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Stamps staffer shines in musical theater roles

When some people listen to music, they close their eyes and soak in the tune.

John Luther experiences something more transformative, and that’s been the case since he was a child.

“For most choreographers, if not all, we literally see music,” said Luther, career development coordinator with the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design. “When we hear it, we see what it would look like on bodies. It wasn’t until I was 8 years old that I figured out that not everyone sees music.

“That was pretty revelatory. Having that sense of music helped propel me into wanting to dance more.”

Dance and musical theater provide an ideal stage and creative outlet for Luther, who spent several years dancing professionally before tackling the responsibilities that come with directing and choreographing productions.

Name a musical, and there’s a high likelihood Luther has performed, directed or choreographed it — and in some cases, all three.

Read the full story at The Record.

The University Musical Society Announces 2022/23 Season

A season opener with Trevor Noah. The Berlin Philharmonic and a lineup of international ensembles. A week-long residency with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The return of the UMS curated series and the No Safety Net renegade festival. And so much more to discover…


Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah

On Friday, September 16, Trevor Noah opens UMS’s 144th season with a bang, bringing his “Back to Abnormal” tour to Hill Auditorium.

Following his widely-viewed virtual talk with U-M students in 2020, the host of Comedy Central’s Emmy and Peabody Award-winning The Daily Show comes to Ann Arbor for his first live UMS stand-up set.


Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis returns to Ann Arbor for a week-long residency that will include two public concerts, a School Day Performance for K-12 students, connections with students at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance — and a halftime appearance with the Michigan Marching Band!

On Friday, October 14, the ensemble will be joined by the University of Michigan Symphony Orchestra and Choirs, as well as the UMS Choral Union, for Marsalis’s epic blues suite, All Rise (Symphony No. 1).

And on Sunday, October 16, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis returns in its big band format for an afternoon of jazz.


Berliner Philharmoniker with Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko

Berliner Philharmoniker with Chief Conductor Kirill Petrenko

UMS is thrilled to bring back our curated Choral Union Series! The 11 concert series will feature six orchestras, including two different programs with the Berliner Philharmoniker.


Emerson String Quartet; Photo Credit: Jurgen Frank

Emerson String Quartet; Photo Credit: Jurgen Frank

The Chamber Arts series returns to Rackham Auditorium with a mix of UMS favorites and exciting new projects.


École des Sables of Senegal; Photo Credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele

École des Sables of Senegal; Photo Credit: Maarten Vanden Abeele

UMS’s dance series will take place in three beloved venues across Southeast Michigan: the Power Center, the Detroit Opera House, and Hill Auditorium.


Cécile McLorin Salvant

Cécile McLorin Salvant

In five wide-ranging performances, this season’s Jazz Series features performers at the forefront of the genre.


Are we not drawn onward to new erA, Ontroerend Goed; Photo Credit: Mirjam Devriendt

Are we not drawn onward to new erA, Ontroerend Goed; Photo Credit: Mirjam Devriendt

The festival launches with the Belgian theater company Ontroerend Goed with a uniquely palindromic work about the environment — a piece that uses creative stagecraft to give hope that we can undo some of the damage that has already been done.

Details on the remaining productions and artists, along with a robust set of contextual activities, will be announced in Fall 2022.


Including the great Mexican ranchera singer Aida Cuevas (Friday, November 4); the annual performances of Handel’s Messiah (Saturday-Sunday, December 3-4); and a double bill of Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart and Punch Brothers (Friday, December 16).

FestiFools returns with even more fools and a new location

After two years, FestiFools makes its vibrant return to the streets of Ann Arbor April 3.

The fest’s signature larger-than-life papier-mâché puppets, created by students of the University of Michigan Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts, will descend upon campus held up by their creators, community members and loved ones.

And for the last time, the chaos will be orchestrated by “the original fool,” Mark Tucker; he will pass the baton to a new puppetmaster for future annual FestiFools productions. In honor of his final FestiFools, Tucker will be contributing his own puppet to the parade this year.

The puppets’ route will take place on State Street between William Street and South University Avenue allowing more space for social distancing than their previous Main Street location.

“There is so much here pedagogically that I love,” said Tucker, academic program officer for the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “I love watching a student—especially a non-art major, which is mostly what I teach—I love watching their journey from having an idea in their imagination to creating it all three dimensionally, and doing the engineering inside, and going through the trials and tribulations of actually making a piece manifest.”

The majority of the puppets that march each year in the FestiFools parade are made in Tucker’s class, “Art in Public Spaces,” with additional help from the community. Students from all disciplines are encouraged to explore the making of large-scale theatrical scenery, as well as the creation of large-scale public spectacles.

There will be at least 15 new, original puppets this year. Each puppet takes a minimum of three people to carry; some take as many as six or more. And as much fun as it is to watch, “it is a lot more fun to be under a puppet animating it and interacting with the crowd,” Tucker said.

And what comes next for Tucker? He will continue teaching his class, but the creative content will be presented in a new, still to be determined, way. He is considering an entirely new event, pop-up experiences, or even bringing some foolishness and fun to new towns in Michigan.

