December 12, 2022
Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNY) alumna Michelle Cuizon’s family didn’t have the resources to pay for a performing arts school education when she was growing up in Manila, Philippines.
“I went to a Catholic school and joined the choir and that’s where I discovered how much I love music,” said Cuizon. “Later, I started classes in choral music and started singing classical as well.”
In 2016, when Cuizon turned 18, she immigrated to New York City to join her family who had settled in Woodside Queens. A few months later, Cuizon found her way to BMCC where she completed the College’s Theatre Arts program. After graduating BMCC in 2018, Cuizon attended the Dobbins Conservatory at Southeast Missouri State where she earned a Bachelors in Fine Arts.
Earlier this year, Cuizon was named a 2022-23 stage director fellow at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met), the largest classical music organization in North America.
Specifically, Cuizon is working as the Bank of America Fellowship Stage Director explained Paula Suozzi, the Executive Stage Director at the Met.
“Michelle works in conjunction with our office, and is an assistant director on some shows and works side by side with all of us who are directing revivals and assisting on new productions,” said Suozzi, who was instrumental in the creation of the stage director as well as a stage manager fellowship.
The fellowships are paid, one-year training programs. The fellows learn how to become stage directors and managers in the, often complicated, world of opera. Each fellow is afforded the opportunity to work on a number of productions throughout the year including revivals as well as new productions. Cuizon got to work on a world premiere, an opera based on author Michael Cunningham’s The Hours. She can use the experience from the Met to further her career in the years to come.
“Michelle is fantastic and has amazing energy,” said Suozzi. “She is a great addition to our team, I think we would not be here at the fourth performance of The Hours had Michelle not been in the room with us because two of our colleagues came down with Covid. Michelle and I hammered out a lot of the paper work, did the (stage) blocking and got the covers ready, she really understands music.”
Cuizon says working at the Met has been exciting and a rich learning experience.
“I left the Philippines seven years ago, and I never would have imagined I’d be working at the Metropolitan Opera,” said Cuizon. “Working at the Met seemed like such a far-fetched idea, but after my experience at BMCC, where I met all these professors and supportive classmates, where we were constantly pushing each other to do more, it left a lasting impact.”
As part of her fellowship, she gets to work on several different productions. On this particular December afternoon at the Met, she was busy with her team prepping for an upcoming production of the romantic comedy L’Lisir D’Amore.
A typical day for a fellow starts an hour so before rehearsals begin at 10:30 a.m. She and her team first check to see if anyone from the production is going to be out sick that day, then they prepare for costumes, props and other tasks. Rehearsals typically last until 5:30 p.m. Cuizon and her supervisors then spend an hour or two debriefing and after an hour or so, depending on the production, the house opens, the curtains go up and the magic of a live show set before an audience of up to 3,800 begins.
“I didn’t get to see live theatre until high school,” said Cuizon. “We took field trips to colleges that did live musical theatre, some original Filipino plays. I enjoyed pop culture, as well as film and TV musicals including Disney scores. Music inspired me.”
Once in New York City, she worked on improving her English and spent time seeing Broadway musicals such as Phantom of the Opera and later, operas such as “Rigoletto” and a few of the Giuseppe Verdi classics. She also saw the award-winning Filipino actress and singer Lea Salonga perform.
“Seeing performers like Salonga made me realize I could potentially work in this industry as well,” said Cuizon. “I also realized how much I loved New York, I wanted to be surrounded by all the arts and culture.”
When Cuizon began exploring colleges in New York, she was initially attracted to BMCC because the college is home to the Tribeca Performing Arts Center and the Theatre program.
She also appreciated the diversity of BMCC including its large population of international students.
Cuizon took her first acting class with Theatre Professor Lori Kee where she learned about monologues, scene work and how to hone other essential acting skills.
“Profesor Kee is very direct in her approach, and her work assignments were rigorous,” said Cuizon. “During her class, I began to understand what the results of the work should be, how to be more defined as an actor and follow my instincts as an artist.”
She worked on several productions during her two years at BMCC including the musical show Swipe, which was directed by Kee. Cuizon also acted in BMCC productions of The Imaginary Invalid, directed by Diane Dowling and Love is a Blue Tick Hound, directed by Professor Keith Winsted. She also worked in the production To Catch a Fox, directed and written by Professor Charles Burks.
“I wasn’t expecting that in just two years, I would gain such a solid foundation in Theatre like I did at BMCC,” said Cuizon. “The professors are also professionals in the Theatre world, they are artists both inside and outside the classroom, they bring their real-world knowledge to their classrooms.”
Cuizon has kept in touch with her BMCC professors after she had graduated. Among them, Theatre Professor Katherine Kavanagh, who was one of the college faculty members from around country who advised Souzza on the creation of the Met fellowship. Kavanagh encouraged Cuizon to keep an open mind and to apply for the position.
Over the next five years, Cuizon plans to keep working in opera or musical theatre as an assistant stage director.
“I think the arts are a reflective mirror on all of us, the arts give us hope, and music is universal,” said Cuizon. “The performing arts connect people’s hearts, it keeps us all going.”
- Michelle Cuizon immigrated from the Philippines to NYC in 2016, attended BMCC, now working at the Met
- After BMCC, Cuizon attended Dobbins Conservatory in Missouri
- Cuizon has worked on several productions including world premiere of The Hours