Meet Sotto Voce’s current members – the cast of Jessie Downs’s new opera, “The Second Sight” – and the opera’s production team!
Jessie Downs – Ola Rafalo – Claudia Brown
Beth White – Julia Anne Cordani – John Clayton
Stephen Walley – Brandon Mecklenburg
Jessie Downs is a vocalist and composer whose wild yet delicate aesthetic compellingly combines elements of tradition and innovation. In June 2021, her new opera The Second Sight will be performed for the first time by members of Sotto Voce. Jessie will be co-producing and directing these first performances, as well as performing in the role of the impish spirit-child Sashatya (also the Queen Spirit and Luciana).
In 2018, Jessie was one of ten composers chosen by Beth Morrison Project’s Next Generation Competition, showcasing promising creators of new opera. Other compositional accolades include winning 2nd place for best new harp composition in the 2014 Dutch Harp Festival. In December 2018, Jessie made her Carnegie Hall debut as an operatic soprano soloist for the Night of Inspiration. Earlier that year, she was awarded a New Music USA Project Grant for directing and performing with her contemporary vocal ensemble the Sotto Voce Vocal Collective in a Rust Belt Tour entitled “Living Voices.”
As a vocalist, Jessie has studied traditional bel canto technique since the age of 14, most recently with master pedagogue Maestro Franco Bertacci, and has applied her studies to the performance of bel canto, verismo, and contemporary operatic repertoire. In December of 2020, she was awarded Third Place in her age category in The North International Music Competition for her recording of “Regnava nel silenzio” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Other notable professional vocal engagements include making her Carnegie Hall debut as a soloist in the 2018 Night of Inspiration, performing as the soprano soloist in J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, and presenting scenes from Madama Butterfly (as Cio-Cio-san) and La Traviata (as Violetta) with both Nickel City Opera and the Buffalo Master Chorale. She has also premiered many operatic roles and concert works by other living composers, and participated in workshops with luminaries of contemporary vocal performance such as Juliet Fraser (EXAUDI) and Jeff Gavette (Eckmeles).
Enthusiastic about keeping the tradition of true bel canto singing alive, Jessie is now passing on all she has learned to her own vocal studio, as well as providing regular vocal coaching to the members of the Unitarian Universalist Church choir as Soprano Section Leader and Associate Director. Jessie holds a BMus in Composition from Oberlin Conservatory (OH) and recently received a Doctor of Philosophy degree in Composition “with distinction” from the University at Buffalo (NY).
Ola Rafało, dramatic mezzo-soprano, has been called a “Vocal Powerhouse” , and “the next Cossotto”. She has earned critical acclaim in a variety of roles and venues with her “voluptuous” , “contralto like sound” and mesmerizing acting. She will be playing the role of Diskana, the visionary, in the first production of The Second Sight.
Ola’s most celebrated role thus far is Carmen, which she has sung with Syracuse Opera, the Lyric Orchestra, Gulfshore Opera, New Jersey Verismo Opera, and highlights with the Pacific Symphony. In the Verdi repertory, Ola has performed Azucena in Il Trovatore, Maddalena in Rigoletto, Fenena in Nabucco, and scenes as Amneris in Aida, and Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera. “Ola Rafało proved to be a mezzo to watch, with a strong Stride la Vampa” said Anne Midgette, for the Washington Post. Other roles performed include Charlotte in Werther, The Mother- Amahl and the Night Visitors, Fricka in Die Walkure, and Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. She has also been featured at Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Opera Tampa, Springfield Symphony, Orlando Opera, Baltimore Lyric, Opera Carolina, Teatro Curci di Barletta, Paderewski Symphony, and Chicago Opera Theater.
Ola received an award from UNESCO for her performance as Alkmene in the Olympic Torch, (a modern Greek opera by P. Karousos). She was the Alto soloist in Vivaldi’s Gloria at Carnegie hall, as well as De Falla’s El Amor Brujo with the Pacific Symphony. She was honored to perform the alto role in the American premier of Poniatowski’s Mass, with the Paderewski Symphony, an important work of Polish history. She has performed several recitals for the Wagner Society of America.
