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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.

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