From Preschool to Star Wars

Versatile singer and educator Adriana Manfredi ’01 stretches the bounds of her music career.

June 17, 2021

Charlotte Maskelony '21

Adriana Manfredi.
Photo credit: courtesy Adriana Manfredi

There’s more than one way to be a singer, and nobody knows it better than Adriana Manfredi ’01. A mezzo-soprano and music educator who sings with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Opera Chorus, Manfredi has used the skills she learned at Oberlin to create a unique career that marries her interests in performance and teaching.

“Oberlin was my dream school. It truly was,” Manfredi says. “I started as a pianist, and my mom put me in musical theater because I was a shy kid. I came in as a double-degree transfer student—so I was there for four years and walked out with two degrees.”

Originally from the Los Angeles area, Manfredi majored in English and music education, with a voice concentration. “Oberlin was the best-quality school I could find where I could do both. The quality of conservatory classes is very academic in what they ask you to do, and write, and think, and how to make connections. They’re really asking you to put together big ideas; it’s not just about creating great performers. It all works together.”

During her final year at Oberlin, Manfredi wrote an interdisciplinary thesis on choral settings of Song of Songs, a section of the Old Testament that centers on two lovers. She is quick to note how the project influenced the work she does today with the Master Chorale.

“Researching and writing my thesis really informed how I think about being a singer,” she says. “Now I'm able to really analyze the text of an art song or aria: how the text informs the harmonies, how deeply the composer is thinking about the partnership, how to find out the story of the work. The piece informs itself. I find that when I go into new musical projects, it’s really exciting to just dig deep in talking about this poetry. I use my English degree all the time, working with text. As singers, we have to!”

Adriana Manfredi.
courtesy Adriana Manfredi

After graduating, Manfredi moved back to Southern California, where her work has included a 12-year tenure as a vocal arts instructor at the Orange County School of the Arts, cofounding an early childhood music collective, and performing with the L.A. Master Chorale and Opera Chorus.

The welcome surprise? The Obies she finds along the way.

“Really, Obies maintain friendships our whole lives from that time at Oberlin. I made friends with Stefan Grube ’03. He went to both Oberlin High School and Oberlin College, ended up coming out to L.A. for the movie industry, and 10 or 15 years later, he’s working for J.J. Abrams, got to work on The Force Awakens, had a cameo, and then he got to edit Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker. Now he and his wife are godparents to my oldest son, Gio.

“When Stefan edited Rise of Skywalker, I was singing on episodes eight and nine with the L.A. Master Chorale. It was the last thing John Williams conducted before he retired, so at the last session they had champagne, a big celebration for him. Stefan was in the booth with J.J. Abrams, and he knew I was going to be there, so we both came out at break and were looking at each other like Whoa. There were no pictures, but we were just like…Pretty cool.”

Manfredi’s other credits as a session singer—a singer hired specifically for recording sessions—include the films Frozen, Minions, and Big Hero 6.

In February 2020, mere weeks before COVID-19 shut down the world, Manfredi and the L.A. Master Chorale took part in the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s sessions for the recording Complete Symphonies of Charles Ives. It went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance, and Manfredi can be heard on the first and fourth movements of Ives’ Fourth Symphony.

"Being a part of the Ives recording was such a thrill,” she says today. “The chorus part comes right at the end of the last movement, just a simple hymn tune, but of course it is what was so dear to Ives. So it’s a special moment to be included."

When the pandemic hit, Manfredi and the chorale were in Auckland, New Zealand, at the Auckland Arts Festival, for the Peter Sellars production of Orlando di Lasso’s Lagrime di San Pietro. The work narrates the seven stages of grief St. Peter experienced after disavowing Jesus before his crucifixion. Originally created in 2016, the production has since toured the world, including performances at the Salzburg Festival in Austria, Festival Internacional Cervantino in Guanajuato, Mexico, and the Barbican Centre in London.

“The piece is about the expressions of this incredibly human moment, and it’s what Peter does so well—bringing out the humanity of the text. It’s really a hybrid form: It’s very operatic, but we’re singing Renaissance tone. We’re all trained opera singers, but we all have to be versatile singers. What’s super-exciting is that the staging is so physical. We’re rolling on the ground, we’re throwing ourselves on the ground, running all over the place. It’s very extreme, physically; I ended up going back to train in dance just to keep being nimble. We all reinvigorated our physical routines.

“It was a huge challenge, but we’re so excited to get back to it!”

mother and son teaching music.
Adriana Manfredi teaches a Music Play session with son Octavio. (photo courtesy of Adriana Manfredi)

These days, Manfredi is focused on Inspired Music Play, an early childhood music education collective she cofounded with Kate Richards Geller, a music therapist and vocal improviser. The group promotes music education for the “little-littles,” as Manfredi calls them—children ages 6 and under.

“Any kid who studies an instrument, you bet they had musical experiences when they were 0 to 6. It doesn’t just start when you go to first grade. It’s also that play and interactive element, rather than just Oh, we play the classical music station in the background. That’s stage one. It’s more Hey, we’re going to improv warm-ups! To just have that vocabulary. That play vocabulary, that improv vocabulary. And then the movement vocabulary. It’s all related to brain function, but it also lays the foundation for wherever they’re going to go in their artistic lives, and just their lives to begin with.”

This understanding of music as a lifelong pursuit shapes Manfredi’s advice for young singers.

“Know that your musicality is for your whole life, and you’re just beginning on your path,” she says. “Don’t talk yourself out of anything. If you feel moved to do something, there’s going to be a path for you. And there will be connections back to your Oberlin experience that you won’t even see until decades down the road, or when you become a parent, or when you get a really cool job and you see another Obie there.

“The Oberlin experience is not finite at all. It’s planting seeds for the rest of your life.”

Charlotte Maskelony graduated from Oberlin Conservatory in spring 2021 with a degree in vocal performance. As a student, she wrote for the Office of Conservatory Communications.

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