Postponed appearances from 2020 include her debut with the Israel Philharmonic as Emilia in Verdi’s Otello under Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, followed by the role of Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana at teatro Voghera, and concerts in Sirmione Italy for the Maria Callas Festival, as the Maria Callas prize winner of the Giulio Fregosi competition as well as concerts in Belgium at Mythos Opera festival. Next year she will sing her first Brangaene in Tristan und Isolde with the Eugene Symphony Orchestra, debut at the Teatro di Bibiena in Mantova, La Frugola in Tabarro with Chicago Opera Festival, and she will sing Beethoven 9th Symphony with the Evanston Symphony. Also upcoming, Ola will sing the role of Santuzza in Japan, performing the world premiere of a newly discovered unabridged version of Mascagni’s masterpiece: Cavalleria Rusticana.
Ola speaks fluent Polish, and Italian, and teaches voice and flute in cedar lake Indiana.
Claudia Brown, conductor and coloratura soprano, serves as Clinical Assistant Professor of Voice and Choral Music at UB, where she directs the choral ensembles, teaches applied voice, choral conducting, and a course on philosophy of music in religion. She will be playing the role of Freyaria, the empath mother, in the first production of The Second Sight.
Under her leadership, the UB Chamber Singers were founded and UB’s choirs have toured to New York City, Niagara Falls, and Pittsburgh, and sang backup to Kristen Chenoweth and Kenny Rogers. Under her direction, UB Choir recently performed with Gonville and Caius College Chapel Choir, Cambridge, and at the Three Choirs’ Festival in Buffalo. This spring, UB Choir will work with choral composers Jake Runestad and Ethan McGrath, premiering three news commissions written for them by the latter.
Equally a choral and solo singer, Brown has held leading roles in opera and oratorio in the U.K. and U.S. Recent roles include Phyllis (Iolanthe), Serpina (La Serva Padrona), Yvette (La Rondine), Kate Pinkerton (Madame Butterfly), Adele (Die Fledermaus), Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), Laetitia (The Old Maid and the Thief, director), and Lucy (The Telephone, director). She has also served as chorus master for Barber’s Vanessa and Mozart’s Idomeneo with professional opera companies in the U.K. During 2018-2019 Brown toured and recorded two albums in England and Portugal with the Choir of Gonville and Caius College, Robinson College Choir, Cambridge, and Armonico Consort of London. In July 2019, she had the honor of performing alongside the BBC Singers and Britten Sinfonia for Stephen Cleobury’s Farewell Concert at King’s College, Cambridge.
Brown holds a Masters of Music in Choral Studies from the University of Cambridge and an M.M. in Vocal Performance from Duquesne University. In the U.K., she was a member of King’s Voices, the mixed-voice choir of King’s College Chapel, touring France and the Netherlands. In Buffalo, Brown sings with Harmonia Chamber Choir, St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral Choir, Vocalis Chamber Choir, and serves as a Bach soloist regionally. Passionate about music and theology and the cross-cultural impact of music, Brown taught music in South India from 2011-2012 and has worked with musicians in Germany, Honduras, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
Mezzo-soprano Beth White has been singing in the Buffalo choral music community for nearly three decades. She will be playing the role of the Water Spirit – one of the specters that variously haunt and guide the lead characters – in the first production of The Second Sight. A longtime member of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus, Beth also sang with the BPC Chamber Singers and the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church Chamber Choir. As a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo Choir, she served as interim alto section leader. She has studied with Genia Las and Jessie Downs, whose coaching in the bel canto technique has expanded her vocal range and developed her soprano range. While she has performed scenes from staples of the mezzo-soprano repertoire – such as Carmen and Cavalleria Rusticana – on recent recitals, she has also begun to venture into dramatic soprano roles, such as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and the title role in Tosca.