“Creatively I’m ready for a new adventure and I’m going to segue in May over to UMMA (U-M Museum of Art) where we will take the FestiFools community model inside a museum and have folks coming there to create an exhibition together,” he said.

The interactive exhibition, FUN, is scheduled May 14-Sept. 4, 2022. The inspiration for this year’s FestiFools puppets was drawn from each student’s favorite piece at UMMA, and some puppets may even be given a second life as seed materials for FUN.

FestiFools is free and open to the public. The festivities will take place this weekend, with FoolMoon kicking off 6-10 p.m. Friday, April 1, in Kerrytown. FestiFools will follow 4-5 p.m. Sunday, April 3, on State Street in Ann Arbor.

A Rare Opportunity: SMTD Musical Theatre Students Undertake Extensive Preparation for Roles in UMS’ Production of Fiddler on the Roof

Musical theatre students in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance (SMTD) have countless opportunities to learn from world-class scholars and practitioners: in courses taught by faculty, in masterclasses conducted by industry professionals, in visits from alumni working on Broadway. An upcoming production offers a group of musical theatre students an entirely different educational opportunity: the chance to perform alongside Broadway actors, in a production led by a professional creative team—including Broadway director Sarna Lapine and music director Andy Einhorn—and accompanied by major orchestras. The University Musical Society (UMS) is producing lightly staged concert performances of Fiddler on the Roof in Hill Auditorium, February 19-20, starring Broadway performers Chuck Cooper (Tevye) and Loretta Ables Sayre (Golde), along with 14 musical theatre students. An additional six students serve as understudies for the production. The Ann Arbor performances will feature the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra and will be the first live performances of John Williams’ orchestral arrangement of the movie score. The Williams score had not been preserved in written form in the 50 years since the film’s premiere and had to be reconstructed. Two weeks after the Ann Arbor performances, the production will head to Philadelphia, where it will be performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“I think that this show speaks to everybody. And the idea of how we’re born into traditions and how we push forward as a society, so when we see the struggles of this one particular family it’s really an extension of everyone,” Music Director and Conductor Andy Einhorn said. 

  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
  • This week, Broadway professionals worked alongside @umichmusicaltheatre students in their production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Concert,” debuting in Hill Auditorium on Feb. 19.
The beloved stage musical and film – based on the Yiddish-language stories of Sholem Aleichem – explores the tension between tradition and evolving norms in Anatevka, a poor Jewish shtetl (village), in early 20th-century Russia. Tevye the dairyman extols the traditions that govern Anatevka, dreams of a more comfortable existence, and seeks to arrange favorable marriages for his daughters. His daughters, on the other hand, long to depart from tradition, and the shtetl faces imminent threats to its existence from pogroms, the deadly anti-Semitic massacres that displaced scores of Jewish communities in Czarist Russia. Seeking to raise awareness of the relevance of Fiddler on the Roof to contemporary events, including a rise in anti-Semitism and global migration crises, UMS partnered with several University of Michigan departments – the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies, the Center for Russian and East European Studies, the Copernicus Center for Polish Studies, and the Center for European Studies – to present programs for the public in conjunction with the performance. Michael McElroy, chair of the Department of Musical Theatre and the Arthur E. and Martha S. Hearron Endowed Professor of Musical Theatre, says that examining Fiddler’s context was a vital component of the experience for the students in the production. “We’re looking at all these traditional musicals through a new lens. How do we explore our history—which is steeped with a lot of baggage—and find the things about traditional musical theatre that are worth celebrating,” he said. Keenly aware of students’ concerns about telling the stories of communities they aren’t a part of, McElroy wanted to take the steps necessary to help his students feel more comfortable in their roles. It’s a question, he noted, of “how we as artists step into other spaces that don't necessarily represent our own lived experience.” He acknowledged that all artists do that, but, he asked, “if we're saying yes, that's what we're going to do as a community, then what is our responsibility?” The answer, McElroy determined, was to learn and understand – about Jewish traditions, about Yiddish language and culture, and about the lives of Jews in Eastern European shtetls. Before the roles in Fiddler had even been cast, he gathered all of the musical theatre students to meet with Rabbi Lisa Stella, director of religious life and education at U-M Hillel, Rabbi Josh Whinston of Congregation Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor. Students also met with Christi-Anne Castro, interim director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for SMTD. “I was really honored to be asked to talk to them,” Stella says, “and I think it showed sensitivity on the part of everyone involved.” McElroy began the process by asking whether the Jewish students in the department and the rabbis felt it was appropriate for, as McElroy states, “a diverse group of artists to tell a story that is steeped in Jewish culture and tradition, like Fiddler on the Roof.” The answer was a resounding yes.

The characters of ‘Fiddler’ come to life this weekend with the help of costume designer Beth Goldenberg.

