Me, Me, Me, Me, Me, Me!
has been an opera fan for his entire adult life. He sang leading roles with SMC and UCLA and in the Baltimore Symphony Chorus. Aside from this blog, he is a guest critic on the website Parterre.com. He is often asked to sing softer.
As this is my first official post on the new and exciting Verdi Chorus blog, I’ve been asked to sidestep my inherent tenor modesty (pause for laugh) and give a little background about myself and how I came to join The Verdi Chorus.
To say I arrived in a roundabout way would be an understatement, but how glad I am that I did will be evident in a moment. I’ve been an opera fan since my teens and having always had a voice, it just seemed like I was almost fated to be an opera singer. I studied seriously for many years, had done the opera programs at Santa Monica College and UCLA and had even served a 3-year stint in the chorus of the Baltimore Symphony when I moved there with my voice coach and her husband.
The realities and sacrifices of becoming a working singer became less attractive with time and I missed my home and family too much and came back to Santa Monica. I settled into the career of a luxury travel agent and friends would ask me to sing at parties. My boss also asked me to sing at our holiday gatherings but that was the extent of my public performing for nearly 10 years.
Another travel agent friend, Robin Van Zak, heard that I sang and every time I ran into her at an industry function, she would start talking about the Verdi Chorus and how I should join. I was riding a particularly high horse out of the barn named “ I’m a Soloist “ and did my very best to be polite to her endless entreaties. I joke with Robin now that she should be given a finder’s fee since this went on (and I’m not kidding) for years.
I should probably mention that tenors are ‘thin on the ground’ as my voice coach used to say. The natural male voice is really a baritone, of which there are many along with basses. But “a good tenor is hard to find” and all choirs and choruses have a particular challenge building a tenor section.
One day, years later, it did occur to me that for someone who loved singing and sang all the time, my living room was a pretty quiet venue and kinda small. Sure, my neighbors loved me and they could ALL hear me, but it wasn’t the same. Enter tireless Robin at yet another travel industry get together. Her pleas had taken on a defeatist and antagonistic edge by now, but a deal was struck, a call was made and I had an audition. It was only then that I discovered that the Verdi Chorus rehearsed and performed 10 blocks from my apartment in Santa Monica. By the way, I don’t drive. A sign, you say? Perhaps.
The first person I met was the Chorus Secretary, Thelma Sherman, now our Chorus President, I am very happy to report. Warm and welcoming, she wished me luck as she directed me up to the chorus room. Who me, nervous? I hadn’t sung for anyone who really knew what they were listening to in 10 years and hadn’t had a voice lesson in almost as long. I met the Chorus Director, Anne Marie Ketchum, who proceeded to have me sing scales for what seemed like an eternity of pain. My nerves were so bad I could barely support my voice. Sight-reading – the terror mounts! During a break we discovered we’d had the same voice teacher and a mutual colleague back from the days of the Verdi Restaurant. What a relief! I remember apologizing for the state of my voice and Anne Marie, very graciously and deftly, deflecting the remark. I was in!
The first rehearsal is always my favorite because that’s when we find out what we’re going to sing in the coming concert. I discovered that Anne Marie made very imaginative choices and that we had very similar taste. The first half of our concert were pieces from two rarely performed operas that happen to be favorites of mine: Mozart’s ‘Idomeneo’ and Verdi’s ‘Macbeth’. Another sign, perhaps?
Another large voiced tenor joined that season, Martin Olvera, and we were happy to find a very friendly competition between us. The first concert was a serious thrill, singing all this great music I had loved all my life and the bonus of being able to really sing out with my mature voice which was a new feeling. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly and as the performance drew closer, I started to feel myself becoming a singer again. All the old muscles back and working.
During the Spring session that year, we were asked to participate in a community outreach concert with a number of church choirs and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. We sang 3 Verdi choruses and I sat behind the timpani while they performed Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’. I regained full use of my hearing a few days later, but in the meantime, it occurred to me that the LA Phil had not heretofore been beating my door down so, maybe this was a good gig to stick with.
Two years later we were invited by Jacaranda, which is a contemporary music ensemble in Santa Monica. We were asked to join them in the American premiere of a recently discovered piece by Olivier Messiaen that had been written to commemorate the release of the prisoners at the end of World War II. ‘Chantes des Deportes’ is a page and a half of bombast at the top of everyone’s lungs and the stage was crammed with every instrument you could imagine including more timpani than I had ever seen in one place and a concert grand piano without the lid. With two hundred musicians and singers, it was a geschrei. We performed it once and then gave an encore. It’s on YouTube now. So, I’m figuring at this point that I’m as famous as I’m ever gonna be and I have the Verdi Chorus to thank for it..
Last year we were invited by the City of Los Angeles, the LA Opera and the Music Center to be part of the Wagner Festival surrounding the first performances of The Ring Cycle. The whole first half of our concert was Wagner and it had been a life long dream for me to sing his music someplace other than my living room. It was a tremendous experience on many levels and our soprano soloist, Erin Wood, was a school mate of mine at UCLA. We also performed at the opening ceremonies for the Ring Festival at a very swank shin-dig at the LA County Art Museum and were even able to attend the dress rehearsal of “Gotterdammerung “.
I look back at these five, seemingly short, years and can’t imagine what challenges and experiences the future holds. We have achieved so much under the guidance of our Board and the leadership of our wonderful Director, Anne Marie Ketchum. Through sheer serendipity I became a guest music critic on an opera website, Parterre.com, and then suddenly I’m invited to blog for the Verdi Chorus on this, our new revamped site.
I’m looking forward to sharing with all of you, the stories of our members and the importance of the music we all love and perform. Perhaps this will shine some insight into the process as we build our next concert together.