Led by founding artistic director Anne Marie Ketchum, the Verdi Chorus will perform their fall concert, “Ritorna Vincitori!” on Nov. 13 and 14 at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. Photo by Tim Bereth

Verdi Chorus salutes return to live music with dynamic concert

By Bridgette M. Redman

The Verdi Chorus celebrates a return to live performance not with their usual themed program, but with a collection of music that founding artistic director Anne Marie Ketchum really loves — pieces that she wanted to work on and some having to do with what everyone has been through since the chorus last performed live.

The chorus, which focuses primarily on the dramatic and diverse music for opera choruses, will perform their fall concert, “Ritorna Vincitori!” on Nov. 13 and 14 at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica. Now in their 38th season, the Verdi Chorus will perform selections from Verdi’s “Aida,” Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Boito’s “Mefistofele,” Bizet’s “Carmen,” and Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.”

The concert will open with the grand march from “Aida,” created by the composer from which they draw their name.

“I wanted to start with a bang — opera is back,” Ketchum said.

They will then move to several other pieces from “Aida,” including a prayer and the ending scene where Aida and Radames are locked in a tomb, something Ketchum described as a gorgeous Verdi melody.
Recognizing that so many people have had losses in this past year, she then chose to do a set which is a reflective, meditative moment.

“It’s just to kind of remember what has been lost in terms of everything — in terms of lives, in terms of personal connection, in terms of money — people have lost their livelihoods. It has been difficult in so many ways,” Ketchum said. “So many people have felt this in pretty profound ways.”

They’ll do a “Dido and Aeneas” piece, the very last chorus from Purcell. Dido has passed and she’s lying with all her friends and court around her. They invite the angels to come surround her. Then the chorus will segue into the humming chorus from “Madame Butterfly.”

“Those two pieces are in the same key,” Ketchum said. “One is from a very early period and one from a Romantic period. They fit together so beautifully. They are both quiet, reflective and thoughtful. It’s sort of my way of doing a moment of silence, but instead a moment of beautiful opera.”

They’ll close the first half with a set from Boito’s “Mefistofele.” Boito was a contemporary of Verdi, someone who was a librettist for several of Verdi’s operas. He also wrote his own opera on the story of Faust. The chorus will be performing the witches’ chorus, which Ketchum described as being a very wild piece, having a million words and a lot of nonsense. They will then close with the final number in the opera.

“All of the voices of humanity come together in the last scene in this one glorious melody and then end on a unison — a very powerful unison overcoming the evil of Mefistofele,” Ketchum said. “It seemed to be exactly the right thing to say. That’s what we’re doing all over the world. We’re figuring this thing out and how to overcome it and we’re succeeding. I found it to be really meaningful and powerful.”

The second half opens with several excerpts from “Carmen” for two reasons. One, Ketchum asks how can you not love all that music from “Carmen?” And two, because she had the perfect soloist.

“Audrey Babcock is the perfect soloist, a mezzo soprano,” Ketchum said. “She’s known for her ‘Carmen.’ She’s a wild one. She has this glorious voice and is all over the place.”

They will end with ‘Toreador,’ which Ketchum described as fun and marvelous theater.

“That will be sung by Roberto Gomez, our baritone,” Ketchum said. “I don’t think anyone sings it quite like him.”

Program features four guest soloists

The Verdi chorus welcomes soloists who can provide those memorable solo moments from opera. The soloists for this concert are soprano Shana Blake Hill, Babcock, tenor Alex Boyer and Gomez. Hill has sung with the Verdi Chorus many times.

“She sings all over the place, but she is perfect for this repertoire,” Ketchum said. “She’s a wonderful singer. She’s a deep thinker. She’s a writer — she just wrote a historical book about her great-great grandfather who was a black physician that changed the way of black medicine. She’s an interesting character, but sings absolutely gorgeously.”

Babcock is an award-winning mezzo soprano who has been gaining attention for her commanding, powerful performances as Carmen and her dark, hypnotic portrayals of Maddalena in “Rigoletto.”
Boyer is somewhat new to Ketchum, but she described him as having a big, gorgeous voice and being a wonderful actor.

“I’m really excited to have Alex because he does the great clown’s aria from Pagliacci,” Ketchum said. “It’s very strong and there aren’t that many who can do it so I can’t program it often. It’s a great opportunity to have Alex here to do that.”

Gomez has more than 100 roles to his credit and has sung all over the United States.

“He’s one of my favorites,” Ketchum said. “He’s a wonderful actor and has a great voice who can do all kinds of things.”

All four of them have become friends of Ketchum’s, which is one reason she wanted them to perform in their first concert back after the pandemic shutdowns.

“When you work with people, you get to know them,” Ketchum said. “They’re all major talents and for this concert, I really wanted to hire people that I love. Making music with someone you really care about is pretty special.”

Chorus feels a sense of returning to normal

During the pandemic, the chorus had Zoom meetings every Monday night to work on music together. Ketchum said that while it was great to be able to still do that and nearly the entire chorus stayed with it the whole time because they needed the music and to see each other’s faces, it wasn’t the same as being together in person.

“When we finally got together for the first rehearsal, there was just this deep joy,” Ketchum said. “I can hear someone and meld my voice with this one and that one across the room. There’s nothing like it really.”
She said now that rehearsals have progressed and they’ve settled in, they’ve started feeling like normal again — they’re back and they’re comfortable. Everyone is still wearing masks, but rehearsals go as they have always gone.

“I run a pretty fast and challenging rehearsal, and everyone is really concentrating and having a great time,” Ketchum said. “There is a lot of laughter. It’s back and we’re doing what we do, feeling kind of normal.”

Verdi Chorus offers something unique to audiences

Ketchum pointed out that what the Verdi Chorus does is different from other opera companies who put on the full story with music, singing, orchestra, sets and costumes.

“What we are doing is focusing on a certain aspect of opera,” Ketchum said. “We’re doing excerpts. Normally when you go to opera, you come away remembering an aria or tenor or soprano. But do you come away thinking about the chorus? Probably not that much. We can focus on this other aspect and bring soloists in to join us. It’s a great way to see opera in a new way.”

She said it has been a wonderful gateway for people who are not as familiar with opera. Many people have told her that the Verdi Chorus introduced them to opera and they became big fans.
Ketchum repeatedly used the phrase “It’s back,” expressing her excitement about once again being able to perform live.

“Going to a live concert is so different from listening to music on YouTube or recordings, you just can’t compare the two,” Ketchum said. “You’re in a room with lots of other people and the sound is being recreated right now, moment to moment. It’s very different. You see it. You feel it.”

She pointed out that people experience live music in three ways: Intellectually, because they hear the music and compare melodies, they hear the words and understand them or focus on them in different ways. Emotionally, because it affects them whether it is silly, funny, deep, profound or about love and they connect it to their own lives. Physically, because when they’re in the room, the sound gets really powerful. They can hear the vibrations in their chest. It goes through their ears and it affects how they feel it physically.

Ketchum hopes that audiences will be as excited as she is for this opening concert of their 38th season.

“We’re just having a really beautiful time with it,” Ketchum said.

What: “Ritorna Vincitori!”
Who: The Verdi Chorus
Where: First Presbyterian
Church, 1220 2nd Street,
Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 13,
2 p.m. Nov. 14
Tickets: $40 priority seating, $30 general admission, $25 seniors, $10 students 25 and under with a valid ID