sopraniCipriani - the life of an emerging soprano diva

The Salvage Men

On April 12 & 13 I was privileged to sing with the Apollo Chorus and the Poetry Foundation for their performance of Jeff Beal’s The Salvage Men written to poetry by Kay Ryan.

You may know some of Jeff Beal’s work from “House of Cards” or HBO’s “Rome.” The Salvage Men strays from his film work, but is just as brilliant.

Kay Ryan is a former United States Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner. With a very to the point personality and eccentric humor, it was a beautiful experience to hear her read her own poetry out loud with brief commentary. Her four works Beal wrote music to include:





He also used Oscar Wilde’s Suffering is one very long moment from his De Profundis as the first movement of his five movement work.

The experience of collaborating with these two institutions and two creative individuals was priceless. I have lived with this music for two years and to say it’s difficult is an understatement. All the hard work the chorus put into this piece was worth it to be able to perform it two years in a row. When we started rehearsals for The Salvage Men in 2016, I knew it would be a unique experience, but never expected to be able to meet both the poet and the composer.

Ryan mentioned that in between writing she rests. A lot. And with her comment came laughter from the audience, because who has time for that? Though initially I found humor in this, I must take the advice to heart. As a musician, I wear myself thin, working my day job, barely spending time to eat when I get home, and then quickly driving off to my rehearsals in the evening to arrive home too exhausted to sleep the insufficient hours I need to function the next day. I am terribly hard on myself when I don’t accomplish all I believe I am capable of in one day. I am impossible.

But rest refreshes and allows for creativity.

Permit time for the work to breathe might it asphyxiate.

The Perfect American

The Midwest Premiere of Philip Glass’ contemporary opera “The Perfect American” occurred at the end of April, which I had the pleasure of singing in as a chorus member. Performed as Harris Theater with Chicago Opera Theater joined with Long Beach Opera to bring this opera to North America for the first time. Due to controversy, the opera had been put on indefinite hold from America until now.

This controversial subject consists of one of the most beloved Americans of all time: Walt Disney. Based on the book “Der König von Amerika” written by Peter Stephen Jungk, this story portrays a fictional account of the last few months of Disney’s mortal life. Whereas the book is strictly from the perspective of Wilhelm Dantine, a (fictionalized) obsessive former employee of Disney who was fired over political affiliations, the opera is more from the perspective of Disney himself and the existential angst he has facing death. The librettist, Rudolph Wurlitzer, delicately took scenes from the book, creating his own context. While remaining mostly faithful to the book, he took liberty deviating from a linear timeline.

The setting of the opera was in Walt’s hospital room with his family, reliving memories, experiencing new ones— possibly hallucinating ideas of grandeur. The staging wittily used the objects in the hospital room for multiple purposes, such as toilet paper for a ribbon cutting ceremony, head mirrors for Mickey Mouse ears, and hospital beds for trains.

As Walt continues to enter deeper into the fact that his death is inevitable, we see the juxtaposition of his reality and fantasy, personal life and work, mortality and immortality. His whole basis of Main Street USA in Disney Land was the town of Marceline where he grew up. In a way, he had already started molding his reality into a fantasy that everyone could experience joy from his nostalgia, where he listened to trains hurtle by, drew sketches of country critters, and where negative thoughts never permeate the mind. Marceline was the thought that brought him comfort when in pain, the ignorant bliss of his childhood which he returned to during his hours of torment in his hospital room when he couldn’t face reality.

A fascinating effect used in the staging was shadow puppetry, which brought to mind Plato’s Cave Allegory. Objects and persons were used to cast shadows on Walt’s privacy curtain. Disney built his little town of Marceline using items from the hospital making them silhouette as a skyline with a lamp. Behind the curtain, he transformed himself into Mickey Mouse by wearing two head mirrors as ears. During his funeral, his family continued to portray this shadow of reality by stacking seemingly random objects, but when lit on the backdrop, no one could help but think of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

There are two more references of Greek inspiration in this opera. The first is the portrayal of Walt Disney as Plato himself. During hallucinations and torments on his bed, he often reached his hands to the heavens, pointing with his index finger, giving the imagery of the infamous painting of Plato and Aristotle. Plato’s philosophy was to show there is more to life than this reality we see, this is a shadow of what is real. Walt wanted to build his own reality of the shadows he saw to create his own heaven on earth with his mighty kingdoms and happily ever after stories.

The second is the role of the chorus. Separated from the main story line of the opera, they were set behind a backdrop and lit up only to make extra commentary of what they viewed on stage. This Greek chorus, represented as Disney’s workers, only once stepped out of their passive position of commentary to defend Disney from the crude accusations during a protest to soften the hearts of the activists. Not only did the words of the chorus tell a story, but the chords Glass used did as well. At times, one could be drawn back to the sweet choruses from Walt Disney’s films such as Peter Pan or Snow White

Disney was portrayed as having a difficult time ceasing from his work, even disassociating his name from his company, viewing his own family members as laborers and dictating orders to them. This was visible in the opera as his family members were staged as his own studio artists working for him and protestors crying for an ethical living. Even at the end, they are left to build his Magic Kingdom.

