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Nurse has second career as a cabaret singer

Nurse has another career as a cabaret singer

Photo: Nurse has second career as a cabaret singer (Jessie Lowe)
Ellen Ciompi, of Durham, discusses her life as a nurse and a cabaret artist. She works at UNC Hospitals as a surgical nurse and is part of the team that deals vascular cardiothoracic transplants and trauma. As a cabaret artist, she does benefit performances, works as party entertainment, and uses her art to fundraise. She recently performed at a fundraising event for Haiti. She explained that being a cabaret artist involves singing, acting, improv and stand up. She also said it was about "being in the moment" and inviting the audience to join her and be involved in the show. She has been working with her pianist since 2002 and has a bachelor's and master's degree in music.

Ellen Ciompi knows the ins and outs of a hospital operating room. She also knows the words to roughly 1,000 songs.

A registered surgical nurse for UNC Hospitals with a master’s degree in music, Ciompi also performs as a cabaret artist, singing everything from Duke Ellington to Lady Gaga.

Cabaret — often mistaken for a type of burlesque performance — is actually a combination of music, acting and stand-up comedy, Ciompi said.

“You take a story that you want to tell, and you tell it through song and through whatever you say to the audience,” Ciompi said. “You go on a little journey together for an hour or so.”

Ciompi said that her experience as a nurse has influenced her cabaret performances.

“There would be days where I would work at Rex (Hospital) and I would see babies being born all day, and then end up with somebody dying,” she said.

“And I think that it’s made me a better singer, to be able to draw on those experiences.”

With a fast-paced career like nursing, Ciompi’s boss Janet Chadwick — who sings in the Durham Chorale — said music is an escape.

“There’s so much stress in the overall nursing profession that you have to have an outlet that’s totally removed from it,” Chadwick said. “Music is really a good outlet.”

When Ciompi moved from New York to North Carolina, she discovered the art of cabaret through a class at Duke called “Singing from the Heart.”

“It wasn’t about how to sing, it was about song interpretation,” she said. “I acknowledged that that was what I really loved and what I really wanted to do.”

Glenn Mehrbach, who taught the class, now performs as Ciompi’s pianist. He even helped her compose her first song, titled “Ever So Quietly,” which she wrote about her husband.

Ciompi’s daughter Laura, who works in the behavioral neuroscience department at UNC, said her mother tries to make older songs appeal to a wider audience.

“She usually does (songs) from the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, so a lot of the times I don’t know them,” Laura Ciompi said. “But it’s nice because she usually explains ‘This song was written by this person’ and ‘This is when it was popular.’”

Ellen Ciompi said that cabaret performers often break the “fourth wall,” or the separation between an actor and the audience.

“If you go to a cabaret performance and the performer sees that you are falling asleep, that performer may very well get right up in your face and say, ‘Am I boring you?’” she said.

“It’s very interactive if the person who’s performing is doing it right.”

Brian Kileff, a friend of Ellen Ciompi, said his favorite part of her performances is her interaction with the audience.

“She brings the audience into the atmosphere, the environment, the occasion and so it’s not a one-dimensional musical recital,” Kileff said. “She’s got a lovely stage personality. You feel that she’s talking to you.”

Kileff said that Ellen Ciompi’s hobby gives her a way to relieve stress.

“It’s another world that she escapes to that is her musical world,” he said.

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