Insights and New Skills: an Eastman student prepares two contemporary operas

November 3, 2021

By Ella Torres

Hello! My name is Ella Torres. I am a senior at the Eastman School of Music pursuing a Bachelor of Music in Applied Music (Performance) in Voice. I am also a student in the Arts Leadership Program and a proud member of Sigma Alpha Iota, but I am not here to talk about those today.

Tomorrow night and through the weekend is the run of Eastman Opera Theatre’s fall opera production, a double bill of Kate Soper’s Here Be Sirens (Suite) and Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up. Opera productions at Eastman are double cast.  I am performing on Friday night and Sunday afternoon as Polyxo (Soprano 3) in the Here Be Sirens (Suite) and in the “Prologue” of Proving Up.

For more information on the production, you can access a press release about it here.

Ella (far right) with her fellow sirens  inHere Be Sirens (Suite)”. Photograph by Steven Daigle.

Both operas were written by American composers within the last decade, 2014 and 2018 respectively. As a classical singer, many of the songs, chamber or choral music, and operas I work on are hundreds of years old. I have learned so much through the process of working on these recent compositions by Soper and Mazzoli. I thought I’d share some of my insights from working on these modern operas.

Counting is your friend: Many modern classical music compositions feature challenging rhythms. My advice is, first, to not be afraid to reach for your metronome and, second, ask for help. Early in the process of learning, have a friend, colleague, or teacher follow along with the score while you as you speak the rhythms. By doing this, they can help keep you and your rhythms honest. (The same goes for pitches too!)

Then, never stop counting. I have had success reminding myself through the rehearsal process to think of the big beats and the subdivisions.

You can ask questions: When you are learning new music and are confused by something, ask questions! Start with your musical coaches and teachers. If you are working on music by living composers, you can ask them questions too! Eastman Opera Theatre aided this process by setting up Zoom calls for the casts with Kate Soper and Missy Mazzoli.

Don’t be afraid to try new things. In Kate Soper’s Here Be Sirens, there are many extended techniques for the three singers to perform on piano. This is the same for the suite version we have been working on. While I have been joking this semester that I have become an “amateur percussionist,” there is some truth to it. In the suite, I get to play “the guts” of a piano (with the lid taken off). There are moments when I bang the low strings, bow piano strings with rosined horsehair (like that of violin bows), and scrape various materials across the inside of the piano.

It has been an exciting process learning all these new techniques, but, at first, it was certainly daunting. Going into it with a sense of wonder and play has helped me enjoy the learning process rather than dreading it. Instead of thinking “I do know how to do this” and panicking, I’ve been trying to think “I get to learn a new skill––how cool is that!”

Collaboration is key: Honestly, I do not know how I would be performing in these operas this weekend without the network of support I have at Eastman. It takes a village. Mine has been my studio teacher Professor Katherine Ciesinski, our music director Maestro Tim Long, our director Lindsay Baker, our fantastic production team and student workers, and my Sirens castmates in both casts.

Ella (and her piano) in “Here Be Sirens (Suite)”. Photograph by Steven Daigle.

Performing Kate Soper’s Here Be Sirens (Suite) is unlike any musical experience I have had before. When on stage performing the work, I must rely so much on my direct collaborators, the two other sopranos performing with me: Sofia Scattarreggia and Guo Wu. I trust them wholeheartedly to support me musically and in any other way I might need. Developing this trust through the production process has been so special.

I hope my takeaways have been helpful! Thank you for reading.

All the best,  Ella

Here Be Sirens (Suite) and Proving Up are taking place in Kilbourn Hall on November 4-6 at 7:30 p.m. and November 7 at 2 pm. Tickets for in-person, masked attendance are $20 and can be purchased online through the Eastman Box Office here. The performances will also be live streamed at the link here.