Growing up outside of Boston, composer Allan Naplan was steeped in Jewish music. “Every Sunday morning, my family sat around eating bagels and listening to Jewish music, and that was my world,” he says. “It was that and classical music because my mom was a music teacher, but at a Jewish day school.”
Naplan, a former opera singer, recently moved to the Valley to become executive director of Arizona Musicfest, a six-week festival staged in February and March that incorporates classical, jazz, pop, blues and folk music. He will also be taking on a musical role at Temple Chai, where he and his young family are members, leading 11 Shabbat services and participating during High Holiday services. Most recently, Naplan served as president and general manager of Minnesota Opera and has held administrative positions with Houston Grand Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and Madison Opera.
In high school, while others were penning “bad pop songs,” Naplan was writing musical settings for Jewish prayers. “That was fun for me, and it really was strictly fun. I didn’t think it was going anywhere,” he says.
Then, during his junior year in college, pursuing two degrees – in voice performance and music education – Naplan visited a music store in search of Jewish sheet music. He came across a “cheesy, stereotypical” piece for schoolchildren about Hanukkah that included various inaccuracies and was probably written by an uninformed non-Jewish composer, Naplan says. This spurred him into action.
Using his rich vocabulary of Jewish music and music education background, Naplan wrote a version of the prayer “Hine Ma Tov” that was picked up by Boosey & Hawkes, a leading secular music publisher that has published the likes of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland.
“From there, it just took off,” Naplan says.
A two-time winner of the Guild of Temple Musicians Young Composers Award, Naplan has written choral music that has been sung by children’s choirs and other choral ensembles in more than 30 countries. “I’ve enjoyed a really wonderful career,” he says. Naplan’s music has been played and performed in some unusual places, including the White House and aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia.
In 2002, while serving as artist-in-residence at Congregation Beth Yeshrun in Houston, Naplan was commissioned by the Texas All-State Honor Choir to write a song. Inspired by the feeling of unity and brotherhood that Americans experienced after the 9/11 tragedy, Naplan took two patriotic tunes – “The Star Spangled Banner” and “America the Beautiful” – and brought them together to form “American Anthem.” The commander of the Space Shuttle Columbia had a daughter in the Texas All-State Choir and heard her practicing “American Anthem.” He contacted Naplan and told him he wanted “American Anthem” to be the first wake-up song for the astronauts. “It also turned out to be the mission that Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut was on,” Naplan says. “So my piece woke up the astronauts on their first morning in orbit. It was amazing, and of course, this was the tragic space shuttle that never came home.”
Since then, “American Anthem” has been performed by orchestras and choruses around the country, he says.
Now settled in Phoenix, Naplan looks forward to next year’s Arizona Musicfest, which will include Jewish pianist Jonathan Biss, who according to Naplan is one of the world’s great, young concert pianists; and Israeli pianist Tamir Hendelman, who will perform with the Jeff Harris Trio.
The rest of the year, Naplan will promote Musicfest’s educational and scholarship programs and participate in Temple Chai’s music program.
Naplan also enjoyed a successful 20-year career as a professional opera singer, but didn’t like the on-the-road lifestyle and lack of job security. “I loved it as a 20-something (he’s now 41), but I knew this was not going to be a responsible or healthy type of career to have a family,” he says. “It was a very robust seven years.” Naplan’s wife, Christina, is also a retired opera singer. They have two young sons.