Classical music, opera season boosted by Foundation funding

Kopleff Scholars, Adams Professor of Opera stage holiday performances

Key voices and vision behind Georgia State University’s season of holiday music and opera – which continues this week with performances of “Amahl and the Night Visitors” – belong to singers and a director funded through the GSU Foundation.

Senior mezzo-soprano Serafina Furgiuele and freshman soprano Melissa Joseph receive Florence Kopleff Vocal Scholarships. Carroll Freeman, the Valerie Adams Distinguished Professor of Opera, is the force behind “Amahl” and last month’s staging of one-act operas also by Menotti at the Kopleff Recital Hall.

The funding of aspiring musical talent helps connect audiences with the world played out on the stage. These recipients’ personal stories also play out on diverse stages, from a local sandwich shop, to Haiti and Italy, and even singing for Menotti himself.

Serafina Furgiuele: From delicatessen to artistic expression

Opera singer Furgiuele learned how to perform at an early age in front of GSU students, faculty and staff. They crowded her family business, Reuben’s Deli on Broad Street. From age 11, she learned grace under pressure – lunchtime pressure.

“You can’t even imagine everything that can go wrong, and how easy it is to forget a simple order, like who wants mustard,” said Furgiuele, who still pitches in behind the counter. “The other day, we did so much catering that there was no bread left except pumpernickel — and very few people eat pumpernickel.”

Her short distance to the GSU stages, and then halfway around the world to perform in China, was paved partly by the Kopleff Scholarship. The funding launched her most recently to an upcoming role in the GSU’s spring opera, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), where she will play Cherubino. After graduation in 2012, she hopes to attend graduate school for opera studies.

The Kopleff Scholarship, awarded to a music major who has demonstrated exceptional talent as a vocalist, is named for GSU’s first artist-in-residence. Kopleff, now retired and living in Atlanta, also funded the renovation of the school’s recital hall, where Furgiuele has performed many times.

“I’ve visited Ms. Kopleff and sung for her at her house, and she’s an amazing personality with such a warm heart,” said Furgiuele.

“I asked her if I should live at home [in Suwanee]to save money or live downtown for convenience. She advised me to be near campus and make friends with other music students, hang out and sing together. So I lived above the deli my first few years of college, and she was right.”

Furgiuele traveled to China in 2010 as part of an inaugural music exchange program with Renmin University. For 10 days, she took part in master classes, performed in a concert, interacted with the Chinese faculty and students and went on cultural excursions. The scholarship paid for her travel.

“Otherwise, I would not have had that opportunity,” she said. “It was really fantastic and I made a lot of connections. The Kopleff scholarship has helped me have more time to focus on singing and not have to work extra hours at the deli or another job.”

The deli’s proving ground, though, bred a poise that carried over to the stage of the Florence Kopleff Recital Hall. During the final performance of “The Medium,” a one-act Menotti opera, the title character grabbed Furgiuele’s locket and tossed it on the ground as scripted — only the locket slid into the orchestra pit.

“I had to go with it,” said Furgiuele. “I had to act like that was supposed to happen, and keep going.”

Every diva needs a following, and the GSU patrons at the deli have supported that for years. She created the popular sandwich of turkey, feta cheese, Greek mayonnaise and lettuce and tomato, which became the Sera-wich in her honor. “Your choice of bread, but I like the marble rye, lightly toasted,” she recommended.

Melissa Joseph: A soprano with family roots in Haiti

In the audience for “The Medium” sat freshman Kopleff Scholar Melissa Joseph, impressed by Furgiuele’s performance.

“We had two classes together this semester, but seeing her perform is a different story,” Joseph said. “She has such talent. I was very impressed.”

Joseph’s parents are from Haiti, where opera’s long history influenced that art form in this country. Haitian refugees who settled in New Orleans around 1800 helped establish American opera.

“My dad, Roland Joseph, had stacks and stacks of classical music, and in middle school, I started getting into it,” said Joseph, who attended Pebblebrook High School, home of the Cobb County Center for Excellence in Performing Arts.

With two older sisters in college, Joseph chose GSU because of a financial aid package that included the Kopleff Scholarship. “I have the deepest gratitude for her donation to the Georgia State University Foundation,” Joseph said. “If not for her contribution, I would not be here pursuing my dreams.”

Joseph performed on the Kopleff stage at the GSU Choral Department’s Fall Concert. This month, she sang her first solo (from Handel’s Messiah) at the Annual School of Music Holiday Gala at the Rialto Center for the Arts. She performed the National Anthem before a Panthers basketball game, and in February, she is scheduled to perform with the Morehouse Glee Club. She showed her fun side by performing in “GSU Idol,” the competition patterned after “American Idol.”

“The reason I love music, and what keeps me going, is that I may be able to touch someone in the audience,” said Joseph. “If I have done that, my job is done.”

Carroll Freeman: Celebrating an opera centennial

The opera world celebrated 2011 as the centennial of the birth of Gian Carlo Menotti, known for founding the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, and its sister event in Charleston.

The milestone inspired Carroll Freeman, the Valerie Adams Distinguished Professor in Opera, to pay tribute through the Menotti productions at GSU.

“We had fuller houses than expected, given the Thanksgiving holidays,” he said of the one-act operas at the Kopleff Recital Hall.

“For us in opera, ‘Amahl’ is like our ‘Nutcracker’ or ‘Messiah.’ Doing these performances gives us even more credibility in recruiting serious opera singers, and that’s what I’m about. Our program is recognized nationally, but we always want to improve and gain national and international exposure.”

Freeman, named Classical Singer magazine’s 2010 Opera Director of the Year, first came to GSU to campus first as stage director for the Harrower Summer Opera Workshop, which is also funded through the GSU Foundation.

Founded by Peter and Irene Harrower, the workshop has for nearly 30 years attracted an array of national participants who engage in acting and movement classes, private coaching, instruction in stage makeup and stage combat, seminars and master classes with international artists, and public presentations of staged and costumed operas and operatic scenes.

In 2010, Freeman left a tenured position at the University of Tennessee “for the prestige and funding of the Adams chair.”

The move reunited his family as well, because his wife, soprano Kay Paschal, had been commuting to GSU as the interim opera director. She is now a visiting artist at GSU. (Their roles are much like the Harrowers: Peter Harrower was a longtime GSU music professor, and wife Irene Callow Harrower was a vocal coach.)

“I would not be here if not for the Adams Professorship, and there would be no ‘Amahl,’” said Freeman, who holds a personal connection to that work. At age 13, Freeman auditioned for an early production of “Amahl,” and the only listener was Menotti himself.

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424