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  • Composing Opera is an Addiction: Interview with Tom Cipullo

    Tom Cipullo joined the E. C. Schirmer catalog in 2017. As one of America's most performed contemporary opera composers, we wanted to find out more about what makes him tick and the journey he's on.

    How did you first become involved with music, and what drew you to composition?

    I was lucky enough to be born into a musical family. My father, a jazz bassist, performed in post-war New York in every imaginable venue, and my older brother (who eventually became a rock drummer) and I were exposed to a large dose of listening as well as to live performance. Musicians were always in our home, sometimes for extended stays on our rather small living room couch. Whatever indiscretion landed them in that uncomfortable spot, they were a welcome and exciting resource for me, and their talk of songs, pianists, and bassists with “nice lines” fueled my imagination and inspired me.

    I'm not sure what drew me to composition specifically. As far back as I can remember, I was always interested in the great composers of the past—in their lives and in their works.

    What is your compositional process like? Do you wait until everything is clear in your head, then write it down, or do you start writing and see where it takes you?

    Much of what I do it intuitive. And composing is different for me every time I sit down to do it. In general terms though, I'm always trying to create what Copland called " the illusion of inevitability;” the feeling that a piece of music must exist in its present form and would not be complete or right any other way. In my work, I seek always to add a feeling of surprise to that illusion of inevitability. At first glance, inevitability and surprise may seem incongruous, but their coupling will carry a listener along to a satisfactory and involving conclusion.

    We know you primarily as an opera and vocal composer. What do you most enjoy about the voice as a medium? What other genres do you enjoy composing for?

    Frequently, it seems, Italian-American composers are drawn to writing for the voice, and I have not been an exception. This natural inclination, coupled with my lifelong interest in poetry and literature, and fortified, luckily, by a steady stream of commissions, has pushed me to create a large body of songs and vocal chamber works. I enjoy writing every type of music—though composing opera is an addiction.

    Both Glory Denied and After Life take their roots in war. What are your hopes for how an audience member receives these stories? What is the most surprising feedback you’ve gotten on either work so far?

    With Glory Denied, I would like a listener—particularly a younger listener—to have a sense of that era; of its controversies, its passions, and how that time continues to shape our country today. After Life is much different.  That's a piece that is more interested in raising questions than giving answers. What is the role of art and artists in a troubled world? How often does the egotism of the artist blind one to the very humanity they seek to reveal? I've been fortunate to experience some very positive and deeply personal feedback, particularly about Glory Denied. But the most moving and surprising reactions I choose to keep to myself for the present.

    What sorts of new projects do you have in the works?

    Right now, I'm working on a piece called Mayo. It's a full-length grand opera and unlike anything I've done before. I've written the libretto as well as the music, and it is based on the life of a real person, Mayo Buckner. Much of the opera takes place at the Iowa Home for Feeble-Minded Children (a place that actually existed in the first decades of the 20th-century), and the work explores America's interest in the eugenics movement. Even Oliver Wendell Holmes appears as a character! Mayo is the recipient of the Domnnic J. Pellicciotti Opera Composition Prize from the Crane School of Music/State University of New York at Potsdam, and the premiere is this November!

    I'm also working a new chamber opera with a libretto by David Mason. Based on the tragic life of Hungarian poet Miklos Radnóti, the piece is commissioned by Music of Remembrance (the organization which also commissioned After Life). It will premiere in Seattle in May 2019.

    What are you up to when you’re not composing?

    Well, I'm the father of a six-year-old daughter.  So when I'm not composing, I'm either busy savoring that experience—or alternatively, savoring the lovely experience of sleeping.


    Tom Cipullo

    Hailed by the American Academy of Art & Letters for music of “inexhaustible imagination, wit, expressive range and originality,” composer Tom Cipullo is the winner of the 2016 Pellicciotti Opera Composition Prize from SUNY/Potsdam, a Guggenheim Fellowship (2012), the Arts & Letters Award from the American Academy (2013), and the Sylvia Goldstein Award from Copland House (2013). Mr. Cipullo has received commissions from dozens of performing ensembles and singers, and he has received fellowships and awards from Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Liguria Study Center (Italy), the Fundacion Valparaiso (Spain), and the Oberpfaelzer Kuenstlerhaus (Bavaria). The New York Times has called his music “intriguing and unconventional,” and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has called him “an expert in writing for the voice.” Cipullo’s music is recorded on the Naxos, Albany, CRI, PGM, MSR, GPR, Centaur, and Capstone labels.

    Cipullo has composed orchestral works, solo piano pieces, and a vast quantity of vocal music, including over 200 songs and several vocal chamber works. His song cycle Of a Certain Age won the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) Art Song Award in 2008. Cipullo’s first opera, Glory Denied, has enjoyed numerous productions, and the Fort Worth Opera recording on Albany Records was cited by Opera News as among the best of 2014. Reviewers have hailed the work as “terrifically powerful… superbly written” (Fanfare), praising its “luminous score (Washington Post),” and noting “the dramatic tension was relentless (Opera News).” Cipullo’s second opera, After Life (libretto by David Mason), has been called “a finely wrought exploration of the role of art in times of grave crisis ( Washington Post)” and “unfailingly inventive (Opera News ).” Recorded on the Naxos label, After Life is the winner of the 2017 the Domenick Argento Chamber Opera Composition prize from the National Opera Association.

