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Music Graduate Student Mikeila McQueston Studies Privately with World-Renowned Composer in Exclusive Program

Music Graduate Student Mikeila McQueston Studies Privately with World-Renowned Composer in Exclusive Program

Mikeila McQueston, a graduate student in the UT School of Music studying vocal performance and composition, is a rising star. This time last year, she was recognized with second place in the American Prize for student composition in choral works. This year, she has again placed second – this time for student composition in opera – and gained the opportunity of a lifetime to study under an internationally recognized composer.


Kaija Saariaho, a Finnish award-winning composer whom the BBC recently named as the greatest living composer, is leading this year’s masterclass at the Uuden Musiikin Lokakuu (Ostrobothnian Contemporary Music Festival) in Oulu, Finland. Only four active composers are accepted into the program each year, and McQueston is the only American in this year’s cohort. As part of this highly exclusive program, in addition to studying privately with Saariaho, one of McQueston’s pieces received its world premiere through the Kaaos Ensemble at the festival itself.


“Working with Ms. Saariaho has been such a positive experience,” she said. “She’s taught us about her use of harmonic language, orchestration, and temporality, but she also wants us to find our own unique voices and explore many different sound possibilities.”


Hailing from Peachtree City, Georgia, McQueston is a distinguished scholar and composer. In 2022, she received her Carnegie Hall debut and was named a Dominick Argento Fellow in Opera Composition by the National Opera Association. She has also been named a Presser Scholar and a Herman E. Spivey Humanities Graduate Fellow.


The honor of being named one of four composers for Saariaho’s master class comes at an especially fitting time, right on the heels of two high placements in the American Prize for student composition. Her most recent placing composition, Aurelia, is a one-act opera inspired by isolation during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The eponymous character has had no contact with her family for the past three years, but now will be playing the harp at her brother’s wedding ceremony. The story uses humor and reflection to investigate the protagonist’s deeper reasons for eschewing both her instrument and contact with her family. Over the course of the opera, McQueston incorporates several musical styles, including musical theatre and cabaret, invoking musical exploration alongside the character’s introspection.


“I kept coming back to this poem called ‘The Jellyfish’ by Marianne Moore, which is the opening song of the show, and has this constant back and forth as if somebody couldn’t make up their mind,” she said. “I based a character off of this idea, and then wrote several monologues from her perspective, just trying to understand why she was that way.”


In addition to her composition accolades, McQueston has also been praised for her “impressive lyrical vocal strength” (Arts Knoxville) and has performed a number of operatic roles, including Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro and Pamina in Die Zauberflöte. You can experience her voice in an upcoming UT Opera Theatre / Knoxville Opera co-production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow November 4 and 6 at the Tennessee Theatre. Tickets can be purchased from the Knoxville Opera website.


Photo by Franklin Green

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