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Watertown native finds his voice in south Florida

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OGDENSBURG — Watertown native Michael W. Ross was studying music education at the Crane School of Music, Potsdam, when he changed his tune and chose a composer’s life.

“We always had to do exercises in music theory in college. I would call that composition,” he said. “I liked it, but I didn’t think I would ever do anything with it.”

After spending half of his childhood in the north country, Mr. Ross moved south — first to SUNY Purchase, then to Florida — to pursue a love of song, especially opera.

Now in Fort Lauderdale, Mr. Ross has completed and produced two operas, and is at work on two more.

Mr. Ross, the son of June Ross, Morristown, and the late Ronald “Bunny” Ross of Ogdensburg, fell in love with music as a young man.

“I was always into music, from middle school on,” he said. “It kind of developed over time. My best friend and I wrote pop songs. In terms of classical music, I never thought to do those things.”

The Rosses spent their summers on the St. Lawrence River in Morristown.

“My parents had a place, a little trailer on the river that we went to every summer,” Mr. Ross said. “That is how I got so much into the Potsdam connection.”

After graduating from high school in West Winfield, Mr. Ross enrolled at SUNY Potsdam, leaving for SUNY Purchase after his third year.

“He was studying music education because his father and I felt like he should have something to fall back on,” said Mrs. Ross, adding that she supports her son’s decision to become a composer. “Of course I’m proud of him, but I’m non-musical. I know he’s doing nice things, but I don’t understand some of them.”

After arriving in Florida, Mr. Ross, a tenor, sang in opera companies in the area while penning his first productions. His first work, “Yours Truly, Anne” is based on the life and death of Anne Frank, the German-Jewish teen who recorded her family’s experience while hiding from the Nazis, only to be captured and imprisoned in a concentration camp, where she died of typhus.

“After her diary, no one has gone beyond that, so I wanted to create what happened after that, and everything kind of snowballed,” Mr. Ross said. “I felt very comfortable with my writing.”

His second opera, “Head of Medusa,” focuses on the Greek myth’s tragic aspects.

“We always think of Medusa as a monster, but it is also a sad story,” Mr. Ross said. “She was a maiden in Athena’s temple, but was raped by Poseidon. Athena thought she did it intentionally and wanted to have her killed.”

Mr. Ross is now composing works about Harriet Tubman, who aided in the escape of hundreds of her fellow slaves before and during the Civil War, and one about the controversy surrounding the death of Matthew Sheppard, a homosexual Wyoming college student who was kidnapped, beaten and left to die in a hate crime.

“It is called ‘Not In My Town,’” Mr. Ross said. “It is kind of about him, but it also discusses the hate crimes bill that came after his death; it is really more about everyday Americans.”

Unlike most opera composers, Mr. Ross also writes the libretto, or lyrics, to his works.

“There’s not a lot of writers in South Florida, so it was kind of a ‘I need to do this because if I don’t, collaboration would have to be long distance’ decision,” he said. “I liked doing it, and I thought I was pretty good at it.”

His operas concentrate on social justice themes, but Mr. Ross said that is more coincidental to the dramatic demands of his medium.

“Anything I do, I feel like the music has to embody everything that is going on. I need the drama to be there already,” he said. “You don’t want somebody to sit there, doing nothing, to sing opera; it would be boring. I try to create as much drama and connection to the audience as possible.”

After debuting last November in Miami Beach, Mr. Ross’s “Yours Truly, Anne” will return to stage in April, while a run of “Head of Medusa” will be produced in June.

Though there are currently no plans to produce his compositions in the north country, Mr. Ross still visits each summer with his mother, entertaining friends and groups in the Ogdensburg area.

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