    Mr. Cipullo received his Master’s degree in composition from Boston University and his B.S. from Hofstra University, Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors in music.

  • Behind the Scenes of Glory Denied

    Glory Denied Screenshot

    Ever wanted to know what goes into an opera, start to finish? PBS did this fantastic video special on the Tri-Cities Opera's production of Glory Denied (music by Tom Cipullo, based on the book by Tom Philpott).

    Watch the full video here.

    Our favorite line in the video?

    "Music is the greatest tool to let us experience the feelings of another, and to that extent, it heals."


    Glory Denied is available from E. C. Schirmer.

  • "Glory Denied" by Tom Cipullo at Tri-Cities Opera

    On November 10-12, 17, and 19, Tri-Cities Opera will stage Glory Denied by Tom Cipullo.  The performance features the voices of Scott Purcell, Tascha Anderson, Frederick Schlick, and Stacey Geyer, and the TCO debut of conductor Joshua Horsch.

    America’s longest held prisoner of war returns to a country he no longer recognizes and a family who barely recognizes him. Glory Denied tells of the plight of so many veterans who serve their country, but face incredible challenges when returning home. A man kept alive by hope and prayer during his captivity  in the jungle of southeast Asia, and his personal struggles following his liberation and repatriation. It is a story of a nation divided and a country that changed significantly in the decade of his imprisonment.

    Glory Denied will be available soon from E. C. Schirmer.

  • Houston Grand Opera performs "Glory Denied" by Tom Cipullo

    On November 6 and 9, Houston Grand Opera presents Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied, as part of the Veterans Songbook Project. Opera attendees can donate a ticket to allow a Houston Veteran to attend the performance for free.

    Based on the book by Tom Philpott, Glory Denied takes place during the Vietnam War and tells the true story of Colonel Floyd Joel Thompson, America’s longest-serving Prisoner of War from 1964-73. The opera details Thompson’s imprisonment in southeast Asia and his personal struggles following liberation.

    Glory Denied will be available soon from E. C. Schirmer.

  • "...give the audience enough red-meat moments that they can’t look away..." Celebrating National Opera Week with Tom Cipullo

    In honor of National Opera Week (Oct. 27 – Nov. 5), E. C. Schirmer explores the creative process behind writing and producing new opera. Join us as we commemorate the creativity, diligence, and hard work of the composers, librettists, and producers who bring those operas to life.

    Tom Cipullo

    Hailed by the American Academy of Art & Letters for music of “inexhaustible imagination, wit, expressive range and originality,” composer Tom Cipullo is the winner of the 2016 Pellicciotti Opera Composition Prize from SUNY/Potsdam, a Guggenheim Fellowship (2012), the Arts & Letters Award from the American Academy (2013), and the Sylvia Goldstein Award from Copland House (2013). Cipullo’s music is recorded on the Naxos, Albany, CRI, PGM, MSR, GPR, Centaur, and Capstone labels. Cipullo’s first opera, Glory Denied, has enjoyed numerous productions, and the Fort Worth Opera recording on Albany Records was cited by Opera Newsas among the best of 2014. Reviewers have hailed the work as “terrifically powerful… superbly written” (Fanfare), praising its “luminous score (Washington Post),” and noting “the dramatic tension was relentless (Opera News).” Cipullo’s second opera, After Life (libretto by David Mason), has been called “a finely wrought exploration of the role of art in times of grave crisis ( Washington Post)” and “unfailingly inventive (Opera News ).” Recorded on the Naxos label, After Life is the winner of the 2017 the Domenick Argento Chamber Opera Composition prize from the National Opera Association.

    What is your all-time favorite opera?
    Cosi fan tutte

    What was the first opera you ever saw live? 
    The Medium

    Who is your opera role model?
    Britten - the invention and the level of characterization

    If you could have dinner with any composer, opera or otherwise, who would it be?
    Rossini - He knew good food!

     What is the biggest challenge in composing opera? 
    I think the biggest challenge is to create characters through the music they sing, especially if you're dealing with a large cast.  The music can't be interchangeable from one character to the next, though there may be some overlap.  But generally, is Character A's music something that only he would sing.  Of course, this challenge becomes even more difficult if a character should happen to be deceptive or perhaps an altogether unreliable narrator!

    What is your greatest priority in creating new opera?
    There really is only one priority when composing an opera - drama, drama, drama!  The composer is asking people to sit in a dark theater after a hard day at work and a big meal.  You have to give the audience enough red-meat moments that they can't look away or lose interest for a moment.  But of course every one of those dramatic moments must be earned.  Nothing can be manipulated or false.