Once the roles were cast, McElroy scheduled for the students a series of sessions with U-M professors and other educators, inviting them to meet with the students and address a wide range of topics. One of the guests was Mira Sussman, a Jewish educator and the resettlement resource development manager for Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County. Along with Stella, Sussman spoke with the students about Jewish identity and history, explaining that “Judaism is not just an ethnicity or a religion, but it is also a way of life and a culture.” And while there are abundant examples of persecution throughout Jewish history, Sussman emphasized the joyfulness of her Jewish identity, noting “that trauma and discrimination is not the totality of our lived experience.” The session concluded with the teaching of the hora, the traditional circle dance that is a feature of many Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Levinson told the students that the era depicted in Fiddler was a time of significant transition in Eastern Europe; many people were embracing revolutionary ideologies, he noted, and “rejecting tradition and rejecting religion and rejecting hierarchies of all kinds.” At the same time, Levinson asked the students to think about the fact that Fiddler reflects not just the era depicted in the musical, but the era in which it was written. He encouraged them to consider the musical, written in the early 1960s, as “an expression of postwar American Jewish culture.” Levinson pointed out that the themes explored in Fiddler – “conflicts between tradition and modernity, conflicts about gender, about the role of individual decision, love, [and] yearning in relation to the needs of the community” – resonate with people of many cultures worldwide.

In support of the performance, you can find a collection of Polish posters of Fiddler on the Roof from the last four decades on display through March 18 at Weiser Hall (Gallery Space, 5th Floor).

In another session, Stella gathered with the students to discuss Shabbat, sharing relevant passages from the Torah. “I wanted to ground them a little bit in the context of what the Jewish Sabbath is,” she says, “and how significant it is in the framework of Jewish life.” Stella also gave the students a sense of how Eastern European Jews in the time of Fiddler would have celebrated Shabbat. And finally, she shared with them her own Shabbat traditions, setting up a table with a tablecloth, her grandmother’s candlesticks, and a kiddush cup, the special receptacle for the wine that accompanies the blessing for Shabbat. Mikhail Krutikov, chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies, met with the students via Zoom and painted a picture of life in the shtetl, sharing images, describing the marketplace, and explaining that Jews and Christians coexisted in these villages and surrounding areas. "Understanding the historical context adds depth and complexity to the performance and helps actors create more nuanced and multilayered characters,” Krutikov says. The process involved in preparing for this production of Fiddler was not without its challenges. But this work is essential, says McElroy. “How do we earn that right, to step into an experience that is not our own? By doing the work and bringing your empathy, bringing your humanity, and honoring [that story] through telling it in the fullest possible way,” he says.

‘Drawn on the Way’: U-M alumna doodles deeper connection with surroundings

A New York artist has managed to bring joy to the subway system with her portraits of passengers for a decade—and now she shows others how to do the same.

Sarah Nisbett (B.A. 04) developed a passionate philosophy behind sketch portraiture.

What started as a secret hobby to pass the time on the F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan led former professional opera singer Sarah Nisbett (B.A. ’04) to a career as a full-time artist, over 70 sketch-filled notebooks, and nearly 28,000 followers through her Instagram account, @drawnontheway. “I found myself riding the subway home from work one evening feeling bored. But I was more than bored, I was longing to do something creative, something that didn’t involve a screen,” Nisbett said. “That’s when I noticed a dapper but slightly rumpled old man sitting across from me wearing a rust-colored three-piece-suit with a matching fedora and a wide, outdated tie that poked through the bottom of his jacket. I wondered who he was when that suit was new. I wondered who he was now.

The first subway sketch that started it all.

“And as I wondered, I put that contemplation into material form and I drew him. When I finished drawing him, I was surprised by two things: the drawing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I was already home. The time had flown by.” Since then, Nisbett has been captivated by highlighting small details. She finds that everyone carries a story with them that you can unravel through the various ways they express themselves. “My experience at U-M was centered around art and language and how to use words and pictures to tell a story or represent a moment in time. I see my drawings as stories and I see myself as a visual storyteller. I embrace these drawings as notes on a fleeting moment in time, that I can share with others or just keep for myself,” she said. Her vivid “five-minute” pen drawings quickly gained popularity on social media, where people can see her subjects and watch them come to life on paper. When possible, Nisbett will give her sketch to the subject on the train with a card reading “You are a work of art.”
A scene from one of Nisbett's TikToks, where she captures a moment between two people admiring Louise Jones (née Chen), aka Ouizi's mural, "Drifts," at 200 S Ashley, a large flower mural of pink and yellow flowers. Nisbett's hand can be seen in the foreground, holding her sketchpad with a finished sketch of the two on a bench with two stickers that read, "YOU ARE A WORK OF ART."

A scene from one of Nisbett’s TikToks, where she captures a moment between two people admiring Louise Jones (née Chen), aka Ouizi’s mural, “Drifts,” at 200 S Ashley. 