The last struggle between mortality and immortality is his desire for his kingdom to live forever. If he must be forgotten, then he must be sure his creations, Mickey and Donald, are eternal. He compares them to others from history known by all—Moses, Zeus, Jesus—and desires Mickey and Donald to be on par with them.  Disney himself doesn’t want to disappear into nonexistence either, so he requests the preservation of his body in liquid nitrogen, which is never fulfilled. Though his body was destroyed in cremation, his kingdom continued to flourish and still does to this day.


Philip Glass’ opera ‘The Perfect American’ imagines Walt Disney’s demons
A darker Walt Disney conjured in ‘The Perfect American’
Opera Review: THE PERFECT AMERICAN (Chicago Opera Theater at the Harris Theater)
Chicago Opera Theater presents THE PERFECT AMERICAN Review—A Meditation on Legacy
“The Apollo Chorus does great work as Disney’s wistful but endlessly dedicated army of animators, relegated to the background but crucial to supporting the fluid, meditative score.”
Chicago Opera Theater’s ‘Perfect American’ brings American icon Walt down to earth


Bach’s Mass in B minor

A masterpiece withstanding the test of time, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor, is an experience anyone should seek. I performed it this past weekend with the Apollo Chorus of Chicago under the direction of Stephen Alltop at Wentz Hall in Naperville, IL. It was the choruses’ premier at this concert hall, and what better way to introduce oneself than to perform Bach.

When I first found out that we would be performing this work, I was elated. Bach is a most treasured composer of mine, not only due to his profound pieces, but understanding his whole purpose of composition. I knew that this piece would be very difficult, but truly rewarding and I looked forward to the challenge. The first few rehearsals were troublesome for me, realizing the intensity of music. Containing fluid suspensions, rapid melismas, and a high tessitura, I knew I would have to learn more about my voice to perform this piece to the best of my abilities. To avoid vocal exhaustion, I had to continually be aware of the weight of my voice. Singing heavily would be counterintuitive and I already am aware of this issue within myself. This gave me the opportunity to work on control, to sing lightly with no vibrato while maintaining a full sound. Though I am still working on preventing myself from becoming too heavy on my voice, I have already learned so much and can translate it to the solo pieces I am working on.

From start to finish, Bach gave this piece it’s own majesty. From the opening pleas of mercy at the Kyrie to the finishing Dona nobis pacem. Bach was a theologian, owning a large library of theological books himself, and used music to interpret the text. From the biography on Bach by John Eliot Gardiner (Music in the Castle of Heaven), he brings us Martin Luther’s perspective on music, who influenced Bach and his workings.

“In his Table Talk (of which Bach later had at least one copy) he said, ‘Music is a conspicuous gift of God and next [in importance] to theology. I would not want to give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine, skilful [sic] people'” (40).

Throughout his Mass in B minor, Bach used a combination of text painting and different techniques in choral writing to portray the message of the gospel. From the program notes of the Apollo performance, director and conductor Stephen Alltop notes the “…elaborate vocal fugues, such as the ‘Kyrie,’ concerted choruses with brilliant orchestral accompaniments, such as the ‘Et resurrexit,’ strict stile antico based on the cantus firmi such as the ‘Confiteor’ and ‘Credo,’ and even double-chorus polyphony in the ‘Osanna.'” Later he writes on the text painting “…such as the stunning progression in the ‘Crucifixus’ down to the choir’s lowest range in the ‘et sepultus est.’ In the Credo movement ‘Et in unun deum,’ Bach gives a literal depiction of the text ‘ begotten, not made’ by having the one vocal line exactly imitate the other.” From my own observations, Bach indeed alludes to the movements among each other. The first setting of the “Et expecto” contains rich chords that encompass a similar sonority of the pleas from the initial “Kyrie.” This second experience of cries for mercy in the setting of knowing what mercy God has granted brings us to an awe and a complete stupor of the gift of eternal life. This realization of eternal life in the second setting of the “Et expecto” contains complete joy and bliss that reminds the listener of the “Et resurrexit,” both of which are in the key of D major; the relative key of b minor.

This work itself is an enigma and raises many unanswerable questions, but brings much wonderful speculation. Why would Bach compose a mass, which would never be performed in a Lutheran church setting and most likely never be performed in a Roman Catholic service due to the length? One of my favorite observations is that he created this piece as a culmination of all that he has done. It is a work encapsulating a majority of his life, containing music he had already written such as the first chorus of his Cantata 29, Wir danken dir, Gott, wir danken dir, and Cantata 215, Preise dein Glücke, gesegnetes Sachsen. Completed in 1749, the year before his death, it is as if he created this piece as an autobiography of his music, using a text setting that many other composers had already set to music. He wanted to create this masterpiece as a remembrance of his name, to never be forgotten, and live on forever.

Below you will find some supplemental material to peruse your interest in the life and works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Truly an inspiration to many and whose ministry has extended past his own lifetime.

cantus firmus – a reappearing melody line forming a polyphonic composition

melismas – succession of multiple notes on one syllable of a word

polyphony – two or more lines having separate melodies at the same time

stile antico – “ancient style” was a prominent form of polyphonic composition in 16th-century church music and continued to through the 17th century.

tessitura – the range of the vocal line where the majority of the notes lie