As a designer and musician, Camilla Tassi travels a unique and versatile path, bringing her creativity and knowledge of cutting-edge developments in projection design not only to contemporary musical works but also to early music performances. Her innovative spirit and passion for the production process of musical works as well as for cross-disciplinary collaborations have catapulted her to the forefront of a new generation of young pioneering projection designers to watch. Her artistic choices as a designer are also enriched by her experience as a coloratura soprano who has performed in opera productions. Camilla holds a BS in Computer Science and a BA in Music (with a Minor in Italian Studies) from the University of Notre Dame, and a MA in Digital Musics at Dartmouth College. She was a Research Fellow in Projection Design at the Yale School of Drama, where she is now pursuing an MFA under Wendall Harrington. She continues to sing, for the most part chorally at the moment, with the Yale Schola Cantorum.
You were born in Italy, in the magnificent city of Florence. When did you come to the United States, and have you stayed connected to your hometown and to Italy?
I moved to the U.S. in 2005. Prior to the pandemic, I would find ways to go back to Europe almost each summer – working at festivals abroad and finding time to reconnect with family in Italy. Italy, particularly Florence, is dear to my heart and has shaped so much of my sensibility, eye, and who I am today. Living in a town where you’re surrounded by buildings multiple hundreds of years old – the history, the architecture, the style, the cultural habits… It has a lasting effect on you. I am not surprised that I feel a deep connection to it, particularly towards its language, baroque architecture, and music. When moving to a country whose language you don’t speak at first, the process allows you to find even more solace in subjects that transcend language – in my case, music and mathematics.
Your career is truly versatile. Not only are you a classical singer but you are also a production and projection designer. How do you think that your knowledge and experience as a singer help you in your design work? And, in turn, how does the designer in you assist and inform your own performance on stage?
My background as a musician (piano and vocal) is central to how I approach projection design. One of my favorite things about projection is that, like lighting and sound, it is a time-based art – it is durational and evolves. Unlike a fixed set piece, it matters how it enters the space, at what speed it reveals and transitions – it is a partner to music. I often joke that I’m playing the ‘visual continuo’ and believe in supporting the performers via design. When working on projections for music, I work from a score and write in cues directly in it. It is what I use to run projections too, and that allows the musicians to be flexible with their tempi and expression. I should point out how projections and many tech fields do not involve as many women – and that is something I am passionate about bringing others to.
On the flip side, one of the joys of my time here at Yale has been the design curriculum, and how it focuses on a holistic approach. We take classes in all the other design disciplines, and there is a strong focus on dramaturgy. That shapes so much of my performing – I always think and question space, how we are positioned… It has made me that much more intentional and aware about what we perform and why.
As a projection designer, how do you approach early works like Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo,” for example? Do you try to establish any connections to past traditions of staging this opera or do you prefer to give it a totally new, modern visual aura?
It very much depends on the ensemble and collaborators I am working with and their vision! Both approaches, when informed by the piece, are incredibly rewarding. In the case of the Monteverdi L’Orfeo I did with Apollo’s Fire (a touring semi-staged project), we wished to reference the period of the piece – it included period paintings, as well as imagery/frescoes from the first venue the work was performed in. For the latter, I got a chance to go back to Italy and photograph them in Mantua for the piece’s overture/toccata.
But it is sometimes even more exciting to take the piece in a contemporary design/staging – to put it in conversation with today’s reality and society.
Please tell us about the experience of producing the interdisciplinary project and tribute to Italian author and chemist Primo Levi: “If This is a Man: music, science, and humanity.” How has Levi’s powerful, lucid, harrowing writing in his first-hand account of the horrors of Auschwitz in 1944 to 1945 shaped this project?
During my undergraduate studies I fell in love with the writings of Primo Levi, a Jewish-Italian author and chemist who survived the Nazi concentration camps. What struck me was his writing style, so profound and yet so accessible, and how, despite the horrors he experienced, he didn’t choose to blame one group of people. Rather, he focused on what brings humans to these actions. I became curious about exposing more people to his work – I wished to use music to raise that awareness and began to research composers that had set his texts to music. It was a joy to learn of compositions that have been influenced by his writings. Ultimately, I chose two sets, one by an American composer (Simon Sargon) and one by notable Italian film-music composer Ennio Morricone (he wrote an incredible little work on Levi’s “If This is a Man”) – coincidentally, I learned that we performed the U.S. premiere of that piece!
I recruited performers and got permission to have the experience be on two levels, and for it to be performed in the science hall, next to the chemistry labs. I was touched at how Levi, like me (and much more than me!), came from a science and music background and wished to uplift that. The musical experiences were interspersed with interviews I had filmed of students and how they had been touched by his work, as well as words by Levi and Dante scholar Dr. Vittorio Montemaggi. It was an unconventional performance space, and an experience where I wished to bring together a diverse audience. It still remains one of the projects dearest to me and my Italian heritage.
What do you enjoy so much about cross-disciplinary collaboration?
Cross-disciplinary collaboration forces you out of your comfort zone, pushes you to not be complacent. To me, there is nothing like collaborative and cross-disciplinary work. It feels like speaking different languages, like growing a deeper relationship with a piece. I feel like I am always learning and am continuously humbled. The people I get to meet and work with are at the heart of it – I am motivated by community and, at the core of it, I am a producer who loves to make other people’s visions a reality. To de-center the work from myself as an individual. That is part of the human experience – to grow in empathy.
You are a coloratura soprano, which requires a nimble voice with lots of agility. What have you been doing to keep yourself in good singing shape throughout the pandemic?
I used to think ‘they can take away all our budget, but they can’t take away people coming together to sing.’ Who could have imagined! I’ve continued to record from home for singing jobs, but have dearly missed real-time collaborative music-making with other performers. I am fortunate right now to have been hired to sing in-person in a small pod of eight singers here at Yale for their choral conducting graduate program. That has been a fulfilling way to get back into singing, as the voice is a muscle that needs to be exercised.
What plans do you have for 2021?
With ongoing vaccinations, I have begun to sign onto live projects, in addition to the video work I do. One of them is a week-long tour of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with projections I am creating for Apollo’s Fire this Fall. They are incredible, and I am very much looking forward to it! That being said, I am keeping busy with video design work in this period. I have just filmed and have begun editing for groups like the Washington Chorus, Princeton Festival, and animations for Les Delices (OH), not to mention an upcoming exhibit of music and visual art (Silent Fire, via Nasty Women Connecticut). Today I made a video for the jazz collective on campus. Am also in conversations with groups about designing for new compositions, one of them being a contemporary oratorio focusing on climate change. I care about valuing the work of creators whose voices have been silenced. I am so thankful to be doing a lot of work/to be helping artists – and to love what I do!
To discover more about Camilla Tassi and her work, please visit her website.
Top: Camilla Tassi, performer and projection designer in Carissimi’s “Jephte” re-imagined. Hopkins Center for the Arts, Hanover, NH. Photo by Jozh Davis
All other photos courtesy of Camilla Tassi