Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Pick Up Your Q: Percussionist Michael Cebulski

How long have you been with The Atlanta Opera?

Since the late 1970s. There have been several reincarnations. The stability of the last 20 years has been a great blessing to the city, as well as patrons and practitioners of this art form.

At what age did you know that you wanted to be a percussionist, and how did that come about?

I began playing drums in the third grade. My parents, on limited income, were visionaries in having all of their children (8) study a musical instrument until the eighth grade, then longer if desired. School band programs and directors, music/percussion as my 4-H project area, private study with Jack Bell (then principle percussionist of the Atlanta Symphony), all fueled my interests in both the details of percussion study and the social interactions they afforded me. I was midway through a music education degree at Georgia State University when I "won" my first professional audition - to play as an extra with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra - and was then hooked.

As a percussionist, where do you feel you will have a particularly important role in creating the experience of the new season?

Especially as principle percussionist with the opera, I have the opportunity and responsibility of organizing the music and the percussion players. I am blessed that colleagues John Lawless, and often Jeff Kershner and Karen Hunt, share the same enthusiasm for presenting the percussion aspects of opera at the highest levels. Opera is also unique in that the "stagecraft" of a production is often written into the percussion parts.
For example, last year, my brother Steve helped me build a beautiful reproduction of a Turkish Crescent (played by Jeff Kershner) for L'Italienne en Algiers. This season, Puccini's Madama Butterfly includes "exotic" tuned gongs, a Japanese carillon (which I made years ago), and some other special sound effects. We do this in order to present a "world class" experience for our patrons.

If you could give one piece of advice for someone starting out in music performance, what would it be?

I've taught all levels of percussion from elementary private students through college graduates and post-college. I get a thrill working with anyone who strives to improve. Going into performance as a career or serious study comes about many years after one's connection with the love of studying the instrument.
Two main pieces of advice: study with the best teachers you can, and try to put yourself into situations that will help you grow and improve. These situations will also probably force you to become flexible in new ways. A career in music, especially music performance, is rarely a straight path; so flexibility and adaptability are important along with the foundational basics of your instrument(s).

What will a patron coming to the opera this season experience?

I became familiar with opera through my performing career. Listening to excerpts in music school, etc. did not really impact me as much as being a part of the live performance of the art. I hope that enthusiasm and dedication to high artistry in all areas of opera reach our patrons. More importantly, I trust that audiences will enjoy themselves immensely and experience the wide range of emotion and drama presented through opera. Most of the entertainment we enjoy -- movies, theater, television, even popular music -- strive for the same emotional impact of great opera.
It is hard to match the energy of so many singers, instrumentalists, stage crew and directors that each work to bring their best every night.

Favorite opera and why?

From the operas which we have performed, from a sheer musical experience, it is hard to outdo Puccini. What glorious, heavenly melodies he writes. From a technical standpoint, it was very gratifying to render such performances of The Golden Ticket, which at times seemed almost like a percussion concerto!

Favorite Atlanta restaurant and why?

I must admit most of my restaurant experiences are rather pedestrian as I do not often go out to fine restaurants. I actually get a big kick when my small gardens provide most of my vegetables, etc. for some healthy home-cooked meals.

What's the last show you saw on stage in Atlanta?

I thoroughly enjoyed the Atlanta Ballet's production of MAYhem and was blessed to witness the farewell pas-de-deux by Christine Winkler and her husband John Welker.

What's your favorite thing about Atlanta audiences?

I love that Atlanta audiences LOVE their live music. Whether opera, ballet, theater or symphony, Atlanta does treasure its musicians. Audiences cross over more than many realize. Currently, some of the most dedicated ballet and opera patrons were people I met at shows when I played with an indie rock band! So, patrons can be much more flexible in what they experience.

Friday, September 12, 2014

General & Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun on our exciting 2014-2015 season!

General & Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun
Jeff Roffman
   I am so excited to finally kick off the Atlanta Opera 2014-15 season, my first planned season as a General and Artistic Director. I have heard the term “Southern hospitality” before, but in the past 16 months I have seen it daily as I was offered a warm, genuine welcome to a wonderful city that I now call home.  Moving here was an adventure for me, and I believe this new season will start an adventure for all of us, together.
     This will be an incredible season that includes familiar, well-loved operas reimagined in new productions and featuring great performances by exciting up-and-coming stars. One of the highlights of the season for me is the Southeastern premiere of a modern American Opera by arguably, the most prominent living opera composers of our time: Jake Heggie.
     The season opens this weekend with a delicious appetizer: an outstanding concert of chorus’ greatest hits, where we present the most popular chorus numbers from operas such as Carmen, Traviata and Porgy and Bess performed by the world-renowned Atlanta Opera chorus and led by Walter Huff. It is also a unique collaboration with three leading universities: Emory, Georgia State, and Kennesaw State.
      Performances will take place on different campuses in town: Emory’s Schwartz Center on September 12th, 14th and the Bailey Performance Center September 16th at Kennesaw State. Soloists in the concert include popular local stars: Leah Partridge, Indra Thomas, and Tim Miller among others.
      It is not an accident that the first performance I scheduled and planned as General Director celebrates the Atlanta Opera Chorus and Walter Huff’s 25th year with the company. I have worked with the chorus regularly over the past decade as a stage director. From the very first time I encountered this incredible group of musicians, I have admired their work and the passion that they bring to every rehearsal and performance. Their leader over the past quarter century, Walter Huff, is one of the most respected chorus masters in the country and this special concert is in his and their honor.

Ray Boc
   We open our mainstage season at the magnificent Cobb Energy Centre with Puccini’s immortal Madama Butterfly, in a stunning new production co-produced by late Lorin Maazel’s Castleton Festival. The opera, which I will direct, will be led by our music Director, Arthur Fagen and feature a spectacular cast, including Dina Kuznetsova - who triumphed in London with her portrayal as Cio Cio San; Adam Diegel - who sang the role of Pinkerton at the Metropolitan Opera last year; and Nina Yoshida Nelsen - who performed Suzuki with The New York City Opera. This new production is making a sophisticated use of projection and multimedia effects, which will transform the stage into countless, magical locations. The design team that brought Atlanta audiences the 2011 Lucia di Lammermoor (Robert Wierzel, Erhard Rom and myself) returns with this new interpretation of Puccini’s masterpiece.
      Verdi’s incredibly touching Rigoletto will be presented this winter in a co-production that premiered in Boston last year and features one of opera’s fastest rising stars – Nadine Sierra.  Baritone Todd Thomas portrays the cursed hunchback; sonorous bass Morris Robinson will reprise his signature role of the murderer Sparafucile; and rising American tenor Scott Quinn
Marina Levitskaya
will debut as the heartless Duke of Mantua.
      Maestro Joe Rescigno, a regular guest at our podium, will return to lead the Atlanta Opera Chorus and Orchestra. This brand new production, designed by NEA award winner John Conklin with opulent Renaissance costumes by Vita Tzykun and arresting lighting design by Robert Wierzel, was premiered to great critical and audience acclaim at the Boston Lyric Opera and will be seen in multiple other cities in the US.
      Our spring production at the Cobb Energy Centre will feature Mozart’s profound masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro in a production that was widely applauded across the US and Canada. Designer Susan Benson’s elegant, lush costumes and gorgeous period sets, combined with Tara Faircloth’s stage direction will create a lovely, colorful evening in the theatre. Maestro Fagen will lead a dynamic cast, combined of up and coming young singers: Craig Colcough, Loren Snouffer, Katie Van Kooten and John Moore.  They will join veteran performers Victoria Livengood and Bruno Pratico, who delighted Atlanta audiences in 2012-13’s The Italian Girl in Algiers.

