likes of Pedro Pascal (Game of Thrones, NARCOS, The Mandalorian), Taryn Manning (Orange is the New Black, Hustle & Flow, 8 Mile), Matthew Morrison (Glee, The Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy), and Dante Basco (Avatar: The Last Airbender, Hook, American Dragon: Jake Long). Dr. Opacic’s vision for the school included ensuring that students were ready for a career in the performing and visual arts arts and entertainment industry to leverage their talents and follow their dreams. Throughout his tenure, he has had a part in the education and training of thousands of students who have gone on to enter into a variety of specializations. Through his transformative impact on their education and artistic pursuits, Dr. Opacic has helped to influence the careers of his students like the insightful mentor that he is.  

An Artist with a Vision

Founding OCSA was not without its challenges. While there seemed to be some support in Los Alamitos, the city Dr. Opacic was living in at the time, the loudest voices were those that were most vehemently opposing the project. Dr. Opacic and his family faced public confrontations and even lawsuits due to his being the visionary for the endeavor. Luckily, the Mayor of Santa Ana at the time, Miguel Pulido, reached out via phone to speak with him directly after hearing about the unfavorable reaction Los Alamitos residents were having toward the idea. Mr. Pulido asked Dr. Opacic to bring OCSA to Santa Ana instead, less than 17 miles to the east. The city was in the middle of revitalizing itself and OCSA was just the kind of establishment it needed to help with that effort. 

Dr. Opacic’s dream school molded and nurtured the artist within each student. Not one that treated the arts as though they were mere hobbies or something separate from traditional academia. OCSA was meant to stand as an art community that would prepare each student for further study in their chosen field or get them ready to begin their career in their industry of choice. 

Without Dr. Opacic’s perseverance and drive, OCSA may not have ever existed, let alone grown into an institution that serves thousands of students each year. One of the most notable students of OCSA, included in the school website’s “Hall of Fame” section, Dante Basco recalls moments of mentorship with Dr. Opacic, highlighting his powerful skill for building memorable and educational relationships with his students. 

Dante Basco

Born in 1975 in Pittsburgh, California, Dante and his brothers were accepted to OCSA at the end of the 1990s. After graduating in 1993, Dante started his film career while attending OCSA. He earned a role as a character named Rufio, the new leader of the Lost Boys, in the 1991 Peter Pan movie Hook (directed by Steven Spielberg).  Since then, Dante’s career has grown, including poetry, voice acting, and directing (The Fabulous Filipino Brothers in 2021). He also founded an arts collective in Los Angeles called “We Own the 8th” that focuses on supporting the global community of Asian and Asian-American people working within the arts. 

In an interview about OCSA, Dante describes himself as having gotten accepted into the school and how he and his brothers were “mentored, and encouraged” by Dr. Opacic. Most of the time Dante spent hanging out with Dr. Opacic was during lunch where, alongside his brothers, they would talk about things inside and outside of school, including basketball, acting, and music. On multiple occasions, Dante credits Dr. Opacic with helping him and his brothers with their singing and music production goals, even helping them produce original songs. Dante recounts in the interview how Dr. Opacic was running the school, but took the place of a pianist who fell ill and couldn’t be present for a performance, stepping in as needed to make sure the show went on. 

“It is easy in Hollywood,” Dante noted, “To not feel seen, especially by an authority figure, someone that’s a little older, but [Dr. Opacic] actually saw us.” Dante highlighted him and his brothers being harassed by security guards at a burger restaurant across the street from OCSA since they were non-White in a predominantly White school. He saw Dr. Opacic as the complete opposite kind of person, even though he was an authority figure at OCSA. “Every artist is different in their own way, and I’m sure he’s made a lot of different artists feel special in their own way.” 

After a particularly unorthodox Christmas performance at OCSA in which Dante was part of a group doing a Christmas rap instead of the standard Christmas pieces everyone was expecting to hear, Dr. Opacic was still supportive. “He was supportive of our creative endeavor. He may not even completely understand it, but he appreciated it…” 

Matthew Morrison

Matthew started his freshman year at OSCA in 1994. Growing up with two parents who had busy careers in medicine, Matthew found himself with ample amounts of solitude growing up. He occupied this time with activities that got him out of the house. Soccer is the one he has been passionate about since the age of four. At one point while he was visiting other family members in Arizona, he was placed into a theater program for children that introduced him to the world of acting. He enjoyed participating in the program and hearing the applause from the audience. “I was like, this is the best!” 

By the time he reached OSCA, he had become experienced in both soccer and acting and was struggling to juggle the two loves. “I was really enjoying both but I had to make a choice because I couldn’t do both any longer.” This is when Dr. Opacic stepped in to help. Knowing the circumstances that Matthew was in and the decision that he would likely have to make, Dr. Opacic wanted to make sure that Matthew understood that both paths were viable options for him because of his multiple talents. 

One day at OSCA, Dr. Opacic pulled Matthew aside and asked to speak with him. “I’ve seen a lot of people go through this program,” Dr. Opacic told Matthew, “and you have something really special that I have yet to see.” Surprised, Matthew continued to listen, this being the first time that someone had so directly praised him when it came to acting. Especially someone as experienced as Dr. Opacic. “I think you have a great shot at doing this as a career.” 

For Matthew, this interaction was life-altering. “And for him to tell me that, made the decision for me. From that moment, I went all in with theater, music, and dance. I hung up the cleats for soccer and there was no looking back.” 

A Legacy of Learning 

Not everyone has the passion and drive to go above and beyond in their career. Any reasonably proficient educator can arrive at their classroom, convey fundamental knowledge, teach standard skills, and then depart for the day. Any good teacher can show a little extra care and attention to the students they come across who need it the most. However, it takes a great instructor, a keen observer, and a patient listener to influence the lives of learners in the way that Dr. Ralph Opacic has in his decades actively teaching at OCSA. Where others may have bestowed knowledge, he mentored and inspired his young artists. Stories like Dante’s and Matthew’s are hard to come by at many schools. This may be why there’s no place quite like OCSA in the country—because there’s no one quite like Dr. Ralph Opacic in the world. 

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