Beth has had a fulfilling career in admissions and enrollment management at the University at Buffalo, currently serving as Director for Graduate Enrollment in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. She served on the Boards of Directors of the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and the UB Child Care Center. She is proud to watch her teen-aged sons growing up with a love of music!
Julia Anne Cordani is a Buffalo-based performer and educator, passionate about music accessibility and advocacy. She will be playing the role of the Bird Spirit– one of the specters that variously haunt and guide the lead characters – in the first production of The Second Sight.
Julia is a light coloratura soprano. Originally from Lewiston, New York, she is currently a first year graduate student at the University at Buffalo, working towards her Master’s Degree in Voice Performance. She holds two Bachelor’s Degrees from UB in Voice Performance and Linguistics, and studies with Dr. Tiffany Du Mouchelle. Julia has extensive experience in the performance of contemporary solo and choral repertoire, as well as standard works. At UB, Julia sings in the Contemporary Ensemble, Polyglot Opera Studio, Choir, and Chamber Ensemble. In the greater Buffalo community, she sings in the Women’s Chorus of Buffalo, QED Vocal Ensemble, and Vocalis Chamber Choir.
An accomplished soloist, she has performed locally and nationally with the Freudig Singers of Western New York, Ensemble Signal, Slee Sinfonietta, University at Delaware Chorale, the Syndicate for the New Arts, Buffalo Opera Unlimited, and the UB Symphony Orchestra. Outside of her vocal career, Julia enjoys serving as the Site Manager and Instrument Inventory Manager at Buffalo String Works, a Buffalo-based music education nonprofit. She also enjoys taking care of her betta fish, Oya, and her friend Snail the (aptly named) Snail. Recent engagements have included appearing as a chorus member in Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore and as Lucy in Menotti’s The Telephone. Julia is also excited to be singing Frasquita in Georges Bizet’s Carmen and Angel More in Virgil Thompson’s The Mother of Us All in rescheduled productions from 2020 with Buffalo Opera Unlimited.
Tenor John Clayton has been appearing in operas since Nickel City’s very first production, The Barber of Seville, while he was an undergrad at Buffalo State College. He is thrilled to continue the tradition in the world premiere collaboration with Sotto Voce Vocal Collective of The Second Sight, playing the role of the Frog Spirit– one of the specters that variously haunt and guide the lead characters.
John has been described as a gallant singer with the ability to “put the audience in standstill” and “One of Buffalo’s top vocalists” by the Buffalo Philharmonic orchestra. John is known for bringing unique and dynamic interpretations to roles as a leggiero tenor.
John is a recognizable face on the Buffalo stage, having appeared in over a dozen operas with Nickel City Opera, Opera Sacra, and Buffalo Opera Unlimited. In addition to opera, John often appears as a recitalist or concert soloist with choruses and orchestras for works such as Handel’s Messiah and Orff’s Carmina Burana.
Mr. Clayton made his Italian debut in 2016 as Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and as the tenor soloist for Rossini’s Stabat Mater under maestro Romolo Gessi. Mr. Clayton also participated in master classes with Paolo Bellocci of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence.
Stephen Walley, baritone, completed his masters studies in Spring 2020 at the University of Florida. Most recently, Stephen performed the roles of Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro and Dr. Yen-Lo in The Manchurian Candidate (Puts/Campbell). He will be playing the role of the Wind Spirit– one of the specters that variously haunt and guide the lead characters – in the first production of The Second Sight.
While in Florida, Stephen appeared as the Father in Hansel and Gretel at the Phillips Center in Gainesville and as the Baritone Soloist in Puccini’s Messa di Gloria with the Ocala Master Choir. Stephen also performed scenes from The Merry Widow and Carmen in UF Opera’s Outreach in Orange County Schools.
