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Looking for lessons: A profile of alumna Leta Harris Neustaedter

Leta performing
Leta Harris Neustaedter. Photo by MantisArt.

Alumna Leta Harris Neustaedter (MA, social work, ’98) moved to Boise in the fifth grade and graduated from Boise High School in 1988.

She calls Boise her home base but she’s traveled, lived and worked in locales across the world. A formative six-month stay on the Caribbean island of Roatán after she completed her master’s program brought enlightenment. Growing up in predominantly white Idaho, she sought a culture that resonated more closely with her black roots. It brought adventure; Neustaedter supported herself by waiting tables, painting murals and singing. It also brought tragedy. An accident claimed the life of her fiancé, Patrick.

In conversation, Neustaedter speaks with refreshing verve and candor that makes evident she regards life as an ongoing experiment, a bit of a mystery, and that no topic is likely to rattle her.

Before Patrick’s death, Neustaedter had been a “staunch atheist.” Experiences with Patrick’s spirit after his death, she said, led to her extensive research about the afterlife. The research transformed her belief system.

“I believe in reincarnation and the idea that souls pick the bodies and families we’re born into. This has helped me in challenging times, to know that my challenges are challenges I chose,” said Neustaedter. “We look for the lessons we need.”

Leta performing
Photo by David Day.

Those include daily opportunities, she said, “to be kind, honest, wise and to protect those who are vulnerable, including animals.”

Neustaedter has carried that philosophy into her life’s parallel passions: artistic performance and work in the mental health and humanitarian fields. Neustaedter is an actor and vocalist, in addition to being a licensed clinical social worker. In 2010, she opened her own business, Boise’s Metamorphosis Performing Arts Studio. Its programs range from refugee storytelling to playwriting programs at the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, to workshops and private lessons that help people hone their acting, singing and public speaking skills.

A diverse resume

Most people familiar with Boise’s culture scene have come across Neustaedter, or at least have heard of her. She has been performing in the Treasure Valley since age 14 and the founding of her first band, The Gargoyles. Her “biggest” gig to date was opening for Boyz II Men at the Idaho Center for a crowd of 8,000 in 1998. More recently, she has performed with Opera Idaho, the Boise Philharmonic Master Chorale, and as a blues, jazz, soul and Americana artist.

At last year’s Treefort, Neustaedter was a “book” in the Human Library, the program that dispels societal stereotypes by encouraging conversation between people who might not meet otherwise. As an arts educator, Neustaedter creates programs that weave performing arts into school curriculums. This year at Sage International School, she is teaching students about the political process through music from the celebrated musical “Hamilton.”

Leta Neustaedter
Boise State alumna Leta Neustaedter teaching elementary kids to sing the musical Hamilton at Sage International School. Photo Patrick Sweeney.

This spring, Neustaedter will perform as the witch in Boise Music Week’s production of the musical “Into the Woods” at the Morrison Center. As an undergraduate at Occidental College where she received her degree in psychology in 1992, Neustaedter auditioned for “Into the Woods.” She didn’t make the cast. She worked on the production doing hair and make-up instead.

“I’m finally in the production after 25 years,” said Neustaedter, “in the role I wanted, on the grandest stage in the Treasure Valley.”

Neustaedter devotes much of her time and spirit to activism. Check Youtube and up pops a video of Neustaedter singing “We Shall Overcome” on the Idaho State Capitol steps for Martin Luther King Day in 2018. In January, she sang “America the Beautiful” at the Women’s March.

“I wouldn’t call activism a vocation for me, or people of color in general,” said Neustaedter. “It is survival. We protest, advocate and educate because our livelihoods and the safety of our people depend on it. I am an activist because systemic injustice necessitates it.”

‘A genuine artist’

In 2016, Neustaedter returned to Boise State to study music theory and classical piano, something she had not done formally despite her many years as a performer.

Jim Jirak, an associate professor of music education, was one of Neustaedter’s mentors on campus. Jirak called her one of several outstanding students in the music department.

“Leta has seemingly limitless ambition along with an admirable creative streak. At times she had so many ideas and projects, that we would have to narrow her choices in order to move forward, just as Igor Stravinsky advised during his career,” said Jirak. “Leta is a genuine artist; able to learn from the past, be in the moment and look toward the future, all the while willing to share her feelings along the way.”

Leta performing
Neustaedter performed at Treefort, 2014. Photo Patrick Sweeney.

Returning to school as a “40-something person” has come with profound challenges, said Neustaedter. Those include plunging into new topics like music theory alongside 19-year-old students who had studied the subject before, and wrangling hours of homework each night while running a full-time business. Neustaedter completed coursework towards a music minor and leaves open the possibility of taking more classes in the future.

“The experience has been transformative,” she said, “so much more difficult than I thought it would be, but there are now projects I’m able to do and conversations I’m able to have because of my music studies. I look at what I’m doing now in my life and I’m so glad I did it.”

– Story by Anna Webb