Milan Opacich, a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellow, master tamburitza maker and retired firefighter died Monday, January 21st, 2013.
“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,” said a statement from the National Endowment for the Arts. “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 United States’ leading tamburitza maker. Opacich’s instruments incorporated ornamental mother of pearl inlay and intricate carving and were 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.”
Milan Opacich was born to a Croatian mother and a Serbian father from former Yugoslavia. He grew up in the Calumet region of Indiana, home to South Slavic workers in the steel industry.
Opacich became interested in string music at the age of four and by the time he was fourteen was playing country music with other members of mill working families. At eighteen he took up the tamburitza music of his familial heritage. After he realized that few people could make this complex variety of instruments, Opacich applied his skills as a tool and die maker to the construction of quality tamburitza.
In 1958, after the steel industry began to decline, he joined the Gary Fire Department and set up a small workshop in the basement of the firehouse in order to carry on his instrument making during down times.
His instruments have been exhibited at both the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and at the Roy Acuff Museum. In 2002 he was named to the Tamburitza Association of America Hall of Fame.