Brett Croomer
      I am excited to close this season by our anticipated move back to midtown’s Alliance Theatre to showcase the Atlanta premiere of the deeply moving American opera, Three Decembers by Jake Heggie. This theatrical, intimate opera is highly intense and effective as it spans over 3 decades and multiple cities, but clocks in at just under 90 minutes. The contemporary story of a distraught family that deals with loss, estranged relationships and reconciliation is propelled by Jake Heggie’s richly melodic and inventive music. Metropolitan Opera Veteran Teddy Hanslow sings the career-obsessed mother Maddy; Jennifer Black and Jesse Blumberg portray her estranged children. Steven Osgood conducts the Atlanta Opera Orchestra in a new production conceived by innovative director  Emma Griffin.
      This varied season reinvents the familiar by presenting well-known operas in fresh productions that focus on theatrical and visual effects. It features the up-and-coming opera stars of tomorrow and relies on the continuous leadership and musicianship of our maestros: chorus master Walter Huff leading our world renowned Chorus, and our beloved Music Director Arthur Fagen. At the same time, we establish our commitment to new exciting work, by leading living composers. Those programming choices are enhanced by our commitment to reach into the community and establish presence all over the city by collaborating with other arts organizations. In addition to our university partnerships this fall, Theatrical Outfit will feature our 24 Hour Project; we will celebrate our 2nd season collaboration with the Bremen Museum concert series; and of course our return to midtown with the Alliance Theatre.
     I always think of an opera performance as the greatest miracle possible: orchestra, chorus, designers, directors, conductors, stage managers, stage hands and hundreds of other people working tirelessly to coordinate efforts and create a moving experience that will stir the audience’s hearts. There are so many things that can go wrong, yet when everything gels and the stars align, I can’t think of any art form that has a stronger impact on the audience’s soul. It is pure magic.
     This upcoming season, planned with so much thought and passion, will be when all those efforts perfectly align to create that elusive magic that we are constantly chasing.

 These are the evenings I live for.  Come join us.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Silver Celebration with Maestro Walter Huff

The celebration of 25 years in this Chorus Master position has brought forth so many folks asking me to write or speak on the highlights of these years. Some past events are a blur, yet some are clear as day. My debut as Chorus Master with Atlanta Opera was in the 1988 - 1989 season. As I think back to that start, I also think of how much the world around us has changed since then. 

Believe it or not, there were hardly any cell phones to bring to a rehearsal. Choristers played cards, read, and talked in their dressing rooms during a show. Now, one sees laptops at every dressing station, and phones entertaining our every desire. We experienced the year 2000 Millennium and the life-changing event of 9/11. We actually had a rehearsal on that night of Sept 11, 2001, which I will never forget. 1988 to 2014. Definitely, a changed world now.

Atlanta Opera had no permanent rehearsal space -- for years! We relied on empty floors in various Midtown skyscrapers (with cement floors, no less), churches, and vacant buildings across Atlanta. We never knew where we would be rehearsing from show to show, for many years -- until our first real office/rehearsal "home" on West Peachtree, and now Northside Drive.

We performed in at least 6 venues throughout these 25 years - Alliance Theater, Symphony Hall, the Fox Theater (a big exciting move...going from about 1800 seats at the Arts Center to over 4000 at the Fox), Civic Center, and now the Cobb Energy Center -- with 5 years of "Amahl and the Night Visitors" at Spivey Hall, and several Mozart "Requiem"s at St.Philips Cathedral.

Over 110 opera productions with multiple performances of each. Many ask me: what were some of your favorites? I'm not so good at those kind of answers. I truly try to make whatever I'm presently working on my "favorite" for that period of time. But, if I had to answer, I'd say: our first "Turandot" at Symphony Hall, Verdi's "Macbeth" (a true blast for an opera chorus, especially the women's chorus "Witches"), director Whitfield Lloyd's sparkling production of "Manon", experiencing Richard Strauss with "Der Rosenkavalier" and "Salome" (operas that stay with you forever), our musical theater experience of Gershwin's "Of Thee I Sing" at the 1996 Olympics, the choral showcase of a staged "Carmina Burana", our first Wagner with "The Flying Dutchman", and the excitement of Atlanta Opera bringing "Porgy and Bess" to the Atlanta scene, and eventually an acclaimed European tour for members of the chorus.

 Throughout all of these years, all the changes in the world, and all this music swiftly passing by in front of me, I remember the thousands (!) of choristers that have sung for me. We have lost some of our chorus friends along the way. That is never easy for our close community. The chorus members that Atlanta audiences see on the stage in our productions tirelessly sacrifice their time, energy, and creative talents for the endeavor of quality opera in Atlanta, and for achieving the notion that an opera chorus matters. An opera chorus indeed matters -- for the telling of dramatically compelling stories, and for offering up the glorious music of the masters. The people and the music. That can get one through 25 years. For sure.

Please come and celebrate those that sing the great operas in Atlanta, year to year, in our upcoming September we offer up some of the greatest opera choruses, a wealth of literature for all to enjoy.

Walter Huff and The Atlanta Opera chorus in rehearsal for the Choral Silver Celebration
(Photo courtesy Jeff Roffman)

Photo courtesy Jeff Roffman

Photo courtesy Jeff Roffman