In celebration of the project’s 10-year anniversary, Nisbett released her first book, which encourages busy people to find creativity in the moments in between the tasks of life. In “Drawn on the Way: A Guide to Capturing the Moment Through Live Sketching,” Nisbett shares her techniques for creating captivating line drawings that capture moments and moods, and invites readers to see the people they draw with “compassionate curiosity—as more than a stranger, as someone with a story worth knowing or imagining.” The book is an accessible guide to making quick sketches of our world, designed for busy people on the go who only have a few minutes in their day for creativity. Nisbett explains that we spend so much of our lives rushing around that often when we get a moment of pause, we look to our phones instead of what’s around us. “I often say that the subway taught me how to draw, but more accurately it taught me how to see,” she said. “How to see the stories that surround us, and how to bring the background into the foreground and find interest in the interstitial moments ‘on the way’ that we are programmed to overlook in the interest of getting where we’re going. “And, by noticing the little moments that happen along the way, you also begin living in them. And that makes the literal and metaphorical journey much more interesting. It also makes them more meaningful.”
She emphasizes that art isn't about perfectly capturing the world around us, but recreating the world as you see it. "The techniques, projects and ideas in 'Drawn on the Way' are designed to help you be more mindful about drawing, to capture the people, places and things you encounter each day," she said. "By doing that, you'll connect with humanity in a deeper, more meaningful way—and discover a lot about yourself."

New York native drums up performance, teaching career

Drums have always been a part of Ian Antonio’s life.

He’s been around them so long, he cannot pinpoint when he first started playing.

“It’s probably pre-conscious memory,” said Antonio, assistant professor of music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. “The instruments and sticks were just laying around the house. It’s just one of the things we did at home.”

Both his parents are retired public school music educators, and his father is a percussionist so Antonio would watch him give private lessons. Those early years of exposure led to a lifetime of playing, performing and teaching those same instruments that were lying around the house.

Antonio grew up in Albany, New York, and started playing in his elementary school band in third grade. He was blessed with a teacher who, despite being stern and “old school,” was a percussionist himself and helped nurture a love for the instruments.

His future was clear from a young age.

“Percussion has always been central in my life,” he said. “My best friends in high school were percussionists in the youth orchestra and percussion ensemble and band program. So it was something I never really thought twice about.

Ian Antonio.

“When people ask you what you want to do later in life, I never had anything else to say.”

Antonio said Albany is home to a strong community of percussionists, many of whom, like Antonio, studied with the legendary teacher Richard Albagli. One of those was the principal timpanist in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra with whom Antonio studied while attending the Manhattan School of Music.

“It was kind of in the water, I think,” he said.

He thought for a time he would pursue an orchestral career. But while studying percussion ensemble and contemporary ensemble as an undergraduate, he found his calling.

While at the Manhattan School of Music, Antonio joined Wet Ink Ensemble, which formed when he first started at the school. His first concert with the ensemble was in 1999, and he still performs with the group a dozen or so times a year. The New York Times named it “Best Ensemble” of 2018.

“It’s evolved over the years,” Antonio said of Wet Ink, for which he serves as co-director. “It started as a sort of loose collective, but for the past dozen or so years, the group has operated as a tight-knit ensemble of composers and performers.

“We work in a sort of band-like fashion, making small tweaks, suggesting sounds and techniques, finally arriving at the premiere. Sometimes authorship is a bit fuzzy because everyone is contributing to the result.”

One of Antonio’s most memorable performances occurred in 2016 with Josh Modney, the Wet Ink violinist, when they played at the Park Avenue Armory in New York.

“It involved a hundred live sheep on stage,” he said. “They had to get trucked in every day from a farm in Pennsylvania. They wandered out from a foggy nook in the back of the stage.”

Antonio is also a member of Talujon, a group of percussionists all with New York roots or ties. It is less active than Wet Ink, which is not exactly a bad thing for a musician who has performed on four continents but is now a father of two young daughters.

“The days of three months on the road in a van are sadly and not sadly behind me,” he said. “I miss playing in a different town each night, but I don’t miss sleeping on floors for weeks on end.”

While he has been performing for over two decades, he’s only recently joined the ranks of teaching. He spent five years teaching at the State University of New York at Purchase before coming to U-M before the 2020-21 school year.

Teaching has provided its own rewards — much like the ones his parents reaped when he was younger.

“Percussion is such a giant family of instruments,” he said. “Anything you strike, shake or scrape, and pretty much anything else other people don’t want to do. That’s one thing I talk to my students about. I think of percussion as a comprehensive approach to music making rather than only acquiring specific skills for specific instruments. It’s approaching instruments, objects, and situations with a musical mindset.”

While his daughters have not yet taken up drumming like their father did as a child, his 2 ½-year-old is intrigued by one instrument in particular.

“She’s been saying she really wants to play a marching bass drum. We live in Ypsilanti and the Eastern Michigan marching band marched through our neighborhood this past fall,” he said. “She’s been all about the marching bass drum since then.”


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

The first time I entered the balcony at Hill Auditorium to hear the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s large ensembles perform really stands out. The talent of the students and the incredible acoustics and awe-inspiring design of Hill combined to make an unforgettable moment.

What can’t you live without?


Name your favorite spot on campus.

There is a small, forested area outside my office window, between the new Dance Building and the south side of the Music Building. Several tall trees in the grove reflect the seasonal changes and are super responsive to the wind and sunlight. I could stare out that window for a long time.

