Beauty Intolerable: How an EM Grant Helped An NEC Vocal Performance Student Produce a Concert Celebrating Womanhood

When Vocal Performance major Anna Poltronieri Tang 25 first heard Beauty Intolerable set to the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, its messages about womanhood profoundly impacted her. It was 2021, and she was at SongFest, where American composer Sheila Silver performed her songbook inspired by St. Vincent Millay’s poetry.

Anna Poltronieri Tang ’25

“The poems are all about what it means to be a woman and the preconceptions that people have about women — how we might differ from them or how we might be the same, and either way is okay,” Anna said of the poetry, which she read in the SongFest program before even hearing Silver's songs. 

“I was moved, especially by one poem called An Ancient Gesture,” said Anna. “It was poetry that I could relate to, but I didn’t know how to put that feeling into words because I was still only 18 at the time.” 

Anna's immediate admiration for St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and Silver’s music spurred a desire to create something of her own, inspired by the art of these two women. Two years later, as an NEC student, she made it happen.

This November, with support from NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship (EM) office, Anna self-produced a performance of Beauty Intolerable featuring her peers in NEC’s voice department and faculty member Tanya Blaich. The performance doubled as a fundraiser, with audience members encouraged to give what they could to support Women’s Lunch Place, a Boston shelter for women experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. 

“I thought it was important to sing these songs that discuss complex topics that don’t get talked about that much in regards to women, like our sexual desires, our complicated relationships, being more than just one surface-level thing,” Anna explained. “That was inspiring to me, and I wanted to use it as a fundraiser for the Women’s Lunch Place because I thought it was a great cause and made perfect sense with what the song cycle is about.” 

Though Anna first had the idea of staging a production of Beauty Intolerable from the moment she saw the performance at SongFest, an email from NEC's EM office set things in motion. The EM office provides students and alumni with different pathways for professional development, including opportunities to fund and incubate their creative projects, like Beauty Intolerable. The email Anna received last spring advertised the EM Grant, a grant of up to $1,500 available to students looking to bring a creative project to life. She decided to apply.

“EM Grants are the perfect opportunity for students to test out an idea that they feel really passionate about,” said Ryan Mewhorter, NEC’s EM Program Manager. “In addition to the funding that this grant offers, the structure and consulting with EM staff that comes with it ensures a student feels empowered and that their project achieves the goals they set out to accomplish. Many of these student projects set them on a path for what they want to do in the future.”

In her EM grant application, Anna needed to present a project timeline, budget, and production plan. “They want you to have a solid plan and foundation of what you’re considering doing before you get the grant,” she explained. After submitting her application, Mewhorter invited her to deliver a 3-minute elevator pitch in front of a panel of NEC faculty and staff during the final round of consideration.

Despite the nerves she felt standing at the front of the room (“I had everything I wanted to say planned out on cue cards, but I didn’t use them because I was so nervous,” she described), Anna successfully delivered her pitch. Her idea for Beauty Intolerable impressed the panel members, and she received another email a few days later alerting her that she was an official EM Grant recipient. “It was nice to see the amount of work that I put into the presentation and my application come to fruition,” she said. With the EM grant secured, the planning process for Beauty Intolerable officially began. 

As Anna set to work, she contacted composer Sheila Silver to request permission to perform her songs. To her surprise and delight, Silver quickly replied, offering much more than just her permission: “She responded and said, ‘Okay, great. Let me know if I can do anything. I will be in Boston on these days if you want me to come and coach.’” Anna was thrilled to accept this generous offer — one she was not anticipating. Silver journeyed to NEC’s campus for two days to give one-on-one coachings and masterclasses to all of the performers, Anna’s fellow students in NEC’s voice department.

“It was way more than I ever expected,” said Anna. “When she came and gave us coachings and masterclasses, it was exciting because we got to experience the ‘composing brain’ of what we were singing. For example, we would be singing one way, and she’d say, ‘Oh no, I wrote it like this so that you would sing it like this,’ or ‘I’m going to change this dynamic because that’s not what I’m envisioning in my head.’ So that was cool because she was, in a way, workshopping with us.” 

