Monday, June 1, 2020

All About our Vocal Competition Awardee, Stephanie E. Leotsakos

Included below is an excerpt from an interview with the Masterwork Arts Vocal Competition Award winner, Stephanie E. Leotsakos: 

Stephanie, congratulations on your Masterwork Arts award!

You are the very first awardee of this level gift, which is significant for Masterwork Arts. As you may know we offer community grants to local arts groups and small arts organizations, competitive awards like our Choreography Competition Award - those are lower level awards meant to help cultivate an appetite for “excellence in the arts.” Your award was offered in the hopes of helping an emerging professional go to the next level in their career. We’re just curious, Masterwork Arts has been around for over 50 years, but was recently revitalized. Were you aware of us before this competition?

I was not aware of the Masterwork Arts Foundation before learning of this opportunity for emerging professionals, but I am so glad that it was recently revitalized. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am to have been granted this award, especially in these difficult times for artists like myself. I hope, as you do, that it will facilitate great forward momentum in my professional career. I am very encouraged by your support!

Can you tell us a little more about your background in music? While it wasn’t a factor in your award, we noted that you are also a composer. 

Yes, I’d be happy to! I began my musical journey with a little help from Mr. Rogers back in 1996, when he showed me what a violin was on the T.V. I was only two, nearly three years old, and I fell in love with the sound of the violin while watching that particular episode, after which I asked my parents for a violin and a “stick.” My parents, both non-musicians, granted me that wish on my third birthday and found me a local teacher. I’ll love them forever for that gift and the years they spent afterwards supporting me. I studied classical violin and piano through the end of high-school. The violin was my first voice.

The piano was my second voice. My journey as a composer is wrapped up with my instrumental development. Being Suzuki trained, my ear developed quickly, I memorized easily, and I found myself inventing music in my head. The first song I remember composing was for piano at age six; a song which I now assign to some of my own young students. I improvised often with my instruments, especially piano, and could pick up or harmonize nearly anything with my violin, which became one of my favorite pastimes. I would simply remember everything I composed rather than write it down, as I had little confidence with notation, but soon found myself unable to keep up with my own ideas as the compositions in my head became more complex and often surpassed my personal skill on my instruments. It wasn’t until half-way through university that I took the leap to become a composer and tackle notating my own ideas, as well as take the leap to become a singer. It was in my junior year at Princeton University that I had a change in identity, from a violinist who could sing to a singer who could play violin.

Singing combined all my previous musical instincts and eventually became my most mature and preferred voice for performance art. During my late high-school years, I was injured and spent months struggling with mental health while in physical therapy for tendonitis in my wrists and hands, which affected my success as a violinist auditioning for collegiate music programs. After countless conservatory rejections, Princeton University, my dream school, accepted me, and with Princeton’s support, I freely explored myself as an artist and academic. Princeton was the birthplace of my love for opera, and was where I met my voice teacher, David Kellett.

I began studying with David in January of 2015, in the spring semester of my junior year at Princeton. Just prior, I had begun experiencing much artistic and intellectual change, self discovering that perhaps my voice, not the violin, was the instrument with which I might ultimately serve music best. It was an extremely disorienting time, one where I felt my musical identity was being broken down, though in reality it was metamorphosing. That school year was the first time in my life that I was no longer a part of an orchestra, but instead fully committed to singing, even serving as assistant student conductor of the Princeton University Glee Club. David, an extremely knowledgeable vocal technician and demonstrative tenor, built me as a singer from the ground up, with expertise passed down to him by his teacher, Charles Reading, and his teacher’s teacher, the tenor Giuseppe DeLuca. Within a single semester, he helped me achieve main-stage roles in a NYC summer program, and prepared me the following year for a full recital in six languages in completion of the certification program in vocal performance. In my senior year, I also composed, produced, and conducted the premiere of my first chamber opera, titled OMG, with an original libretto and score, for my undergraduate senior thesis at Princeton. Upon graduating with a B.A in Music with a concentration in composition and a certificate in vocal performance, I was awarded the Isidore and Helen Sacks Memorial Prize by the music department for “extraordinary achievement in the arts.” 

Presently, David remains my voice teacher, though my lessons have been irregular since graduating, due to the financial struggles of beginning one’s career as a working freelance artist. I have tenaciously pursued as many opportunities as I could self-fund, but while building a private music studio of my own and pursuing those opportunities, like many other artists, I have struggled with the realities of making ends meet while trying to gain visibility and traction as an emerging professional. Some of my various endeavors after graduating were self-producing the revival of my opera in NYC, singing, assistant-directing, and assistant-conducting various operas with Amore Opera Company in NYC, assistant-conducting the NJ Sussex County Youth Orchestras, singing vocal solos with the Vermont Philharmonic Orchestra and Riverside Opera Company, administratively working for Paterson Music Project, singing in liturgical settings, concertizing with Adelphi Orchestra, completing a NJ certification in music education through Princeton’s Teacher Preparation Program, and developing an original methodology for teaching music theory through my private studio. Presently, I have been continuing my teaching, research, compositional work, and singing while completing a M.A. in composition at Rutgers University, where I work as section leader and soloist in the Rutgers University Kirkpatrick Choir, as an undergraduate music theory tutor, and as an administrative assistant. 

Would you explain to our readers what being committed to “excellence in the arts,” a core tenet of our mission, means to you?

“Excellence in the arts” can mean a lot of things. To me, as a creative-performing artist, it means an extreme dedication to one’s inner artistic voice. The ‘excellence’  is in pursuing an honest mastery of oneself, and expressing it authentically through art. The venture of excellence in the arts can take many different forms for everyone, but in the end, the recognition of excellence comes from making an authentic connection with others, after first making and nurturing it with oneself. I believe one’s personal ownership of ‘excellence’ is dependent on the integrity of and belief in the quality of one’s own art.

The world is in a difficult place right now with the Coronavirus, something that hits the performing arts and entertainment industries particularly hard. What are you currently working on and how do you intend to use these funds?

I pray for all those who have been struggling in our current situation with Covid-19. I have many artist friends who are scared for their future and are back in survival mode, a mode I know all too well. I do think this situation is going to change our industry moving forward, and my goal and advice to others has been to try to embrace the change and stay at the forefront of artistic invention with the resources available to us. I intend to stretch these funds as far as they can go and invest wisely, firstly financing a year’s worth of weekly voice lessons with my teacher, which I have longed for for some time. Secondly, I intend to use some of the funds for online marketing and professional branding, though I’ll be making thoughtful and frugal decisions on that front based on how I see the industry’s climate changing. How I might have spent the money before Covid-19 may change because of the virus, as I anticipate technical expertise and online visibility playing a much greater role in our industry moving forward. My hope is that it won’t be a shallow change, but a fundamentally wholesome one, with new versions of what opera can look like and how the arts, in general, are funded.  

Is there anything else you’d like to share about yourself?

I want to thank everyone once again for their support, and for caring to hear my voice. I hope to remain an active artistic and educational voice in the community moving forward. If anyone would like to follow my career, I can be found on Instragram @stephanieleotsakos and Facebook @StephanieComposerSoprano, or you can subscribe to my YouTube channel @StephanieLeotsakos and visit my website: 

We’re looking forward to celebrating your award win over a small concert at some point in the future, Stephanie. Thank you for your example and for sharing some of your story here. 

You are most welcome, and I look forward to the future concert! Thank you for inviting me to share my story with you.

Stay well and continued success with your vocal career, Stephanie!

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