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Volume 17 Issue 7 - April 2012

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CHORUS IN OPERA | BY PAULA CITRONThe One and theHere’s a riddle for you. By day they are lawyers, paramedics,marketing mavens, music students, teachers, bus drivers,office managers, dentists and various retirees. By night, theytransform themselves into gypsies, peasants, soldiers, courtesans, nuns,prisoners, factory workers, heavenly angels and the demimondaine.Who are they? And the answer is, a typical opera chorus.That they are indispensible to an opera is a given. “The chorus representsthe community or society that the principal characters inhabit,”explains stage director Tom Diamond. And Opera Hamilton choristerDorothy O’Halloran adds: “We are part of the ongoingstory. We react to the main characters. Infact, we collectively are a character in the opera.”David Fallis, music director/conductor forOpera Atelier, describes two kinds of opera choruses.“In early operas like Monteverdi’s Orfeo,’he says, “the chorus is modelled after a Greekchorus, and comments on the action. They arethe observers who interpret the story. They arean extension of the audience. In Verdi operas, onthe other hand, the chorus is very emotionallyinvolved with the main characters. They can’t beseparated away from the story itself.”This, then, begs the question — is singing in anopera chorus different from singing in a choir? The answer is apparentlyyes, although people struggle to explain the “why” of it.Sandra Horst is chorus master for both the Canadian Opera Companyand the University of Toronto Opera Division. Says Horst: “In a chorus,there’s not so much blend of sound as in a choir, which is a single unitof well-trained voices dedicated to purity of singing. An opera chorushas different ages and different kinds of voices. It’s a sound that istogether, but where the singers are still individuals. They are not alltrying to sound the same. The voices also have to be bigger to be heardabove an orchestra and fill a hall.”Opera Hamilton chorus master Peter Oleskevich agrees that thereis a huge difference between a choir and an opera chorus. “A staticchoir, in a fixed position, blends voices together to produce perfectionof sound and beauty of unity,” he says. “In an opera, you can’t haveOn our cover: Ken Watson, longtimeOpera Hamilton chorus member indress rehearsal for Barber of Seville.the same kind of blend because the chorus is scattered over the stage.It’s a different kind of sound projection. The singing is dramatic. Youwant the chorus to throw caution to the wind in their music making.”Perhaps OH chorus member Ken Watson, pictured on this issue’scover, sums up the difference best: “I regard myself as a performer,not just a singer. A chorus member has to act in costume. You haveto be comfortable on the stage.”In order to find those individual voices who can make beautiful musictogether, opera choruses hold auditions. The COC employs a professionalchorus paid at equity rates, but one that isnot full-time or tenured. COC chorus membersmust re-audition every year. The 200 or so hopefulsbring two arias with them, one in Italian, onein another language. Successful singers, most ofwhom have music degrees, are then offered contractsfor each opera. The average size of an operachorus is 40 people for standard works like Tosca.Mozart operas require only 16 to 20 singers, whileBoris Godunov needs 60, Aida clocks in at 65, andWar and Peace has a whopping 79. In the finalanalysis, Horst is looking for quality of voice andthe needs of the season’s repertoire. “The actingwill take care of itself,” she says.For Horst’s U of T opera chorus, auditions are open to the musicfaculty at large. In this case, she’s looking for students who singbeautifully in key. Explains Horst: “You can’t make up a chorusfrom the opera division alone. There are always many more women,with sopranos being the dominant vocal type. That’s not good if youneed four-part harmony. Undergrads can get a credit for being inthe opera chorus.” And as a side note, the operas performed by theGlenn Gould Professional School at the Royal Conservatory, don’t,generally, have a chorus. Explains faculty member Peter Tiefenbach:“There are only 30 students so, with such a small student body, wetend to choose operas that feature solo singers.” As a case in point,Cavalli’s La Calisto, just mounted by the school at Koerner Hall, has14 roles and no chorus.Opera Hamilton holds yearly auditions to replenish the ranks, butPhotO Peter OleskevichCanadian Opera Company Chorus inaction. Left to right: with MichaelSchade as Oedipus in Oedipus Rex withSymphony of Psalms, 2002; in a scenefrom Aida, 2010; with Tamara Wilsonas Elettra in Idomeneo, 2010 …10 April 1 – May 7, 2012

