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As Queen of the Night in the Ithaca College Theatre production of Mozart's The Magic Flute, Mengchun Yang delivered one of the world's most well-known arias to a packed audience. She stunned the crowd with her pitch-perfect performance, bringing the vengeful queen to life with her commanding stage presence.
For Mengchun, the journey to the IC stage was a long one—halfway around the world—but she knew that a graduate degree in performance at Ithaca College would be well worth the trip. She auditioned in her home country of China and wowed visiting faculty with her powerful soprano. Late that summer, Mengchun packed her bags and was on her way to Ithaca.
In IC's welcoming community, Mengchun quickly found a second family—music professors invited her over for home-cooked meals, music school peers helped her overcome the language barrier, and the women's chorus and choir provided a place for her to sing with new friends. She soon learned of an opportunity to broaden her range: "During my first semester, they had auditions for The Magic Flute. I just went to try. I never thought I would get a role or be a part of the opera, but I got it," Mengchun says.
She was cast as Queen of the Night, which has one of the most vocally demanding arias in opera. In nightly rehearsals with a supportive cast and crew, she developed her passion for opera. "I learned many things. I know how to prepare a whole opera: to learn the music and then read the dialogue and then the acting—and mix it together with the orchestra."
When opening night arrived, her music school family helped calm her nerves. "I was very excited and a little bit nervous. My friends and my teachers were all sitting in the audience to see me. That made me feel like family. I felt like, 'Okay. I can sing to my family.'"
Mengchun hopes to go on to sing opera professionally in China, where it’s becoming increasingly popular. With one outstanding performance already under her belt, she has a promising future as one of China's next stars.
"Being on stage, you are not yourself. You are that person. You have another personality. You need to build a person and have yourself and mix them together. I feel like I can see my value being on stage."
Growing up in the Virgin Islands, Luben Daniel listened to his parents’ CDs of calypso, reggae, soul, gospel, and rhythm and blues. “Early on,” he said, “I knew what good music sounded like.”
Turns out he also knew how to make good music. Taking up the clarinet in fourth grade, he became first chair and section leader in his high school band. He also joined a steel band—a group of musicians who play steel pans tuned to various pitches.
“Steel band is our thing,” Luben said. “It represents all things Caribbean.”
His clarinet and steel-band gigs took him on melodious journeys to venues as far away as Argentina and the United States. Though performing resonated with him, Luben decided his musical future lay in teaching.
“It wasn’t a popular decision,” he said. “People told me, ‘With your talent, you could play in a big-time orchestra for big-time money.’ But without a school music program, I wouldn’t have discovered the fulfillment music brings. As a teacher, I could introduce that joy to others.” Luben set his sights on the music education program at IC. “A friend went there, and his musicianship skyrocketed. I wanted that.”
Luben traveled 1,600 miles to IC to focus on the clarinet but was surprised to find a slice of home on campus in the School of Music’s steel band. “I never expected to find one in Ithaca,” he said. “For my senior recital, I composed a work for the ensemble. The rehearsals were a joy for us all.
Something else unexpected happened his senior year. A teacher from his high school called. The band director was retiring. Would Luben be interested in the position?
“Going back home and teaching was all I’d ever wanted,” Luben said. “I never thought it would happen that quickly, because it’s rare for new graduates to find teaching positions at their high school alma maters.”
But Luben wasn’t scheduled to graduate in time to take the offer.
“Luben told me that spring that he’d just been offered his dream job and wondered what we could do to help him complete his degree earlier than he’d planned,” said Keith Kaiser, chair of music education. “A lot of people worked hard to make that happen—including Luben. He’s now back home, improving music education in the Virgin Islands.”
“Ithaca College redefined my comfort zone,” Luben said. “I discovered my strengths and weaknesses and how to confront them. Now I’ll be sharing how that growth process works with my students.”
>> More on this story: IC Steel Band
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