Opera Night’s 7th Anniversary!

Like any modern day music historian, I talk about music during our generation in the 21st century. I also like to examine the role of classical music in today’s society. Although classical music is not on the top 10 list of popular genres, it is still used to educate and help young musicians, school children and professionals further their performance skills.

 Northport – a New York City suburb on Long Island – is one such artistic community where classical musicians and music teachers dedicate their time to building new talent. My former classical piano teacher, Isabella Eredita-Johnson has not only developed young artists as a teacher, but she has also created an organization called Opera Night.

Since its beginning, the series grew 

Since its first gathering at Café Portofino in Northport village on Friday, July 1st, 2004; Isabella and her sister, Maddalena Harris, have been inviting singers to perform arias and vocal duets on a monthly basis. They both named this gathering, Opera Night. As the series grew and began attracting larger audiences, the little café with the bistro charm couldn’t accommodate crowds.

Two years later, Opera Night relocated to St. Paul’s United Methodist Church across the street. Along with more seating space, the church provided an upright Steinway piano to accompany the singers and greater performance space. While moving to St. Paul’s greatly benefited audiences and singers, Isabella, also faced challenges. Some of them involved focusing on professional singing and musicianship while accommodating local audiences. I personally talked to Isabella about how Opera Night evolved from a monthly gathering to an actual venue, and the challenges that arose.

Opera Night is still as fresh and exciting as when it started

Isabella explained, “The caliber of the audience has grown and the presentation is now more formal than from Opera Night’s beginnings in 2004. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the spontaneity.” The performance program is determined by which singers show up that night. Isabella claims, “we do this to keep the performances fresh and exciting. After a performance, people come up to me and say, “this was the most exciting Opera Night to date!” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that, I would be very rich.”

 This spontaneity helps Opera Night stand out amongst the competing performance venues that heavily rely on structure in their programming.

Another aspect of Opera Night that hasn’t changed is the immediate delivery of famous arias and duets. Isabella started Opera Night to bring the most exciting and popular parts of great operas to opera lovers instead of performing full operatic works. Some musicians might find this hodgepodge of music overwhelming, but for Isabella, it comes naturally. Isabella claims, “For me, it’s easy because good, finely trained singers have come to me. The nature of inviting 20 different singers is they will most likely sing 20 different songs.”

Opera Night now focuses on furthering singers’ performing repertoire and skills

Focusing on the singers is fairly new general goal at Opera Night. Isabella explained, “The reasons a singer would want to sing at Opera Night are: they sing in front of a large audience; they get a free accompanist provided by Opera Night; and they increase the quality of their performances.” These benefits naturally encourage singers to spread the word about Opera Night to opera lovers and potential future Opera Night performers.  

If a free accompanist and a full house is not enough to attract singers to Opera Night, the success story of some regular performers will perhaps change prospective singers’ minds.

Bringing professionals back to the music and putting their voices in films

Bruce Solomon initially had a successful singing career. However; supporting a family while performing as a concert artist was challenging. So he went into sales.

Years later, he heard about Opera Night, which helped satisfy his passion for singing and helped make up for the years he was out of the musical scene. Thanks to Opera Night, Solomon can now easily step back into singing.

In the beginning years, Frances Fascetti was an Opera Night regular. Chris Garvey, an audience member, taped and recorded all of Fascetti’s performances and distributed them on a digital music platform.

One faithful day, independent film director, David Campfield, found Fascetti’s recording of “Ave Maria.” Isabella was thrilled to hear Campfield wanted to use Fascetti’s recording in his upcoming film, Cesar & Otto’s Summer Camp Massacre. Fascetti was doubly excited to learn that out of all the “Ave Maria” tracks available for download on the worldwide web, Campfield chose hers.

Opera lovers are all around and they are coming out to Opera Night

Aside from helping young professionals develop their skill and performance repertoire, Opera Night reinforces the communities love for one of the most classical performing arts.

Isabella says, “Opera lovers are out there and they’re coming out of the woodwork. We see the audience turn out, and it is growing. You meet these people who love Opera and want to know if there is anywhere they can listen to it… and you tell them about Opera Night.”

The minute Isabella meets an Opera lover looking for a good performance; she puts them on the email list and sends them reminders about upcoming performances.

Opera Night also reinforces Isabella’s life-long drive and passion for opera and classical performing arts.

Isabella’s performance experience during college encouraged her to take on Opera endeavors

 Isabella’s mother and father were the first opera lovers she ever knew. Their love of music fostered Isabella’s talent for classical piano, and soon, her years of dedication and performing eventually resulted in a degree from the Manhattan School of Music. Her greatest inspiration for opera however, was a “fine” bass/ baritone singer and enthusiastic voice teacher named Peter Maravell.

Isabella became Maravell’s piano accompanist at his studios. What Isabella thought would be a summer job that paid more than what her peers were making at McDonalds, turned into an assistantship and apprenticeship under a great singer. Maravell taught Isabella the music from the operas by some of the greats – Mozart and Puccini.

Maravell helped give Isabella a job that enhanced her experience as a concert pianist. Working under Maravell also expanded her musical world.

Isabella’s performance experience outside of academia encouraged her to teach music and take on projects and musical endeavors that would attract large audiences. For her, these projects and endeavors would revolve around opera.

