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Staffer Summons Satan for Starring Role

Pitt staff member Scott O’Neal typically works behind the scenes, supporting University research as a project manager in the Graduate School of Public Health’s Epidemiology Data Center.

Recently he took center stage to sing the title role in the world premiere of “Satan’s Fall,” composed by Stewart Copeland, founder of the iconic New Wave band The Police. 

The metal opera, based on John Milton’s classic “Paradise Lost,” was co-commissioned by the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, where O’Neal sings bass as part of the group’s professional core. It premiered in Pittsburgh on Feb. 7.

“This says a lot about the organization, music director and singers that we’re willing and able to take on crazy projects like this. There are exciting things happening in classical—and classical adjacent—music, and it’s very rewarding to be part of it,” O’Neal said.

It was through a 2016 performance of Copeland’s concerto “Tyrant’s Crush,” commissioned by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, that the Los Angeles-based composer connected with the choir.

“Satan’s Fall” is told by God, Satan, the Messiah, two narrating archangels and a handful of angels in solo roles. Replete with references to infernal noise and obeisance to none, the sound is majestic, dissonant and loud, powered by a 15-piece orchestra and a choir of more than 70 who react to the tale of the epic battle in heaven with a rollercoaster of vocal howls and hisses as the rebellious angel and his followers are cast down to Hell. 

“It’s what you’d imagine classical music written by a rock drummer would sound like…crashing chords and insane rhythms,” O’Neal said.

Satan’s vocals are unsettling by design. “It’s a bass role but at the high end of the range, which creates an unnatural sound,” O’Neal said. “The focus is getting the story across,” not only with musical precision but with emotional impact as well. 

The composer himself was among the first to react. “It’s just overwhelming,” Copeland told the performers at the Feb. 6 dress rehearsal where he heard the entire piece performed with choir and orchestra for the first time. Contrasting the experience with the process of writing at home alone, he said, “Rewarding doesn’t do justice to it.” 

Summoning Satan

How to portray the adversary of the creator of the universe was left largely to his own imagination, O’Neal said. 

He drew inspiration from “Dr. Who” villains and metal rocker Devin Townsend’s extraterrestrial persona, Ziltoid the Omniscient, to create a piercing, otherworldly tone. 

He perfected prideful sneers, snarls and clawing gestures to convey the story: While heaven rejoiced when God announced that he had begotten a Messiah, “Not so pleased was Satan,” they sing. 

A bright red shirt and a touch of eyeliner augmented the sinister countenance.

Looking back on the performance, O’Neal said, “It hits me every so often that I just originated a role in a world premiere by a famous musician. 

“I’m always happy to be a choral singer, but I’m not going to lie: being in a more prominent role was a rush. 

“Plus, what’s more fun than getting to cut loose as Satan?”

A chorus of voices from Pitt

Concertgoers may recognize many familiar faces from the talented Pitt community on stage with the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. 

In addition to Scott O’Neal, the choir includes Pitt staffers Matt Borkowski, Laura Kingsley and Rose Sheridan; Pitt-Greensburg faculty members Christopher Bartley and Cynthia Ortiz; graduate students Daniel Banko-Ferran and Rex Tien; and alumni Mike Thompson (ENGR ’01) and Matthew Soroka (ENGR ’81), both of whom sang with the University’s Heinz Chapel Choir as students. 

The choir’s 2019-20 season finale, The Greatest Generation: An American Oratorio, a multimedia production that combines new music with popular tunes of the World War II era, is set for May 31 at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall.

In addition to its own programming, the choir performs regularly with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (PSO) at Heinz Hall. They will sing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis on April 17 and 19. 

Selected PSO events, including the April 17 and 19 performances, are among the discounted tickets available to Pitt ID holders through the PittArts Cheap Seats program.