Vermillion man pursues endless passion for music

Vermillion man pursues endless passion for music
Renowned tenor Scott Piper could live and work anywhere in the world � but he calls Vermillion home.

He performed Jan. 20 at The University of South Dakota with USD faculty members at Colton Recital Hall on the USD campus. His appearance was part of the Aiello/Torkelson Scholarship Fund Benefit Concert.

Piper also performed at Mount Marty College in Yankton and will perform March 3 at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls.


The "home stand" offers him a break from his globe-trotting life as he pursues his passion for music. At age 35, Piper was mentioned in a national article among suitable replacements for the world-famous "Three Tenors" � Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti.

Piper has already performed in Russia, China, Europe, Israel and Central and South America, as well as across the United States. So with the world as his oyster, why does he choose to live in a small Midwest college town?

Piper sums it up in one word: Family.

"My family has many friends here and a great quality of life," he said. "My children can grow up safely. The community encourages them, and people watch out for each other. It's the quality of life available in the Midwest."

Piper and his wife, Teresa, were looking for the ideal place four years ago to continue her college teaching career and to raise their children. The family now includes sons Miguel, 9, and Mateo, 8, and daughter Sofia, 9 months.

The Pipers share Latin American roots. Teresa was born in Mexico and teaches Spanish at USD. Scott's mother is Costa Rican, and he has performed in that nation.

In a surprise move to many observers, the Pipers preferred a small Midwest town rather than cities on either coast. Scott Piper said he wanted a quality of life similar to his own upbringing as the son of Truman State professors in Kirksville, MO. When the Pipers looked at possible hometowns, Vermillion rose immediately to the top, Scott said. The choice was a good one, he said.

"I'm a Midwest boy. I went to school at a small town, smaller than Yankton. I went to a small parochial school and a small high school with about 120 in my graduating class," he said. "Growing up in Missouri, I could take a bike ride wherever I wanted to go. If I was out of line, a neighbor would take care of me."

While Piper could live closer to major performance centers, he said the relocation to the Midwest hasn't harmed his opera career. Piper auditions and performs around the world rather than works for just one opera company, so he would travel extensively regardless of where his family lives, he said.

"I spend more time traveling, but for our quality of life, I am content with this," he said. "My office manager, Anna Archulete, calls me from New York City. She is wonderful."

Piper admits his frequent-flier miles likely go off the chart.

"The worst year for me was when I was home only five weeks � and that wasn't five weeks all at the same time. It was a couple days here and there," he said.

But traveling is part of the performance lifestyle, he noted.

"You must be able to handle time zones, cultures and airplanes," he said. "Your body must deal with everything. It's taxing. You can't get sick. People say, how exciting, but it's stressful." Piper said he spends a great deal of time translating and analyzing music.

"You deal with it intellectually and emotionally. It appears as music to your eyes, and you have to give it heart and soul."

He knew he wanted to sing since the time he viewed a copy of the video Carmen � the name of his favorite aunt � when he was about 12 years old.

"I forgot it was opera. It was strange but cool," he said. "There was a singer named Placido Domingo. I liked his songs and other things of his."

Piper's mother encouraged his musical interests, and he earned his bachelor's degree at Truman State and his master's degree at the University of Michigan. While a University of Michigan doctoral student, Piper emerged from about 30 young vocalists to win the William C. Byrd Young Artist Competition. He has sung with opera companies, usually in major roles and typically getting good reviews.

One review noted Piper "has a rich, resonate voice and a heady sex appeal" � the latter comment catching him off guard.

"It's endearing, it's shocking, and it's not deserved. It's winter, and it's like I'm hibernating. I put on weight and I'm not at my top form," he said, laughing. "But there is a specific look and energy for the role."

Piper admits he does aspire to step into the shoes of "The Three Tenors" but considers the reference in the article "a huge compliment."

Besides finding the ideal quality of life for his family, moving to Vermillion has provided an unexpected boost to Piper's career. While performing at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls, he met Frank and Judy Aiello. Frank studied as a tenor in New York City before teaching voice at USD. Frank retired from USD, but he and Judy now teach at Mount Marty.

The Aiellos, who live on a small farmstead near Volin, offer a gold mine of musical experience and support, Piper said. The Aiellos helped Piper prepare for his MMC concert, with Judy accompanying him last Sunday. The Aiellos also worked with him for the USD concert.