Anna also conducted a one-on-one interview with Silver to dive deeper into the Beauty Intolerable songbook and hear from the composer herself about her views on St. Vincent Millay’s poetry and what she was thinking when she composed the song cycle:

Another significant supporter of Anna’s production of Beauty Intolerable was Tanya Blaich, a voice and collaborative piano department faculty member at NEC. Blaich was then Anna’s diction teacher and is now her repertoire teacher. “I asked her, thinking she would say no, not because she wouldn’t want to do it, but because she’s incredibly busy,” said Anna. “But she said something like, ‘Oh my gosh, I was just listening to those songs last night!’ I thought it was meant to be.” 

Blaich, who accompanied the singers on piano at the performance, met with them for weekly coachings. “It was really nice as a singer to have such a giving coach,” said Anna. “We got to work on artistic things, less technical stuff. It was interesting and fun to develop these subtexts with Tanya because she’s very smart and artistic in that way.” 

Throughout the production and rehearsal process for Beauty Intolerable, the EM department would check in with Anna regularly to ensure things were on track and going according to plan. “It was nice to have someone there to reassure me and get feedback,” Anna explained. “I would give Ryan an idea of what I wanted to do, and he would give suggestions,” she continued, citing his idea to advertise beyond the NEC student body to reach potential audience members who may be more equipped to donate to the Women’s Lunch Place fundraiser. “I hadn’t thought about that. It was helpful to get another voice.” 

On Saturday, November 4, after several months of planning and rehearsals, a crowd gathered at NEC’s Brown Hall for the final performance of Anna’s production of Beauty Intolerable

“I was so nervous that day. It only hit me at 7 pm that we were really doing the concert at 8,” Anna described. Despite her pre-concert anxiety, she stood confidently in front of the audience, explaining her appreciation for the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and her connection to Sheila Silver’s songbook and expressing her gratitude for Silver’s involvement in the production process. “I had no idea that when I first proposed this concert that Sheila would be such a strong supporter of our production,” Anna told the audience. “I can’t express how exciting her involvement was for all of us, and her support of this production is more than we could have hoped for.”

Nicole Kosar, Events & Outreach Officer for Women’s Lunch Place, delivered a short speech ahead of the performance, describing the organization’s mission of supporting the development of self-sustaining skills for women experiencing hunger, homelessness, and poverty and alerting the audience to where their donations would go. Then, Anna, Tanya Blaich, and a talented group of singers, including Aislin Alancheril ’25, Yoomin Kang ’25, Molly Knight ’25, Hannah Miller ’25, Lucia Palladino, and Yumeng Xing ’26, took the spotlight, performing 14 songs from Silver’s Beauty Intolerable

“It was so surreal. It was nice to feel that the audience was watching this moment of my classmates and I creating art that we love, and all for a good cause,” Anna described. “I think the singers, Tanya, and I brought something new to the performance that had not been there during rehearsals. It was great to have one last celebration of singing these songs together.”

Reflecting on the start-to-finish production process for Beauty Intolerable, Anna expressed how much she has learned about the countless factors that go into planning a concert. “It was a great experience to have that first toe dip into this huge pool with the support of NEC, the EM office, and Tanya to catch me if I slipped up a bit. It was like a first step towards being a more well-rounded musician.” 

Looking ahead, Anna hopes to continue studying and performing as frequently as possible. “I want to sing rep that is interesting to me and reflects important values, and I also want to expose people to rep they might not know.” She described a kind email from an audience member after Beauty Intolerable explaining how the performance was their first exposure to these songs and how engaging and interesting they found them. “Spreading this music to others who also have a passion for it is very important to me.” 

Are you an NEC student interested in applying for an EM Grant to fund your creative project? Learn more here. 

To donate to Women's Lunch Place, click here.

It was a great experience to have that first toe dip into this huge pool with the support of NEC, the EM office, and Tanya to catch me if I slipped up a bit. It was like a first step towards being a more well-rounded musician.
Anna Poltronieri Tang ’25