SCENE PREVIEW #3: The Mourners’ Chorus

This week, the premiere cast of The Second Sight is thrilled to unveil a virtually produced recording of Act III Scene 1a “The Mourners’ Chorus.” Other than our June in Buffalo workshop in 2019, this is the only existing recording of a scene from the opera incorporating the sinfonietta orchestration with the vocalists.

We can’t wait to share more like this – with fabulous staging to boot – come June! Get your tickets today!

GIVE-BACK #3: A Classic(al) Mixtape for our Sponsors!

The Premiere Cast of “The Second Sight” has put together a Classic(al) Mixtape – with recordings of a variety of classical arias and art songs – for “Sponsors” who donate $250 or more. As all give-backs are cumulative, at this donation level, you will also receive a Second Sight art print, an individualized page of the opera score, and of course a personalized thank you note recognizing your donation’s tax-deductible status. To donate: Go to , then scroll down to choose “Donate to a Fiscal Sponsor Client” and write “for Sotto Voce” in the NOTES section!

Donate to new opera today and get a Second Sight art print!

The Second Sight still needs your help! In addition to being tax-deductible, donations to the opera are eligible for “give-backs” when a gift meets one of our sponsorship levels.

Today’s featured give-back is a pen plotted art poster, made by Sotto Voce’s Managing Director, Alex Huddleston. There are a few unique designs based on The Second Sight’s themes and aesthetic. Get yours today when you contribute $100 or more.

To donate online, visit ASI’s “Donate” page, scroll down and choose “Donate to a Fiscal Sponsor Client,” then write “for Sotto Voce” in the notes section. You can also mail a check to ASI at the address below, and put “for Sotto Voce” on the Memo line.


2495 Main St, Suite 422

Buffalo, NY  14214

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Ola Rafalo, mezzo-soprano

Sotto Voce is thrilled to introduce mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo to the Buffalo stage as the titular “Second Seer” in the June 2021 premiere of The Second Sight. Ms. Rafalo is the ideal Diskana in every way – she wields a voice of great power and expressivity, has a reverence both for tradition and innovation, and is herself a very spiritual woman in-tune with herself and the universe.

Ola’s voice is like a force of nature. When you listen to her recordings, you will no doubt be drawn in by the profound depth of her lower register that is matched in power by a brilliant upper range. You may also be entranced by the expressivity of her physical embodiment of the characters she portrays, coupled with the fluidity and intention with which she shapes a line. However, hearing recordings of Ola can not compare to hearing her live. Her voice is not just a sound, it is a sensation, a wave of vibrations that nearly knocks the wind out of you. She opens her mouth and suddenly the air is alive, and you are swimming in sound. If you have never experienced something like this, you will not want to miss your chance in Buffalo this June.

The repertoire Ms. Rafalo excels in is dramatic and sumptuous, and she always highlights a work’s unique colors. When she sings Verdi’s Ulrica, for example, the fortune-teller’s haunting melodies undulate with a primal force. However, her sound easily morphs into the sensuous entreaties of Saint-Saens’s Biblical heroine Dalila, with liquid tones that pool gently and then overflow with longing. While thus far in her career Ms. Rafalo is perhaps best known for her fierce and stunning portrayal of Carmen, she likewise champions lesser known works of the canon, including a great deal of Slavic repertoire to which she feels deeply connected through her Polish heritage.

Ms. Rafalo is truly a great technician as in the Golden Age of singing, producing a dramatic mezzo sound that is rarely heard in the modern era. She and The Second Sight’s composer Jessie Downs connected through their tutelage under master pedagogue Franco Bertacci and the profound experiences this very traditional teaching has had on them both. Ms. Rafalo approaches her singing with a steadfast reverence for tradition, and it shows; critics have recognized her as an inheritor of the great masters, someone who could become “the next Cossotto,” and juries have awarded her such accolades as the Maria Callas prize. At the same time, Ola is also very much a modern artist who pushes herself to go ever deeper in her understanding and interpretation of the music she sings. From her acting to her make-up artistry, her flute playing to her linguistic fluency, Ola brings so many diverse skills into her holistic practice of being an opera singer.

