The Verdi Chorus is singing for silver.
On Saturday and Sunday, November 22nd and 23rd, the Verdi Chorus concludes its 25th anniversary with gala fall concert performances.
The silver anniversary is quite an accomplishment in any relationship. “Twenty-five years in the scope of any union — be it a marriage, a corporation, or certainly anything in the arts, especially an opera chorus — is a minor miracle,” Says Tom Redler, a 24-year veteran and current president of the chorus. “It’s very difficult to put together an opera chorus. People who sing opera are striving to be divas, so they don’t generally want to blend into a chorus. We don’t have that type of voice, we have the ones that sublimate, that blend.”
That’s not to say the chorus isn’t chock-full of talent.
“In opera, a lot of times it’s bigger singing,” says founding artistic and musical director Anne Marie Ketchum. “Because it’s theater and drama, each chorus member is a different character reacting to the drama. In a normal chorus, you want all the voices to sound like one voice; in opera, you want individuals to come forth. This chorus can sing full-out with big, operatic voices.”
The group wasn’t always so talented. Before becoming the enviable crew they are today, the chorus started out singing for food at The Verdi Restaurant in Santa Monica.
“One night when we were dining, [the owner] came out on stage and announced, if you loved opera and could carry a tune, tell your waiter and we’ll get back to you,” says Redler.
Ketchum, a regular at the restaurant and a music teacher at Pasadena City College, was asked to conduct the ragtag volunteer chorus.
“It wasn’t great in the beginning, but the members loved music, loved opera, and brought energy and passion,” says Ketchum. “We took anyone who wanted to join.”
So The Verdi Chorus was cooked up. The Verdi Restaurant served as not only its venue, but also its practice place. On Monday nights, when the restaurant was dark, the group would practice, snacking on the leftover wine and food the owner left out for them.
“Man, did we have great breaks,” recalls Redler.
When the restaurant closed its doors in 1991, the chorus was at a crossroads. Faced with the frightening thought of not being able to sing, the members decided to continue, formed a non-profit organization, and asked Ketchum to stay on as the artistic and musical director.
They stopped taking all comers, started holding auditions, and began to hone their sound.
“Finally Anne Marie told us we were good enough that people don’t need food to come see us,” says Redler.
Today, the chorus numbers over 50 talented, powerful voices. Where before, Ketchum might have been wary of selecting some of the more difficult numbers, now she includes very complex pieces in a repertoire that features more than 200 operatic choruses.
“It’s a joy to me to have it that wide open,” says Ketchum.
This month’s program features such complexity. The chorus will perform dramatic scenes from Verdi’s A‘da and Otello and works from Boito’s Mefistofele.
The show also includes four professional guest soloists. Soprano Shana Blake Hill sings the heart-rending Willow Song from the final act of Otello. Mezzo-soprano Cynthia Jansen plays the role of Amneris in The Judgment Scene from A‘da. Tenor Robert McNeil sings Celeste A‘da, and bass Dean Elzinga, as the devil, performs Ave Signor from the Prologue of Boito’s Mefistofele.
“I always get wonderful comments back from the soloists, who always say, ‘Please, call me anytime,” says Ketchum. Indeed, three of the four soloists previously sang with the choir. It’s quite a privilege to bring back such incredible voices, but also friends from the past, which is what you do for an anniversary.”
Bravo, Anne Marie! Bravo!
The concerts are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 22nd, and 4 p.m. Sunday, November 23rd, at the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, 1008 11th St., Santa Monica.
There is free parking and a buffet.
General admission is $30; seniors, $25; students, $10; limited reserved seating, $40.
Information, (310) 826-8309, www.verdichorus.org/.