"It's not often you find a tenor, and Frank has taught me with his experience and passion for learning. We think, ask questions and debate points, like ?How was this made better?' and ?How can we make it better?'" Piper said. "And Judy has been so supportive. She is an extra set of ears, and she intermingles with us. The Aiellos provide that honesty, and they are so down to earth. There is no sense of pretension with them."

Besides their technical expertise, the Aiellos understand the rigors of a professional music career, Piper said.

"In this business, it's not often a couple are able to weather the storms of creativity and what that world engenders," he said. "This life is difficult. It promotes a lot of self-doubt and confusion. You delve into things that aren't concrete. You see a piece of a page and you bring it to life."

The Aiellos are generous with their time, inviting him to their home near Marindahl Lake not only for singing but for fellowship, Piper said.

"In New York City, you have one hour (for a lesson) and then it's out the door," he said. "The Aiellos do it the old-school way. When I first arrive at their home, they'll often have me sit down for a cup of tea."

Judy Aiello said she and her husband are happy to help the world-renowned tenor.

"Scott was flying to New York for lessons, but he needed someone to coach him and help with lessons while he was here in South Dakota," Judy said. "He asked if we would hear him sing a few lessons, and we said, sure. Professional singers need that support."

Piper shows a tremendous work ethic and usually devotes at least eight hours a day to his music, Judy said.

"Scott has his own little studio at home. He studies and listens to music. When it comes to opera, he is very passionate," she said. "He is a fun guy in other ways, too. He looks forward to fishing, and he is buying a motorcycle (which he plans to ride to concerts around the nation)."

Judy tried to compare Piper's style to other performers. Piper has the voice of Tony Bennett, the audience interaction of Kenny Rogers and similarities to Josh Grobin, she said.

"It's just fun to see a hard-working young man give his music to the masses. He engages the audience, and he gets a response from them. It's more than a concert," Judy said. "When I saw him the first time, he was a person the audience fell in love with immediately. They gave him cheers and bravos. The audience was exuberant."

Sunday's concert came about when Frank Aiello asked Piper if he would perform for MMC students � which in turn turned into an invitation to give a recital.

"I can't believe what Scott has learned (for the concerts) since he came back from Russia and China on Dec. 10. He has learned 1 1/2 hours of music and memorized it all. It's faster than anything I have seen," Judy said. "I think he is very entertaining and relaxing. He is very casual in his manner. Mike Hilson, who (accompanied) him, asked if he wanted tails and tux � and Scott said, no way, no tie."

Piper said the MMC recital was planned as a casual affair featuring Italian love songs in the first half and American love songs � including Broadway numbers � during the second half.

"Song recitals are going by the wayside. There are the fine details, the subtleties, the energy only discovered in a live performance," he said. "For this concert, there (was) no amplification of my voice or the piano."

As he warmed up with the scales during a practice, Piper filled Marian Auditorium on the MMC campus with a vibrancy reaching the soul of his small audience. He walked around the stage, closing his eyes as he perfectly hit notes in deep concentration.

"That was a really nice crescendo and decrescendo. Go with how it feels," Frank Aiello said from the audience.

As he completed When I Fall In Love, Piper smiled with satisfaction at the front of the stage.

"It's cool hearing the sound bounce off the back (of the auditorium)," he said.

Piper emphasized audience interaction so much at the MMC recital that he positioned pianist Judy Aiello so her back was not to the audience.

"For the recital, I would have people come to my house if it was big enough. We would have you in our living room," Piper said. "I want you to feel an intimate, relaxed and casual personal relationship to the music and us on stage."

Piper said he seeks to build a performer-audience bond during his performances.

"Why do you go to a live concert? Because you love the unplugged relationship with the music. There is the indescribable energy," he said. "And is it possible without an audience? It's like a tree falling in the woods. If a tenor sings alone, at what point is it entertainment?"

Piper noted his music has become somewhat of a religious experience for him, showing his purpose on earth.

"This is part of my spiritual quest and connection to God," he said.

His musical journey continues when he travels to Seattle next month. Among his other 2006 appearances, he has been invited to perform in Lincoln Center for the New York City Opera in a production of Carmen. For now, though, he remains focused on his upcoming local concerts. He said he has been impressed so far with the response, often through word of mouth.

"It speaks volumes about the quality of life here," he said. "I hope people come and see this show."

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