Fairfield Music Professor Leads Chorus of Formerly Homeless New Yorkers From the City’s Streets to Center Stage

Fairfield Music Professor Leads Chorus of Formerly Homeless New Yorkers From the City’s Streets to Center Stage

Fairfield University Music Professor Michael Ciavaglia ’04, PhD, leads New York's Breaking Ground Chorus in a rehearsal for the company's production of ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors.’ Photo courtesy of Andrew Ousley.

Alumnus and Adjunct Professor Michael Ciavaglia ’04, PhD, directed formerly displaced members of New York’s Breaking Ground Chorus in a moving production of the nativity opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors.

The response to the Chorus has been overwhelming for me... It was a magical moment, in which everything came together and the singers, players, and audience were all uplifted.

— Michael Ciavaglia ’04, PhD, adjunct professor of music

The Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen in Chelsea, N.Y. served dinner with an extra helping of holiday spirit this past weekend, as professional opera company On Site Opera (OSO) presented four dinner performances of Gian Carlo Menotti's 45-minute Christmas nativity opera Amahl and the Night Visitors in the building’s main dining hall. While the production’s talented cast of renowned vocalists and musicians wowed audiences with a modern and heartfelt retelling of the classic story, the true stars of the show were the chorus of formerly homeless men and women from New York’s Breaking Ground shelter, led by Fairfield alumnus and adjunct music professor Michael Ciavaglia ’04, PhD.

“I was very eager to work on a project like this, something quite different from anything I’d done before in my career,” Dr. Ciavaglia said. “Many of the singers in the Amahl chorus had previously only sung for fun, so it was up to me to teach them about the culture of professional music-making in a major city. We moved slowly at the first rehearsals, but everyone soon got the hang of it, and by the end we were able to work at the pace of a professional schedule.”

Founded in 1990, Breaking Ground is New York City’s largest provider of permanent supportive housing for the homeless. With a mission to strengthen individuals, families, and communities by developing and sustaining affordable housing, the organization houses approximately 4,500 individuals and provides a large outreach program for the homeless and other vulnerable New Yorkers. By participating in this artistic collaboration, Breaking Ground, On Site Opera, and the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen set out to shine a light on the issue of homelessness in NYC, and to demonstrate how the arts and social services can work together to benefit the community. Instead of buying tickets, patrons were asked to bring a small donation of non-perishable food items as the price of admission.

Through the development of partnerships with organizations like OSO, Breaking Ground encourages its residents to express themselves creatively and to learn skills to acclimate back into society after years, and sometimes decades, of homelessness. Dr. Ciavaglia believes that participating in the Breaking Ground Chorus “filled a need that many of the singers didn’t realize they had” by creating a purpose-driven community of singers working together toward a common goal. In turn, their joyful performance brought a level of authenticity to the production, as many of their personal trials mirrored those of the mother and child at the heart of the opera, who had no food, no money, and no hope until a miracle intervened.

“The response to the Chorus has been overwhelming for me,” Dr. Ciavaglia said. “When we started this process, we didn’t know what to expect. Would the Breaking Ground Chorus be judged harshly? Would the audience be on board with the synthesis we tried to achieve? I was thrilled to hear, in their ovations and in speaking with many of them afterwards, that they were excited by the sound and moved by the performance. It was a magical moment, in which everything came together and the singers, players, and audience were all uplifted.”

Dr. Ciavaglia received his BA in music from Fairfield University in 2004 and has been teaching voice and music history as an adjunct professor in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts since 2006. He is an alumnus of the Boyer College of Music, where he received his MA in music, and the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, where he earned his doctor of musical arts. Extremely active in the fields of opera, choral performance, and higher education, he has conducted and served as chorus master and head of music of the Asheville Lyric Opera in North Carolina since 2013, in addition to serving on the music staff for the Cincinnati Opera, On Site Opera, and the New York Choral.

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Last modified: 08-30-18 12:00 AM

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