Pick Up Your Q: Percussionist Michael Cebulski

How long have you been with The Atlanta Opera?

Since the late 1970s. There have been several reincarnations. The stability of the last 20 years has been a great blessing to the city, as well as patrons and practitioners of this art form.

At what age did you know that you wanted to be a percussionist, and how did that come about?

I began playing drums in the third grade. My parents, on limited income, were visionaries in having all of their children (8) study a musical instrument until the eighth grade, then longer if desired. School band programs and directors, music/percussion as my 4-H project area, private study with Jack Bell (then principle percussionist of the Atlanta Symphony), all fueled my interests in both the details of percussion study and the social interactions they afforded me. I was midway through a music education degree at Georgia State University when I “won” my first professional audition – to play as an extra with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra – and was then hooked.

As a percussionist, where do you feel you will have a particularly important role in creating the experience of the new season?

Especially as principle percussionist with the opera, I have the opportunity and responsibility of organizing the music and the percussion players. I am blessed that colleagues John Lawless, and often Jeff Kershner and Karen Hunt, share the same enthusiasm for presenting the percussion aspects of opera at the highest levels. Opera is also unique in that the “stagecraft” of a production is often written into the percussion parts.
For example, last year, my brother Steve helped me build a beautiful reproduction of a Turkish Crescent (played by Jeff Kershner) for L’Italienne en Algiers. This season, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly includes “exotic” tuned gongs, a Japanese carillon (which I made years ago), and some other special sound effects. We do this in order to present a “world class” experience for our patrons.

If you could give one piece of advice for someone starting out in music performance, what would it be?

I’ve taught all levels of percussion from elementary private students through college graduates and post-college. I get a thrill working with anyone who strives to improve. Going into performance as a career or serious study comes about many years after one’s connection with the love of studying the instrument.
Two main pieces of advice: study with the best teachers you can, and try to put yourself into situations that will help you grow and improve. These situations will also probably force you to become flexible in new ways. A career in music, especially music performance, is rarely a straight path; so flexibility and adaptability are important along with the foundational basics of your instrument(s).

What will a patron coming to the opera this season experience?

I became familiar with opera through my performing career. Listening to excerpts in music school, etc. did not really impact me as much as being a part of the live performance of the art. I hope that enthusiasm and dedication to high artistry in all areas of opera reach our patrons. More importantly, I trust that audiences will enjoy themselves immensely and experience the wide range of emotion and drama presented through opera. Most of the entertainment we enjoy — movies, theater, television, even popular music — strive for the same emotional impact of great opera.
It is hard to match the energy of so many singers, instrumentalists, stage crew and directors that each work to bring their best every night.

Favorite opera and why?

From the operas which we have performed, from a sheer musical experience, it is hard to outdo Puccini. What glorious, heavenly melodies he writes. From a technical standpoint, it was very gratifying to render such performances of The Golden Ticket, which at times seemed almost like a percussion concerto!

Favorite Atlanta restaurant and why?

I must admit most of my restaurant experiences are rather pedestrian as I do not often go out to fine restaurants. I actually get a big kick when my small gardens provide most of my vegetables, etc. for some healthy home-cooked meals.

What’s the last show you saw on stage in Atlanta?

I thoroughly enjoyed the Atlanta Ballet’s production of MAYhem and was blessed to witness the farewell pas-de-deux by Christine Winkler and her husband John Welker.

What’s your favorite thing about Atlanta audiences?

I love that Atlanta audiences LOVE their live music. Whether opera, ballet, theater or symphony, Atlanta does treasure its musicians. Audiences cross over more than many realize. Currently, some of the most dedicated ballet and opera patrons were people I met at shows when I played with an indie rock band! So, patrons can be much more flexible in what they experience.