What inspires you?

I’m lucky to be surrounded by inspiring people at the School of Music, Theatre & Dance every day. The students constantly amaze me with new ideas and fresh approaches and my faculty colleagues are simply the best.

What are you currently reading?

Every week is a race to not get behind on my New Yorker subscription. They can pile up fast!

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

It’s tough to name just one person, because I’ve had the great fortune of working with and learning from so many incredible people. One crucial influence on my musical journey was Claire Heldrich, who was director of Manhattan School of Music’s Percussion Ensemble and Contemporary Ensemble in my early undergraduate years. The attention to detail she brought to her work every day was jaw-dropping, and her dedication to the music of today inspired me to consider reorienting my musical path as well.

Filmmaker got their start early with VHS camcorder

As a teenager, Charli Brissey shot videos of family members and friends with a large VHS camcorder.

It was the beginning of an award-winning filmmaking career that mixes dance, science, technology, live-action and animation with innovation.

Brissey, who uses they and them pronouns, is an assistant professor of dance in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. They love both dance and film, and said the latter allows them to express their creativity in new ways.

“What I like about filmmaking, it’s a different kind of palette of options,” Brissey said. “I can sort of bend time and space in ways I can’t do with dance.”

Part of Brissey’s video work, Revolution Study 1, 2016.

Brissey’s films have been presented in galleries, conferences, film festivals and performance venues around the world. Many of them include queer content or content centered around movement and dance.

The films are often categorized as experimental, meaning that they have a non-traditional narrative and are usually driven more by visual or kinetic qualities rather than a particular storyline.

One of their most recent projects, the video-animation hybrid film “Canis Major,” is about a writer who has writer’s block but is able to get through it with the help of their dog. The film toured to 17 countries and won multiple awards, including Best Experimental Film at OUTFEST and the Richmond International Film Festival.

Brissey doesn’t follow a set process or pattern when making a film.

“It’s always different. It’s always incredibly nonlinear or unplanned,” Brissey said. “I don’t do big storyboards. I don’t pre-plan a lot of content or editing. A lot of the actual shooting and editing is done pretty improvisationally, and it often changes as I go.”

Brissey’s love of filmmaking started in middle school.

“I had a big camcorder I would lug to school every day. I would write scripts and make my friends be the actors,” they said.

Brissey earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance at Virginia Commonwealth University and went on to study kinetic imaging there.

“That’s when I really dove into experimental video work and integrating my dance training with my filmmaking desires and skills,” they said.

Brissey has two master’s degrees, in kinetic imaging and in dance. They have worked at U-M since 2018 teaching film, composition and technique classes in the dance department.

Promotional image for “Future Fish.”

Brissey’s latest project, “future fish,” is set to premiere in March at the Jam Handy in Detroit. It is a live-performance iteration of “Agua Viva,” a multiyear research project exploring the choreography of oceans, water systems and the deep-sea floor as potentially radical sites for reimagining the terrestrial future.

Brissey and an MFA dance student will perform in the piece as the last two fish left in the sea. They hope to tour the East Coast and Midwest with “future fish” later this year.

Brissey also has a book project. “Dance We Must: Choreographies of Space, Time, and Emergent Matter(s)” integrates auto theory, speculative fiction and movement scores from U.S.-based dance artists to illuminate the potential of choreographic thinking in creating social-political-ecological landscapes.

Looking ahead, Brissey plans to continue finding new ways to reach people with their art.

“I want to keep making live performances and I want to keep making film work, so on stage and on screen, and just figuring out new ways to present all of that kind of work during the pandemic, and to engage audiences across geographies,” they said.


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

Last winter I had an outdoor film shoot with dance majors where we put up a greenscreen in a foot of snow and danced on a tarp. It was the only way to make it happen because of COVID-19, and it was totally absurd and fantastic. Such a glimmer of joy amid so much loss and sadness. That project really helped me (us?) push through that awful pandemic winter.

What can’t you live without?

Dogs, books, good coffee, sparkling water, hats, copy editors.

Name your favorite spot on campus.  

I don’t know if this counts, but I really love Sava’s. It’s one of the first restaurants I went to during my campus visit, and whenever I have guest artists, visiting scholars or friends in town we almost always meet up there at the end of the workday. It’s become this place I definitely associate with work, but the funner side of work. The more social “after hours” part of the job that allows for different kinds of connections and conversations.

What inspires you?

I’m inspired by people who are bold and risky and hungry for new ideas. It doesn’t necessarily even matter what the project content is. It could be anything from food to quantum physicals to films. When people are really into what they’re doing — especially when it involves something bigger than just themselves — I find that energy very intoxicating.

What are you currently reading?

I tend to read many things at once. At the moment the two taking up most of my time are “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado and “A Body in Crisis” by Christine Greiner.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

I learned a lot about being an artist in academia from my mentors in grad school: Jennifer Monson, Tere O’Connor, Cynthia Oliver and Sara Hook. Without them I’d be a mess right now. Also Octavia Butler. Whenever I start feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing, Butler always gets me through.

