Maria Sensi Sellner

Conductor Maria Sensi Sellner’s artistry, versatility, and reputation for innovation are making her a sought-after collaborator and an impresario for the 21st century. She was the first three-time winner of the American Prize for Opera Conducting, praised as “mightily impressive”, and is a proud alum of The Dallas Opera’s Hart Institute for Women Conductors. Maria is the Artistic & General Director of Resonance Works, the genre-defying performing arts company she founded in her native Pittsburgh in 2013; co-founder and lead producer of the Decameron Opera Coalition; and a frequent cover conductor for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Her unique, artist-driven programming has been praised for its “innovative streak” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) and for bringing a “welcome infusion of sophistication and diversity” (I Care If You Listen) to Pittsburgh’s cultural landscape.

She recently has made a growing number of company debuts – including Portland Opera, Opera Ithaca, Opera Steamboat, Fargo-Moorhead Opera, Raylynmor Opera, and the University of Missouri-Kansas City – conducting her favorite mix of Verdi, bel canto, and contemporary opera repertoire.

Amidst the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, Maria has continued to collaborate and innovate – co-founding the Decameron Opera Coalition (DOC) with composer Peter Hilliard, librettist Matt Boresi, and an unprecedented partnership of nine indie opera companies from across the U.S.  The DOC imagined a new model for creating opera: one that involves radical inclusivity, shared creativity, and genuine experimentation, while also increasing accessibility and engaging new and underserved audiences for opera.  In less than two years, the coalition’s two episodic anthology projects have commissioned and produced 18 short opera films (from 29 composers and librettists), and employed nearly 200 artists from around the world, including guest artists Luca Pisaroni and Karen Slack.  2020’s Tales from a Safe Distance, inspired by Boccaccio’s Decameron, reached viewers on six continents, and was recognized with a 2020 “Freddie” Excellence in Opera Award from Fred Plotkin and WQXR New York Public Radio, OperaWire’s 2020 “Industry-Defining Moments of the Year”, Winner of ‘Best Collaboration’ from 360° of Opera®, and has been archived in the Library of Congress. “Tales” has been remounted for 2021 in the IDAGIO Global Concert Hall where it is now available for streaming.  HEROES, which premiered in October 2021, explores the meaning of heroism and profiles unsung, unconventional, or misunderstood heroes from varying eras and geographies. The DOC’s third outing, a holiday album of world premieres entitled “DOC the Halls”, will be released in December 2022.

In addition to her work with the DOC, Maria also produced a variety of digital programs for Resonance Works, and served as assistant director for concerts in the Pittsburgh Symphony’s Front Row Virtual Experience.  Resonance Works’ digital 2020-21 season included a three-part “March of the Women” series featuring works by 24 female composers, a feature-length film of “Verdi by Vegetables” by Hilliard and Boresi (the first vegetable puppet opera movie!), a virtual recital series of artist-curated programs, and a “Redux and Reunion” series revisiting past productions and reuniting the artists involved.  Since March 2020, Maria (and Brennan, her husband/tech director/quarantine pod-mate) have produced 29 (and counting) livestream premiere events and artist conversations from their living room.

Recent conducting highlights include the world premiere of  “I am a Dreamer Who No Longer Dreams” (Sosa/Jacobs) for Boston’s White Snake Projects and second production with Resonance Works, a remount of Resonance Works’ award-winning immersive production of L’elisir d’amore at Permian Basin Opera, the U.S. premiere of James MacMillan’s Gloria, and numerous regional premieres, including David Lang’s little match girl passion and Dvořák’s Rusalka. 

Previous opera and concert engagements include the Center for Contemporary Opera, Syracuse Opera, Symphoria, Akron Symphony Orchestra, Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, Boston Opera Collaborative, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, and Hubbard Hall Opera, among others. She was on the conducting team for what the New York Times called the “most inspiring feel-good performance of 2016,” the world premiere of David Lang’s “the public domain” for 1000 singers at Lincoln Center. Maria has previously held positions as Acting Music Director of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh (chorus of choice of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra), Director of the Akron Symphony Chorus, Artistic Administrator for Festival Napa Valley’s Blackburn Music Academy, Artistic Advisor for Hubbard Hall Opera, interim faculty at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Music, and Director of the Carnegie Mellon All University Orchestras for ten years.

Maria has prepared choirs for Manfred Honeck, Gerard Schwarz, Carl Topilow, and others.  Her choirs have been praised for being “strong and responsive”, and she was lauded for “really transform[ing] the Akron Symphony Chorus.” (Cleveland Classical). As Acting Music Director for the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh, she prepared the chorus for a variety of programs with the Pittsburgh Symphony, including a staged production of Bach’s St. John Passion for which the choir was hailed as “magnificent” and performing with “superb dramatic thrust” (Pittsburgh Tribune Review).

Maria holds masters degrees in conducting (studying with Robert Page), composition, and mechanical engineering from Carnegie Mellon University. She has conducted in masterclasses around the US and in the UK, including for Helmuth Rilling’s Discovery Series Concerts at the Oregon Bach Festival in 2008 and 2009.  A native of western Pennsylvania, Maria resides in Pittsburgh with her husband, Brennan, and their Havanese, Lucy.

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