Statement from the National Endowment for the Arts on the Death of NEA National Heritage Fellow Milan Opacich
It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of 2004 NEA National Heritage Fellow and master tamburitza instrument maker Milan Opacich. Opacich became interested in the tamburitza music of his Eastern European heritage as a teenager. Tamburitza is an ensemble form of playing string instruments ranging in pitch from soprano (prima) and alto (brac) to cello and bass (berda). When Opacich realized that few people could make this complex variety of instruments, he took up the craft, becoming the nation's premiere tamburitza maker. Opacich's instruments incorporate ornamental mother of pearl inlay and intricate carving and are sought after for their visual and musical quality. In a 2004 interview with the NEA, Opacich described his early experiences with the tamburitza when he was asked to play rhythm with a local group: "The instrument they wanted me to play was totally unfamiliar—though it played rhythm like a guitar, it was tuned differently. It was easier to chord because there were only three predominant notes to deal with. So I learned that, but at the same time had my eye on the fellow playing the lead instrument, the lead tamburitza, which was made out of a turtle shell. Boy, that really blew my mind. So I formed my own trio and bought a tamburitza by mail order through one of the ethnic papers. It wasn't a turtle shell but it was basically the same instrument. I played in a number of groups over the years. It was a real blessing for me because I love the music." The NEA joins many others in the music community and beyond in mourning Opacich's death while celebrating his life and legacy.