This story was originally posted on The University Record. 

Career quandary: Engineering or opera?

Nature or nurture?

Sebastian Catana, BSE ’95, is one of those rare creatures equally adept at the arts and sciences.

Immersed in opera since conception, Sebastian was the only child of a pair of renowned performers in Romania. As his mother tells it, the mathematical genius was born to pursue music. It’s in his nature.

“When I was pregnant, I kept singing until my 28th week, so actually Sebastian was on stage with me,” says his mother Emilia Catana. “In our house, all we listened to was opera.”

Sebastian Catana, BSE ’95, holding the iconic Rigoletto’s hat in his hands.

The boy saw his first opera performance when he was 4 years old. His mother was on stage.

“He was so impressed,” she says. “I think at that moment, in his mind, he wanted to be an opera singer.”

In 1990, the widowed Emilia looked to the U.S. after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She moved with her son to Dearborn, Mich., just as Romania’s iron-fisted dictator Nicolae Ceausescu lost power.

A gift for math

Catana spoke very little English when he enrolled at Dearborn High School (DHS). He often stood to reply when teachers addressed him, amusing his American classmates. Everything changed when a teacher, Gordon L. Bremenkampf, BS ’63/MA ’67, discovered his keen aptitude for math. It became their shared language.

“It didn’t take long for me to realize what a jewel he was,” Bremenkampf says. “He was undoubtedly the finest student I had encountered in my 39 years at DHS. He was brilliant, motivated, disciplined, and mature.”

Bremenkampf, who also taught at Henry Ford College (HFC), felt compelled to nurture Catana’s unlimited potential. He helped enroll the high school student in calculus courses at the college.

“I gained an ever-increasing appreciation for not only his academic prowess but his personal qualities,” says the mentor. “Sebastian was friendly, outgoing, and modest. I took him on several outings to Ann Arbor that summer, touring the campus, visiting the engineering facilities, and wandering through the bookstores. He belonged at U-M after completing high school; we both knew that.”

Getting into U-M

One Saturday in 1991, Bremenkampf and Catana met with the international admissions and recruiting coordinator at U-M. Romanian authorities had refused repeated requests from DHS for Catana’s school records in retribution for the family fleeing the country. The admissions team assured him they would evaluate his academic performance at DHS, HFC, and on the SAT. Bremenkampf was confident Catana would be accepted.

Gordon L. Bremenkampf, BS ’63/ MA ’67, (left) helped Catana enroll at U-M.

“As an alum myself, one of my obvious motivations in taking Sebastian to the Office of Admissions was to recruit a gifted student and, therefore, enhance the University’s reputation for excellence,” he says.

Catana scored 780 (out of 800) on the math portion of the SAT. U-M admitted him under two conditions: He had to pass the TOEFL test of English proficiency, and the administration would monitor his academic performance throughout his freshman year.

“My education at U-M was an exciting, challenging, and transformative full four years of my life, during which I learned so much about the world and myself,” Catana says. “I remember a world-class faculty and student body, an amazing diversity of people and ideas on a beautiful and welcoming campus.”

He completed a five-year program at U-M in four, graduating magna cum laude with his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He subsequently earned his master’s degree in chemical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Bremenkampf’s nurturing had worked.

A passion for opera

While pursuing his doctorate in chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, Catana met Claudia Pinza, founder of the Ezio Pinza Council for American Singers (EPCASO) in Pittsburgh. Named after Pinza’s late father, a prominent actor and opera singer, EPCASO sponsors opera training programs in Italy. Catana enrolled in Pinza’s voice performance class at nearby Duquesne University. Pinza was so impressed by the talented baritone that she invited him to tour and perform in Europe. In 1999, Catana earned his performer’s degree/artist diploma from Duquesne.

Suddenly the multi-talented artist was at a career crossroads. His doctorate was nearly complete. But the stage also beckoned. In the end, he made his professional opera debut in 2001, singing in Les Huguentos at New York City’s Carnegie Hall.

Catana performed several roles with the Baltimore Opera Company for the 2001-02 season and the Seattle Opera for the 2002-03 season. From there, he appeared in a special concert with the National Symphony Orchestra in Mexico.

Sebastian Catana, BSE ’95.

The Met

In 2003, the artist made his debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera, better known as the Met, one of the most prestigious operatic venues in the world. He played the role of Schaunard in La Boheme.

“The Met was fantastic,” says Catana. “You work with the best singers, conductors, and directors – I can’t even begin to express it.”

His mother attended the debut, along with Bremenkampf, Pinza, and Dr. John L. Anderson, former dean of the Carnegie Mellon College of Engineering.

“One of my greatest joys was to see Sebastian sing the role of Schaunard in La Boheme,” says Bremenkampf, who was seated in the director’s box. “I can’t quite describe what it was like to see him come on stage [at the Met] and fill that 4,000-seat auditorium with his beautiful voice.”

The two remain close to this day.