Lastly, Ola is also a deeply spiritual person who believes in the power of art to offer transcendent experiences. She also understands the struggles an artist must endure both to make the work they are called to make and to find outlets and support systems for that art in the world. Whether the topic is artistry, interpersonal relationships, self-understanding, or healing, Ola always has some deep insight to share. In this way, Ola is not only a great artist who will be bringing a “visionary” character to life in the opera this June, but she is herself a visionary, on and off the stage.

It is Sotto Voce’s great pleasure to have Ola Rafalo as our prima donna this year. We hope you will check out her web presence – including her website and her youtube page – and bring YOUR presence to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo this summer to experience the diva at work!

Happy Women’s History Month! Join us in celebrating the Spirit of the Feminine Divine.

Sotto Voce will be celebrating this Women’s History month in a number of ways, including releasing a new socially-distanced recording project, posting previews of the The Second Sight recorded by the premiere cast, and sharing recordings from our members that celebrate the living tradition of fantastic works by women composers. To kick off the month, however, we decided to reflect upon the myriad of possible incarnations of “feminine spirit.”

Many who study the world’s ancient cultures believe that early societies were more often matriarchal than patriarchal. In these matriarchies, people would primarily worship feminine incarnations of the divine. A reoccurring theme across mythologies was that there were three components to this feminine spirit – standing loosely for three major life-stages, but also more abstractly symbolizing a variety of different life energies held in a natural balance. The goddess was not one thing, but a multitude within herself. The three most common aspects of the goddess are often referred to as “maiden,” “mother,” and “crone.”

Depiction of the energies of Maiden [front], Mother [center], and Crone [rear] (clay, paper, fabric) by Jessie Downs

The maiden is the primal life-force, with a desire to create and innovate and make whole. She is idealism and mischief and willfulness. The mother is the giver of life, but also the one who holds life in the balance and can in her power also choose to take it away. She is nurturing, but also disciplined and strong. The crone is the wise woman, ancient and eternal. She is the keeper of deep knowledge and a seer of visions, with access to the mysteries of the darkness. We often think of a “crone” as a frightening figure, but this is only because of our own fear and misunderstanding of death.

The Crone, with Jessie’s cat Silver, another ancient spirit

“I didn’t know about these archetypes when I first set out to write The Second Sight, but when I read about them in a book I bought last summer, I recognized the three central figures in my opera,” writes composer of The Second Sight, Jessie Downs. “Like this ancient feminine trinity, they encapsulate three major life stages and personas: Sashatya is a playful maiden (in the extreme, as a child), Freyaria is a strong and empathetic mother, and Diskana – although given no specific age – is a wise and experienced seer. Also like the goddess trinity, these three are deeply interconnected and the lines blur as to where one figure begins and the other ends.” 

“I don’t believe there is any one way to ‘be feminine.’ I have often struggled with modern stereotypes of femininity that don’t gel with my understanding of myself, yet I deeply identify with being a woman – all the joys and struggles that such an identity entails. With my opera, I hope that the ancient idea of the sacred mutability of feminine spirit will be lifted up, honoring all the Maidens, Mothers, and Crones that have influenced my life thus far.”

Get your tickets or donate to The Second Sight today!


Unlike composers from the classical canon – whose music is contextualized by a greater body of works – when hearing a new opera, it is important to learn about the individual and emergent voice of the composer in question. For this week’s post, we asked one of Jessie Downs’s frequent collaborators – pianist Jonathon Vogtle – to give an overview of her work for the audience of The Second Sight. He writes:

Jessie Down’s compositional style focuses on taking a specific image – [such as a] Van Gogh painting… and invoking the minutiae of that image as accurately as possible in sound.

“Jessie Down’s compositional style focuses on taking a specific image – be it a Van Gogh painting, a babbling brook, or a pack of fireflies emerging at twilight – and invoking the minutiae of that image as accurately as possible in sound. For example, in her Van Gogh-inspired vocal ensemble piece “castings of Light,” Ms. Downs not only captures the mood and shapes of the painting View of Saint Marie, but allows the listener to see each irregular, curving line that makes up its background. In the wind band piece “Dismal Harmony, she does not stop at evoking the motions of the Dismal Brook’s water currents; instead she invites the audience to perceive every stone off of which the water ricochets, and every insect that congregates along its path. When she imitates a music-box – a recurrent sonic image in her output – the listener can both hear its haunting tune, and feel the metal pins being pulled across the tines of the cylinder.

