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The Cagli Media Project
Institute for Education
in International Media
Andrew Ciofalo, Director

The Hidden Gem
Story by Tami Dixon

The melodic sounds from a grand piano and full-throated voices can be heard from the moment a visitor steps from the street across the threshold of an ancient, iron-studded wooden door into the simple foyer. Upstairs, the music gradually crescendoes, filling the hall.

These are the sounds of a first-class opera rehearsal in full swing.

Visions of grand opera houses in Rome, Milan, or even Vienna may readily come to mind. But the artists practicing here are far from the frenzied activities of those bustling metropolis.

Tucked away in a small town nearly hidden in the Apennine Mountains and housed in a non-descript building in the heart of the old town is the Theater Academy of Cagli, Italy. The academy was founded in 1992 primarily through volunteer efforts and coincided with the restoration of the Municipal Theater of Cagli, originally built in 1878.

The original theater was constructed with funding from the city’s nobility as a venue for the practice and performance of lyric opera, an art form created and perfected by the Italian people. The academy was founded in an effort to bring lyric opera back to Cagli by giving young people a passion for this art and providing them with a stage to perform on.

The opera, voice and acting instruction offered at the academy have become so well known that students travel from across the globe to gain proficiency in their art of dramatization and singing.

“I met a singer on an airplane, and he recommended this program,” says Sonya Isaak, a self-described “European American” student currently enrolled in the Cagli opera program. Born in New York, Isaak, 28, lived a handful of her childhood years in Italy and Germany before her parents returned to New York for her junior high and high school years.

After high school she returned to Germany with the plan to study abroad for one year. That year evolved into nearly a decade as Isaak “discovered Europe” and fell in love with her studies. While earning a degree in literature at the University of Heidelberg, Isaak won a scholarship to the University of Bologna and also gained admittance to the Sorbonne in Paris. It was during her time in Paris that she became involved in acting.

Isaak has taken private voice lessons since she was 16, but the Cagli opera program is the first formal voice program that she’s been enrolled in. Her interest in the opera was piqued at a young age when she found a record of Don Giovanni and “listened to it almost every day.” “There’s lots of drama, and it’s very deep,” Isaak responds when asked what fascinated her about Mozart’s famous opera.

When deciding what program to enroll in, Isaak specifically wanted one that was performance oriented, and she found it in the Theater Academy of Cagli.

“The first steps toward building a career are always the hardest,” says Simonetta Paolucci, the academy director. The productions performed at the Cagli opera are geared specifically toward this purpose – to provide students with an opportunity to showcase their work.

Paolucci has been the program director for the past five years – a part-time gig outside of her regular day job as a consultant to employers on aspects of labor law. When asked about her interest in lyric opera – if she, for example, sang in her youth – she laughs. “I sing probably about as well as you do,” she says with a smile describing herself as something of an off-key female baritone. The love of lyric opera was passed to her through her father, a great aficionado, even though none of her family members have ever studied or performed the art.

So, with no personal performance experience, why does she devote so much of her time to the advancement of lyric opera? “Because I love it,” she states simply. Lyric opera is an important part of the heart and soul of Italian culture, “like Broadway theater productions are in the United States,” says Paolucci.

The time and energy spent devoted to the academy pays off, she says, “when I sees the character being born on stage, and see that these young people have the potential of becoming great.”

The Divo

Isaac had the opportunity to showcase her potential in the debut performance of La Traviata directed by Stefano Seghedoni in June 2007 at the Municipal Theater of Cagli.

What’s next in the cards for this young opera protégé? “Italy is probably the best place for opera,” Isaak says, so she may be staying put or looking for opportunities in other Italian cities. But who knows? Her slate is still clean, and she’s open to the next adventure, wherever that may take her. Perhaps a role as the leading lady in a future production of Don Giovanni?

Anything’s possible.

Video by Kathryn Gregory
Photos by Melanie Edwards
Web Design by Kristen Conroy