“Gordon Bremenkampf has been my teacher, my friend, my mentor, my counselor – everything,” Catana says. “He is a fantastic man who has had a huge influence on my career. He helped me get into college. He believed in me, and it is truly a blessing to have him in my life.”

Putting in the work

Catana spent nearly five years at the Met. Some of his roles included Fiorello in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Marullo in Rigoletto, Morales in Carmen, and Valentin in Faust. He has toured opera houses throughout Europe and Israel for the past decade and currently is playing Tonio in Pagliacci. The production, directed by Cristian Taraborrelli, is at the Teatro Carlo Felice di Genova in Genoa, Italy.

Rigoletto Sebastian Catana, BSE 95, pleading with the courtiers

“Tonio is one of the greatest roles in baritone repertoire,” says Catana, who is performing the role for the first time. “It’s a difficult part to sing; it’s a difficult part to act. It takes a lot out of you. If you do it too early, you might harm your voice.”

No regrets

Catana as the eponymous character in Nabucco.

These days, Catana is based in Pittsburgh, living a life far different than a chemical engineer. He rehearses 6-8 hours daily, sometimes longer. He favors the operas by Giuseppe Verdi, including Aida, Otello, Falstaff, Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. He has won awards and accolades from the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation Voice Competition, the Giulio Gari Foundation International Voice Competition, and the Loren L. Zachary Society National Vocal Competition.

“I always enjoyed the intellectual challenge of engineering and appreciate the education I received at U-M, but I’m much more passionate about what I do now,” says Catana.

At first, Bremenkampf was disappointed that Catana quit engineering, especially given his command of mathematics and physics.

“Yes, I initially thought he was making a mistake,” his mentor says now. “That was one of many examples in my life where I was wrong, as evidenced by his tremendous success on the stage.”

U-M alumna delivers ‘out of this world’ performance at U-M Museum of Natural History

ANN ARBOR—Stirring music and astronomical images come together in a powerful new piano performance by University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre & Dance alumna Melissa Coppola (DMA ’21, MM ’16). “Lights in the Sky,” which premiered as a short film in July 2021 at the Stamps Auditorium as part of her doctoral thesis, is a multimedia concert inspired by the cosmos.  “My idea for this concert came in the summer of 2019 when I was inspired by a visit to the U-M Museum of Natural History—while I was there, I decided to check out a planetarium show,” said Coppola in an intro to the performance, which is now posted on YouTube. “I was so inspired by the peaceful experience of curiously gazing up into space, and as a musician, I couldn’t help but think of what kind of music might accompany the experience.” In March 2020, after COVID-19 forced her to cancel the onsite concert scheduled in the planetarium and dome theater at UMMNH, Coppola began to work with the Duderstadt Center’s video studio team, where she was able to realize the program as a virtual concert. ‘Launching’ the Duderstadt Center video studio’s new Steinway grand piano into outer space, the performance features musical selections by Urmas Sisask, György Ligeti, Claude Debussy, Missy Mazzoli and George Crumb. While playing, Coppola is surrounded by stunning visuals generated from U-M’s planetarium, NASA and the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany. 
  • Melissa Coppola’s doctoral thesis “Lights in Sky”, a multimedia concert inspired by the cosmos, premiered in July 2021 at the U-M Stamps Auditorium.
  • Melissa Coppola’s doctoral thesis “Lights in Sky”, a multimedia concert inspired by the cosmos, premiered in July 2021 at the U-M Stamps Auditorium.
  • Melissa Coppola’s doctoral thesis “Lights in Sky”, a multimedia concert inspired by the cosmos, premiered in July 2021 at the U-M Stamps Auditorium.
  • Melissa Coppola’s doctoral thesis “Lights in Sky”, a multimedia concert inspired by the cosmos, premiered in July 2021 at the U-M Stamps Auditorium.
  • Melissa Coppola’s doctoral thesis “Lights in Sky”, a multimedia concert inspired by the cosmos, premiered in July 2021 at the U-M Stamps Auditorium.
  • Melissa Coppola’s doctoral thesis “Lights in Sky”, a multimedia concert inspired by the cosmos, premiered in July 2021 at the U-M Stamps Auditorium.
Coppola says she originally came to U-M for graduate school because of SMTD's renowned programs and the opportunity to play in halls like Hill Auditorium.  Since then, she says her experience has been both awesome and challenging. “The halls are amazing, and the many performance opportunities have helped me grow immensely—being a part of such large, multidisciplinary productions has been absolutely transformative,” she said.

Using art in social work education and practice

ANN ARBOR—Each piece of vintage luggage in the installation performance tells a piece of Rogério Pinto’s story. Crafted into sculptures, suitcases and trunks recount a period when he was consumed by the loss of his three-year-old sister Marília and his family’s struggles after her death.

Professor Pinto in a performance of his play, “Marília”

Born and raised in Brazil, Pinto, a professor and associate dean for research and innovation at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, found a way through the visual and performing arts to confront a painful past, find peace and forgiveness. He created an award-winning play entitled “Marília,” readapted now as a new art project called “Realm of the Dead.”