In the wind band piece “Dismal Harmony, she does not stop at evoking the motions of the Dismal Brook’s water currents; instead she invites the audience to perceive every stone off of which the water ricochets

To accomplish all this, Ms. Down’s music makes ample use of extended technique and atypical instrumentation: microtonally sung phonemes, tea infusers struck with serving utensils, felt tipped guitar picks pulled over piano strings. Perhaps more important than this, however, is the creation of a sense of space; Ms. Down’s compositions are built to give each pitch time to appear, sustain, influence the harmonics around it, and then gradually dissipate. The end result is music that physically surrounds the listener, not with amorphous, formless shapes, but with the images that it hopes to reflect. The music is not avant-garde for the sake of novelty; it is meant to create richly detailed acoustic art.

Ms. Down’s compositions are built to give each pitch time to appear, sustain, influence the harmonics around it, and then gradually dissipate.

The question arises – How can one create that level of intimacy in a large-scale work like an opera? It would certainly require precise knowledge of vocal mechanics, different styles of singing, and the operatic canon. Fortunately, Ms. Downs’s experience as a soprano and vocal pedagogue would suggest that she is up to the task, and that the audience of her first opera The Second Sight is in for a treat.

Listen to Jonathon playing a solo piano piece based on the final scene of The Second Sight at the link below, and come out to see the opera’s premiere this June!


Between now and the opera’s premiere, we will be sharing videos of select scenes, to help you get better acquainted with the work. Our first preview is of Act I Scene 2, “The Rain Chorus,” in which the Spirits guide the visionary Diskana to the home of Freyaria and Sashatya, the mother and child in her opening scene vision. This recording was made at the 2019 June in Buffalo festival, and features many members of the premiere cast, including Claudia Brown as Freyaria; and Jessie Downs, Mariami Bekauri, Julia Anne Cordani, and Suzanne Fatta as Spirits. Conductor Matthew Chamberlain, as well as many ensemble members (Michael Matsuo, flute; Michael Tumiel, clarinet; Jade Conlee, piano; Rosanna Moore, piano; and Katie Weissman, cello) will also be involved in the premiere. Stay tuned for new previews of the premiere cast in the months ahead!

NEW – Second Sight Donor Give-Backs!

For the rescheduled premiere of The Second Sight, we are creating special give-back gifts to thank you for your donations.

This week’s GIVE-BACK SPOTLIGHT: When you donate $50 to The Second Sight today, you will receive a unique page from the score of The Second Sight with a note from the composer. Put it with your keepsakes from other events, or hang it as a unique piece of personalized wall art.

The production still needs your help! Consider donating today either online or via mail, by making a check out to Art Services Initiative (ASI) of Western NY, writing “for Sotto Voce Vocal Collective” in the MEMO section, and sending it to the following address:

ASI2495 Main St, Suite 422Buffalo, NY 14214

We appreciate all your support!

The Second Sight – coming soon!

We are now just under 5 months away from the premiere of Jessie Downs’s new opera The Second Sight – YES, IT IS ON! Please consider buying your tickets today.

You can also donate to the project and receive one of our fabulous give-backs: music and artwork that will be sent to your home and allow you to hold a bit of the show in your hands before it even premieres!

We are currently finalizing our cast and ensemble and are thrilled to introduce internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Ola Rafalo as the titular “second-seer,” Diskana. She will be joined by a fantastic and diverse group of local stars including Claudia Brown, Mariami Bekauri, Julia Anne Cordani, Suzanne Fatta, Brandon Mecklenburg, and myself. Please help support your local arts organizations Sotto Voce Vocal Collective and NICKEL CITY OPERA so that we, our local artists, and our special guest stars can bring you a healing performance for our times.

You can now also watch a video overview of the opera by the composer herself, in which she talks about the intersection of story-telling and vocal-writing in the work. There are also musical examples in the background that give a good overview of the arc of the piece! We hope you will join us to hear and see the full production this June!