    Have you ever written the libretto yourself? Would you do it again?
    I have written the libretti for several of my works, and I very much enjoy doing do.  After the first bouts of fear and insecurity, it's a very liberating practice.  I can cut without feeling guilty, and I'm always on the lookout for moments that would make good ensembles.  And I almost never argue with myself!

    For more information about Tom Cipullo and his catalogue, click here.

  • "...you need to leave room for other dimensions of sound." Celebrating National Opera Week with David Mason

    In honor of National Opera Week (Oct. 27 – Nov. 5), E. C. Schirmer explores the creative process behind writing and producing new opera. Join us as we commemorate the creativity, diligence, and hard work of the composers, librettists, and producers who bring those operas to life.

    David Mason

    David Mason is an award-winning poet and novelist. His poetry, prose, and translations have appeared in such periodicals as The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, Poetry, Agenda, The New Criterion, The Yale Review, The American Scholar, and others. He has also written the libretti for composer Lori Laitman’s opera of The Scarlet Letter, which premiered at Opera Colorado in 2016, and her oratorio, Vedem, which premiered in Seattle in 2012He recently won the Thatcher Hoffman Smith Creativity in Motion Prize for the development of a new libretto based upon Ludlow. His one-act opera with composer Tom CipulloAfter Life, premiered in Seattle and San Francisco in 2015 and is available on CD from Naxos. It won the 2017 Dominick Argento Prize for Best Chamber Opera from the National Opera Association. A former Fulbright Fellow to Greece, Mason served as Poet Laureate of Colorado from 2010 to 2014, and teaches at Colorado College.

    What is your all-time favorite opera?
    Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (since I can’t really choose)

    What was the first opera you ever saw live?
    Das Rheingold (Seattle Opera, long ago)

    If you could choose one artist to perform one of your operas, who would it be?
    I’m grateful to so many singers I cannot choose.

    Who is your opera role model?
    W. H. Auden (as librettist)

    If you could have dinner with any composer, opera or otherwise, who would it be?
    Beethoven. I’m nearly deaf, so we could shout at each other. 

    Writing a libretto is a very different task than writing a play. What are the biggest differences and similarities?
    The chief difference is between singing and speaking. In both art forms you want to create scenes that reveal character and intensify the drama—scenes in which something is truly at stake. Writing for the composer, however, you need to leave room for other dimensions of sound. You can be lyrical, but ought to try to be relatively spare as well, containing the impulse to go on long verbal riffs—though such things can be done well to comic effect. You also need to give the composer gifts and opportunities that a playwright won’t need to consider—perhaps a chance for a trio or a quartet or a lullaby or a mad song or simply a great aria. You need to think about choral opportunities that a playwright won’t generally have. A playwright ought, I believe, to think musically as well—about pacing and timing and pauses and the rest, but the librettist is even more collaborative in this process. And you need to be ready to revise if something you’ve done isn’t inspiring the composer. A playwright will want to attract a director’s vision and the ambitions of actors with strong roles, and librettists have to think in this way too. But the first job of the librettist is to please the composer and give him or her material that will inspire great music.

    How does your libretto change once you begin working with the music?
    This depends entirely on the composer. Lori Laitman is so used to working with words that she generally feels it is her own duty to make her music work with the text. Only rarely with Lori have I had to change a word or a verse to suit a musical opportunity. In the case of our oratorio, Vedem, we discovered that we had mispronounced the Czech title, and a melody had to be altered. For the professional premiere of The Scarlet Letter, conductor Ari Pelto felt that the ending I had written went on too long and muddied the emotional impact. It might have worked better on film than on a big stage. In any case, Lori went to work with Ari and they trimmed the ending back, and the result was even more powerful. With Tom Cipullo, working on After Life, he asked me whether a young male character, a Holocaust victim, could become a young female. I readily agreed to the easy change, and the result was an astonishing soprano role. We’re collaborating on a new piece in which I had a character called “Death,” and Tom admitted that he found it hard to imagine Death as a character, so I’m thinking hard about names, gender, etc., to give him maximum inspiration.

    Does the music follow the words, or do the words follow the music?
    Though quite a few people have set poems of mine to music, I’ve only written opera with two composers, and in these cases the libretti have come first. Both Lori Laitman and Tom Cipullo know that I am absolutely devoted to their work and will make any changes they require. They only have to ask. So far, the results have been amazing.

    Are you able to really enjoy a performance of your own opera, or are you mentally editing from you seat?
    I really do enjoy watching performances of operas for which I have written the libretti, mainly because the performances come so many years after the writing that I can hardly remember I was the author. It really does feel as if I’m watching something new, wholly made by other people, and I love seeing what talented stage directors and musicians do with the work. Sometimes I catch a line I’d like to alter, but we’ve usually worked it through so much by curtain time that it’s all up to the musicians. I have been extremely lucky in the artists who have sung my words, and for a lowly poet the experience is pure intoxication.

    For more information about David Mason and his catalogue, click here.

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