Student Composition Wows Audience in Big Top Opera
Oct. 20, 2011
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. - For most aspiring artists, receiving their first big “break” is
a highly anticipated moment at the start of their career. Clarisse Tobia ‘14, a sophomore
vocal performance and composition major, never expected she would receive her greatest
opportunity from a routine vocal lesson near home in Madison, Wis.
This past summer as Tobia was composing an operatic musical piece, titled Stella, she sought the assistance of her voice teacher, Melanie Cain, in styling its vocal
performance. After reviewing Tobia’s music, Cain, who is also the cofounder and artistic
director of the non- profit Fresco Opera Theatre, made Tobia a tremendous offer.
Founded in 2009, the Fresco Opera Theatre located in Madison, aims to modernize the
presentation of opera. The theatre produces creative adaptations of operas, new works,
condensed versions of larger works, and fully-staged productions.
“Melanie asked to feature my piece in a show at the Fresco Opera Theatre. She wanted
to highlight an up-and-coming composer, and I knew that for me, the recognition would
be huge,” said Tobia.
Impressed by the four-part piece, which Cain characterized as reminiscent of the music
in Cirque du Soleil, she was eager to include Tobia’s composition in the circus-themed Big Top Opera. Performed at the Overture Center in Madison on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, the Fresco Opera
Theatre production attracted 200-member audiences for each of the three shows. The
opera featured a combination of musical and circus acts, including fire breathers
and acrobats, along with Tobia’s arrangement.
Identifying her style as “fantasy-like,” Tobia drew inspiration in composing Stella by listening to video game battle music. She sought to reproduce the synthesized
sounds with piano and voice, describing the resulting work as “very dark and epic.”
Spending about three months writing the piece, Tobia first established the piano music
and later added violin, vocals and strings. To provide the lyrics and title for her
composition, she searched through hundreds of poems before selecting the Italian piece
“Stella” by Giuseppe Ungaretti. In the poem, the speaker describes a single star in
the night sky to save him from his despair. Tobia found this tone to best suit the
dark mood of her piece.
When composing, Tobia’s overall writing process involves both practice and improvisation.
“My work continues to evolve as I practice. I don’t write from beginning to end; I
have an idea and then another idea, and I put them together like a puzzle until they
eventually form a complete song,” she said.
The world of music is not new to Tobia. Having composed since childhood, she recounts
her early days sitting at the piano as a toddler, creating her first three-note songs.
“When I was younger, I don’t think I actually knew I was composing, but I always wanted
to play what I created myself. I knew where I wanted to go on the piano.”
Big Top not only provided Tobia the opportunity for her originally-created work to be showcased,
but the opportunity to participate in the show as well. Playing the piano for her
own piece, Tobia expressed some performance jitters, although she insists her passion
for performing and onstage training at Illinois Wesleyan kept her calm.
The opera provided a range of invaluable experience for Tobia, most notably by working
with performers in a professional setting. “The performers brought so much energy
to the piece onstage. Knowing they were singing and dancing to the music I was playing
was exhilarating. I really want to take this experience and use it to boost my skills
and raise the bar for myself,” she said.
When offering advice to other aspiring artists, Tobia has one rule: “You have to be
yourself. Your passion is a part of you, and showing people yourself is the first
step to being noticed.”
Contact: Natalya Grabavoy, ‘13 (309) 556-3181, firstname.lastname@example.org