Cindy Shapiro black and white headshot

Cindy Shapiro

Alumna Credits “The Antioch Way” with Opening Doors to a Career in Opera

BA in Liberal Studies Alumna, Cindy Shapiro (’13), enrolled at Antioch University Los Angeles as a stepping stone to becoming an “invested Cantor” at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles; instead, she wrote an opera.

She explains: “Because I’d never actually gone to seminary I was not what is known as an ‘invested’ Cantor, even though I carried out all of the duties of an invested Cantor. I tutored all of the kids preparing for their bar or bat mitzvahs. I presided over every Friday night and Saturday morning service. I led festival services. And I was the Cantor at High Holy Day services, including at the spillover service at the Wiltern Theater, where my first year Robert Plant had played the previous night. (This was a pretty cool detail for an at-heart rock and roller like myself.) But because I wasn’t an actual Cantor, I wasn’t included in any of the weekly clergy planning meetings. I used to say that I wasn’t included in their reindeer games.”

So she took a look at Antioch University: “Part of the problem was that I’d never finished my bachelor’s degree. I’ve always thought of myself as a kind of ‘side door’ person. I’ve never stepped into a job or a career in a way that makes total sense. I’ve had about seven very broad and deep careers, one leading to another, sometimes in a seamless way, and sometimes in a way that seems to leapfrog in a jagged nonsensical way. There’s an internal logic for me, but from the outside, it might seem nuts. Now I needed to leap from no degree to being an invested Cantor. A Cantorial degree is essentially a Masters of Sacred Music. At the time one of the Cantors’ unions was allowing investiture through a series of rigorous board testing. So, no need for seminary/Masters’s Degree, but rigorous boards. I needed to study for those boards, but in order to take the boards, I needed to first have a Bachelor’s degree. Antioch seemed like a perfect choice for me.”

The independent learning options of the degree was very appealing to Shapiro, but little did she realize how important it would be toward shaping her future.

“I could look at the Cantors’ union syllabus and come up with a slew of independent study courses for myself and in the process of taking these courses, prep myself for the boards. At the end of my degree process, I would have a Bachelors Degree and be fully ready to take my boards. I would then be able to become an invested Cantor and then I would be able to participate in high-level clergy thinking at my temple.”

But it was one particular course during her studies at AU that swung her life in an utterly new and unforeseen direction; the course was titled: Myth and The Psyche.

“In it, we studied a variety of myths, but a reading of the Psyche myth specifically, and Thomas Neumann’s Jungian analysis of it took me back to my days of creating Artificial Emotion software based on Jungian archetypes. I started building this Psyche opera in my head at that point. It just started to take shape unbidden and without any prodding on my part. I applied for an artist residency at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris to write the opera, and I was completely stunned to learn that I’d gotten it. My French is actually very good, but I kept thinking that I’d read the acceptance letter incorrectly. I went to my Antioch advisor to see if I could use my three months in Paris as I composed the opera as an independent study. This being Antioch, the answer was — of course! It changed my life completely.”

Being a mother, a wife, and a student was a lot to juggle during that time, but the AU model was accommodating: “I went through the degree program very slowly because I was on the road with a show for a lot of the time. I quit my job at the temple, pulled my daughter, who was in 5th grade at the time, and went on the road with my husband’s show. The show, Video Games Live, went around the world and is a symphonic live show of video game music. My husband was one of the executive producers and was the maestro, I sang and was also the choir maestra, and our daughter also sang. I homeschooled her at the time. It was an exciting chapter in our lives. And I somehow continued taking classes at Antioch. Antioch made it easy by allowing me to take classes at various schools online for credits that would transfer, or to build independent study classes out of the materials of what my life was turning into. I remember doing an independent study about conducting for choir. I was rehearsing a choir for a show with the Houston Symphony and I remember being videoed conducting for part of that independent study.”

But there were other challenges along the way, not the least of which were the limitations of the program. Shapiro explains: “I would say that the only thing that might have hindered me as an artist with Antioch is that there really isn’t a formal music program at the school. It’s not like going to USC or CSUN. Those schools have utterly rigorous music programs where you live, eat, sleep and breath scales and modes and rhythm structures day and night. Sight-singing, interval training, orchestration. These are all very technical things. I know some of these things. There is no doubt in my mind that I am fully capable of knowing them as deeply as anyone who has graduated from those programs would I have gone to a school like that. But there is something about the stumble-upon that I like about the way I write. I know that there is an inherent sophistication and elegance in the expression of my work, and I know that if I sat and did a note-by-note analysis I could tell you exactly why. I just don’t want to be thinking about that while I’m in the process. And my particular ‘Antioch way’ facilitated that in me.”

So would she recommend formal training to the next generation of artist? “It depends on what they are looking for. I am a messy kind of creator. I do a lot of research, as I tend to use world-historical figures or myths as my subject matter, then create a very complete outline. But when it’s time to start the actual composition process I wade in and start putting notes together. I’m very iterative and intuitive, and then like to just step back and listen. I don’t do a lot of analysis of why I think a thing is working or not working. It’s a lot of feel for me. I push notes around and push and move until suddenly it just feels like it’s always supposed to have been that way. Then I stop. I think if someone wants to know more about why something works or not, maybe a more formal training is better.”

And while the rigors of a family and teaching voice remain strenuous, Shapiro takes it in stride: “Luckily for me, my whole family are artists. My husband is a composer for media. My brother is a talented songwriter/composer. (We were in a band together back in the day.) My sister has a very successful early childhood music program. My daughter was just accepted into the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama in London. So we’re all just artists who understand the artist’s life and support one another’s work and artistic goals. Generally speaking, it’s a lot of fun!”

And the teaching? Again, Antioch has influenced her approach: “One of the things I love to tell my voice students is about the notion of the song as the ‘playlet’. It’s one thing to walk a student through the technical aspects of the voice as an instrument. And I love talking about that and thinking about that. It’s very specific and I can hold forth about that for hours. But on the interpretation side, there are other things to think about. For me, every song has a particular DNA. What makes that song that song. And when you are the singer of that song, you are an actor in a tiny playlet. Your job is not to sing every note beautifully as the singer, but to become part of the DNA structure of the song. Because I had been a songwriter for so many years, I began to think of myself almost as a short story writer. Each song was a complete thought borne out over the course of 2 or 6 minutes, depending. Now, as an opera composer, it was time to put on my big girl pants and graduate to long-form writing, and start thinking about writing a novel. That’s how I look at opera.”

And what’s she up to now? Oh, just another opera. And a musical. And a production company.

“I am currently working on my third opera and my first musical and building an umbrella company around my works. I have a creative partner, Janet Roston. She is a Director/Choreographer. Our company is Incorrigible Entertainment — shows about incorrigible women by incorrigible women. This is now my post-Antioch life. Opera found me. I didn’t find it.”

For more information on her work go here.

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