This community-based art initiative invites the audience to dive into complex subjects from death and parental molestation to ethnicity, race, gender and other issues. It premieres in October at the U-M School of Social Work, which celebrates its centennial. 

“Realm of the Dead” is an autobiographical project that uses self-referential theater as a vehicle for self-healing and advocacy. Based on pedagogy and theater of the oppressed, it intends to advance social work research and practice, as tools of critical reflection, personal growth and advocacy. 

By exploring the nearly 30 sculptures in the installation, visitors will learn about Pinto’s journey out of a childhood of poverty and the trauma followed by the death of his older sister, who was hit by a bus when he was just 10 months old.

The audience also will revive the turmoil caused by his father’s sexual molestation, the domestic violence during Brazil’s military dictatorship and Pinto’s arrival, at 21, as an undocumented immigrant in New York City in 1987 and the challenges he faced as a gender nonconforming gay man.

“I use autobiographical drama theater for personal growth and self-healing and to inspire the audience to find creative ways to resolve personal conflict,” Pinto said. “I am particularly interested in inspiring people to think of poor immigrants in more humane ways. I believe that all of us engaging as a community might lead to advocacy around the issues dealt with in the ‘Realm of the Dead,’ such as the prevention of childhood accidents, sexual trauma and poverty.”

Megan Leys, U-M graduate student in social work, said she cried the first time she read Pinto’s play.

“I was left speechless by its power and impact. ‘Marília’ left me thinking about my own identity and positionality,” she said. “It pushed me to think about parts of my identity I don’t always share, and forced me to consider if and why I might be ashamed to express those elements. It allowed me to look inwardly and consider personal growth and explore my own identity.”

Last fall, Leys was a student in one of Pinto’s classes, in which he incorporated activities based on his play. The course aimed to increase students’ knowledge about diversity, anti-Black racism, human rights, and social and economic justice by encouraging students to explore the power of autobiographical approaches to self-healing and advocacy.

“Despite living in the midst of a global pandemic, and the amount of grief I felt about lost loved ones, those activities provided me with a sense of connectedness and community and reminded me why I wanted to be in social work,” Leys said. “This feeling proved to me that performance and autobiographical investigation is a wonderfully effective tool to improve our own social work. I look forward to seeing the installation in person this fall.”

Art helps to heal, promotes classroom discussions

After visiting the installations and exploring Pinto’s journey, students will be invited to participate in pedagogical exercises. One, called “The Hair Dresser,” is based on Pinto’s rendition of his work experiences in the United States, before he became a professor. 

The goal is to help participants practice improvisational and collaborative empathy and develop listening and empathy skills around grief and loss of a loved one, poverty, immigration, gender identity and LGBTQAI2+ issues. 

Another exercise called a “Marília Moment” is based on Pinto’s evocation of his dead sister to help him face and address difficult moments in his life, for example, homophobic violence and lack of resources as an undocumented immigrant.

This exercise asks participants to embody a gesture or a characteristic of someone—who has passed away or is still alive—and develop a strategy for overcoming a personal issue based on the person in question. 

“By sharing his personal experiences, his vulnerabilities and his successes, Pinto creates a safe space where all participants feel comfortable revealing their true selves,” said recent social work graduate Megan Malaski. “Pinto has created an art installation that speaks to lengths about resiliency. His story takes the audience to parts of his past that have shaped him into the person he is today. 

“Through these activities, students can learn the intersectionality of a person, how people are affected through their lens of the world, and overall that a person’s strengths and resiliency are not always identified by oneself.”

Your own suitcase

A suitcase in the installation titled “Privacy,” which is paired with a Brazilian lullaby.

What would you put in your “suitcase”? 

Viewers will be encouraged to answer this and other questions: How do personal objects help you tell a story about who you are and about your many identities? How can specific art forms and practices support social justice in different contexts, considering demographic diversity, diversity, equity and inclusion?

“I recommend autobiographical exploration to all, and to social work students in particular, as a way to prepare them for ‘use of self’ in social work practice,” Pinto said. “It is important to envision creative ways to help their clients engage in self-healing, community-level engagement, political involvement, letter-writing campaigns and more.” 

Marc Arthur, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Social Work, has worked closely with Pinto on several projects, including the expansion of a social justice art collective including students from across the university. During a course he taught to immerse students in art-based social justice, Arthur used the play “Marília”—with Pinto’s participation in the classroom—to discuss autobiographical work and process.

“As a homework assignment, I asked the students to create their own “suitcase” by using boxes and then to bring them to class for show and tell,” Arthur said. “It was a very rewarding exercise that helped students understand some of the ways that self processes of introspection are useful forms of self-realization and community engagement.”

For Arthur, the community-based theater is a growing field with few boundaries. 

“Rogério’s project is deeply interdisciplinary with an eye toward the fine arts, by bringing together a play and an art installation from his social work perspective,” he said. “Seldom, the visual and performing arts come together in a community-based theater like the ‘Realm of the Dead.'”

The installation will be on view Oct. 4-17 in the Lower Level Atrium at the School of Social Work. 

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