Manysuccessful candidatesdo not have tore-audition. The payis a basic honorariumof 0 to 0 perproduction, which, asOH general directorDavid Speers quips,is barely enough to cover gas and beer. Oleskevich keeps on hand aroster of around 60 names. He then consults with the stage director.Explains Oleskevich: “I ask him or her how many choristers are needed.Should they be matronly or nubile or both? Do they need to dance? Ithen send out an email asking who’s available. It’s an amateur chorus,but in the very best sense of the word.”Guillermo Silva-Marin is artistic director of both Opera in Concert,whose chorus sits on stage with their scores, and Toronto OperettaTheatre, whose chorus is part of the action. About 100 singers showup for his yearly auditions. OinC’s chorusis about 40-members strong. Auditioneesbring three pieces in a variety of languages.During the process, chorus master RobertCooper puts the auditionees through exercises,such as having them repeat variouspitches. Cooper is also looking for singerswho can perform comprimario roles. WhileOinC’s auditionees have classical training,TOT hopefuls come mostly from musical theatre backgrounds. Againthere is the potential for small soloist roles, and because operetta involvesspoken text, auditionees also bring a monologue along with theirarias. The average size of the TOT chorus is 16 members. Says Silva-Marin: “Most of our singers are trying to build up stage experience.”The baroque company Opera Atelier employs both an offstage andonstage chorus, each different from the other. In French opera-balletsby Lully and Rameau, stage director Marshall Pynkoski follows thehistorical model and places the chorus offstage (in boxes at the ElginTheatre). Dancers interpret their words on stage. This theatrical conventionis also used for the operas of Gluck, Purcell and Handel. Theoffstage chorus is the highly regarded Tafelmusik Chamber Choirunder Ivars Taurins, lauded for their specialized delivery of baroquestyle, aesthetics and musical language. Nonetheless, as Taurins pointsout, while they may be off stage, the singers must still memorize themusic. “They are visible,” he says. “They are participating in thedrama.” Taurins also relates the fact that the pay scale is much lowerfor a box chorister than for an onstage one. There is a perk, however.The singers actually get to watch the performance.By night, they transform themselvesinto gypsies, peasants, soldiers,courtesans, nuns, prisoners, factoryworkers, heavenly angels and thedemimondaine. WHO ARE THEY?OA holds auditions for the onstage chorus in the Mozart operas,for example. While it’s not a standing chorus, they do keep a list ofpeople that they ask back who don’t have to re-audition. “We havereally rigorous standards in terms of what we’re looking for,” explainsPynkoski. “The company is all about storytelling. The chorus can’tbe just a herd of people on stage making a wall of sound. I don’t havetime in rehearsals to give acting lessons. The singers have to demonstratethat they can react to character and situations quickly.” Pynkoskiand Fallis work together. Once they like the vocal quality of a singer,Pynkoski has to determine his/her movement ability. “It’s importantthat they understand physical relaxation,” he says, “because that’s thekey to comfort on the stage. They also have to be in good shape sothey won’t become breathless.”Pynkoski then sets a “natural” task while the singer is performing anaria. For example, telling them to arrive at a certain chair on such andsuch a line. Says Pynkoski: “You’d be surprised how impossible it isfor some singers to move on cue. The act of singing, the very techniqueof the art, works against natural physicality.”During the extensive rehearsal period,Pynkoski has actually put iron weights onchoristers’ wrists and ankles to force themto relax into gravity, and eliminate tension inthe body. In the following, Fallis describesPynkoski’s process of challenging the auditioneesfor stage worthiness. “If a sopranois singing Zerlina’s aria “Batti batti o belMasetto” from Don Giovanni, for example, Marshall asks her to pretendMassetto is actually in the room and that she is singing to him. Or toshow that she is frightened of Massetto, or that she is seducing him. Ifthey can pick up these little challenges, they’ll be able to pick up thebigger ones that arise in blocking the stage action.”The three people who shape a chorister’s life are the chorus master,the conductor and the stage director. Needless to say, music rehearsalsare week nights and weekends because every member has a day job.Being in a chorus means a strong commitment to long hours as theyfollow the tried and true path of music rehearsals, staging rehearsals,piano run-throughs, and finally the piano dress, the orchestra dress,and at last, the performances themselves.The chorus master prepares the chorus which also includes languagework. In fact, learning the music is child’s play in comparisonto mastering the words of a foreign language. The scores are availablein advance of the first music rehearsal. Members are expectedto be off book by the time they are handed over to the stage director.Memorization is the greatest challenge. Oleskevich finds that if he talkscontinued on page 78… with Jill Grove as Amneris in Aida, 2010; and withVirginia Hatfield as Zerlina in the Canadian OperaCompany’s 2008 production of Don Giovanni.Sandra Horst,chorus master.PhotOS MICHael COOperApril 1 – May 7, 11

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