A graduate of Indiana University, Stephen performed as Masetto in Don Giovanni , Angel in the world premier of Jake Heggie’s revised It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Imperial Commissioner in Madama Butterfly with IU Opera Theater Stephen spent the summers of 2017 and 2018 with Ohio Light Opera, where he performed Maximilian in Candide, Pipere in Lehar’s Clo-Clo, Beauregard Calhoun in Babes in Arms and covered the roles of Private Willis in Iolanthe and Dr. Engel in The Student Prince, while performing in the choruses and various featured moments in many musicals and operettas. In 2016, Stephen performed as Sir Despard in Ruddigore with the University Gilbert and Sullivan Society and Falke in BU Tanglewood Young Artist Opera’s production of Die Fledermaus. He has also participated as a chorus member in IU Opera Theater’s productions of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Die Fledermaus, Carmen, La Fille du Régiment, Peter Grimes and Lucia di Lammermoor. Additional opera scenes credits include Edwin in Die Csàrdàsfürstin, Malatesta in Don Pasquale, Papageno in The Magic Flute , Candide in Candide and Strephon in Iolanthe.
In his third year of undergrad, Stephen received 2nd place in his division of the Indianapolis Matinee Musicale Competition. In 2017 , Stephen was a finalist in the Tri State Vocal Competition with the Opera Guild of Dayton and received the Bella Voce award from the Bel Canto Foundation. A resident of Gladstone, New Jersey, Stephen received the New Jersey Governor’s Award for Vocal Music in 2015. Stephen has studied with Wolfgang Brendel and Franco Bertacci.
Brandon Mecklenburg has recently graduated from SUNY Fredonia with a Bachelor’s Degree in Vocal Performance. He will be playing the role of the Light Spirit – one of the specters that variously haunt and guide the lead characters – in the first production of The Second Sight.
In his opera studies, Brandon has portrayed numerous roles; including Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni with the Hillman Opera Company, Ghost in Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano, Dashwood in Mark Adamo’s Little Women, Figaroin Le nozze di Figaro, Don Alfonso from Cosi fan Tutte, and Papageno from The Magic Flute, allwith the Western New York Chamber Orchestra, William Dale in Kevin Puts’ Silent Night with Buffalo Opera Unlimited, King Melchior in Amahl and the Night Visitors, and Mr. Ford in both Merry Wives of Windsor as well as Falstaff. Brandon has performed a wide variety of concert work as well, including the 2017 Hillman 50th anniversary Gala, where he performed excerpts from Carmen and Cosi fan Tutte, Handel’s Messiah as the featured Baritone soloist with the Lake Junaluska Singers, and performed as a soloist with the SUNY Fredonia Chamber Ensemble.
Samantha Morrow is a writer, director and actor, currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. Since starting her professional theatre career in 2009, her directing credits include musicals and plays such as [Title of Show] and George Orwell’s 1984. Samantha is an alum of the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab (2015) and has had the honor of working with actors such as Joaquina Kalukango and Bhavesh Patel. She was the Artistic Director of the Atlanta Theatre Collective for three years prior to moving to NY. In 2019, she had the honor of assistant directing her first opera, Cavalleria Rusitcana. Samantha is thrilled to be working as Artistic Director for Second Sight and is honored to be a part of bringing this incredible new work to life!
Alex Huddleston, Managing Director for Sotto Voce productions, is a composer currently based out of Buffalo, New York. His music seeks to occupy a liminal space in which serendipitous relationships emerge and collapse in a play of familiarity and otherness. Centered on themes of alienation, sorrow, anxiety, schizophrenia, and fear, while functioning through polyvocal durations, his work embodies a singular affect – there is too much and too little, it is too fast and too slow, it is elegant and awkward, it makes too much sense and makes no sense. He is pursuing his doctorate in Composition at SUNY Buffalo where he Studies with David Felder. Additional instructors include Martin Iddon, Steven Takasugi, Pierluigi Billone, and Joshua Fineberg. His music has been performed in the United States and Europe and he has participated in many contemporary music festivals, including Composit, SICPP, and Darmstadt. He has collaborated with the Arditti Quartet, the JACK Quartet, the Mivos Quartet, Ensemble Mise-En, percussionist Christian Smith, vocalist Jessie Downs, and the Sotto Voce Vocal Collective.