Isabella encourages communities to help keep opera afloat

As Isabella continues in her musical endeavors and projects, she is constantly reminded of the hard economic times currently affecting many opera companies – even large ones in the neighboring metropolis, New York City. Isabella has taken the initiative in promoting New York City Opera’s Chairman Challenge, a fundraiser that will help City Opera continue producing full operas. More importantly; this challenge will help New York City Opera improve their opera education and professional development programs. This is why Isabella encourages community members to take an active interest in keeping opera afloat by attending a performance; spreading the word about a company; or donating.

Tonight is Opera Night’s 7th Year Anniversary!

Tonight’s celebration of Opera Night’s 7th year in Northport will remind community members of how much people love Opera. People want to have it and need to have it. “And for a good reason too,” Isabella says, “it is just wonderful!”

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Hear People Listen, Part 1

Hello again. It is my first entry of 2011 and I feel I have to explain myself a little. The New Year started with a busy communications job in Brooklyn and evening classes at NYU. At the end of March and beginning of April, I found myself in Romania interviewing family members and friends about their histories and pasts.

Now that you know what has happened to me, the Music Historian brings you a special first entry of the year.

Throughout my experience with a non-profit called StoryCorps, I learned that sometimes, the greatest soundtracks of our lives are without music.

Dave Isay, Founder of StoryCorps

Dave Isay, a former radio producer and recipient of the MacArthur’s “Genius” Fellowship, started this non-profit in 2003, recording and preserving the stories of everyday Americans from all walks of life. Today, StoryCorps has recorded and archived more than 30,000 interviews from over 60,000 Americans. In addition to preserving these stories at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, StoryCorps also broadcasts stories on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday and animations on PBS. Dave also published people’s stories in his original bestsellers – Listening is an Act of Love and Mom: A Celebration of Mothers from StoryCorps.

The big question is – why do people find others’ life stories so intriguing? One reason might reside in the fact we are all individuals or a collective group of individuals who come from different backgrounds and are interested in learning about “ways of living” that are unfamiliar to us.

One StoryCorps recording that struck this chord with me is the story of “Danny and Annie”— a couple who had a late-life romance and happy marriage.

Danny and Annie

Judging from the number of views this animation received – about 1 million – it has struck a chord with other listeners as well.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, many people like it when strangers, close friends or family listen to their stories. I discovered this after I was interviewed by StoryCorps in January. I then decided to share the gift of recording and interviewing by taking StoryCorps’ portable interview kit abroad to family members in my parent’s native Bucharest in Romania.

My mother’s life-long friend in Bucharest fell gravely ill and was spending her time in Bucharest’s oncology center. My Mother planned to go to Romania to visit her friend and then I suggested the idea of going with my Mother to record their conversations and preserving them for her friend’s family. Excited by the idea, my Mom agreed to bring me along.

When we got to Bucharest however; we discovered the branch of the oncology center where my Mother’s friend was placed was completely quarantined and recording devices were not permitted in her room. Luckily, my father and his life-long friends wanted to record their story and two of my Mother’s other close friends also wanted a chance to tell their stories.

On April 7th, I returned to the United States with great stories from my parents’ native country, Romania.  I cannot wait to translate these stories into English and share them with readers.

Until then, I invite you to hear people listen at StoryCorps.

Hear; Don’t Listen

One chilly Saturday afternoon, my BFF, Emily, was driving my sister, Gigi and my sister’s boyfriend, Sal and me around Huntington. We were listening to STAR 99.9 in the car, and on the program was a song I had not heard in ages- Susanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner.”

This was Sal’s first time listening to the song. Of course he had heard it many times before on television commercials, but that Saturday in Emily’s car was the first time he ever listened to Vega sing, “I am sitting/ In the morning/ At the diner/ On the corner/ I am waiting/ At the counter/ For the man/ To pour the coffee…”*

“What?” Sal remarked, “Those are the words? I can’t believe I never noticed. She could have probably sang a song about using the toilet and I would have never noticed.”

Sal’s reaction to Suzanne Vega’s song is just one of the many common reactions I’ve observed in my family members and friends as they stumbled across a piece of minimalist music on the radio. They say, “this just repeats…”, or very appropriately, “that’s it?”

I had a similar reaction when I had revisited a piece by Satie. The piece is “The First Gymnopedie” (for Mademoiselle Jeanne de Bret, 1888). I replayed it for the first time when I was 19 years old and I said, “I can’t believe I practiced so intently [as a 15 year old piano student] just to master a piece so simple and lethargic.”

A few years past, and I played it again at 22, just for fun, and I understood why it was important to master. When I was learning this piece, I wasn’t mastering the technique because of the composition’s complexity or length; I was mastering the physical feeling of the Gymnopedie.

Tranquility in the wrists and fingers are vital, just like the decisive striking of the keys: all the notes of the chord must be played with the same volume and all voices have to sound as one. If the player diverges from the specifics of the piece, becoming too fast or some notes of the chord louder than others, you might deprive the song of its simple right of being.

Some of you may be wondering what this means. Imagine this, try listening to a virtuosic mezzo soprano sing the lyrics to “Tom’s Diner” while the rest of the song remains the way you and I have heard it all this time. Yes, the sound would be equivalent to that of a broken garage door falling on a car horn and in the process smashing the car.

So here is what “Tom’s Diner” and the “First Gymnopedie” have in common—they are songs for hearing and feeling, not for listening and analyzing. You might also argue this case to be true for many minimalist compositions and popular songs. So let me take the time to say, “Hear; don’t listen.”

*Lyrics were borrowed from this source, http://www.lyrics.com/toms-diner-lyrics-suzanne-vega.html