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Leaders & Lemmings

What are Opera Choruses?

Leaders and Lemmings

The Lemmings — In 2013 we are celebrating 30 years as the Verdi Chorus: over 200 performances and hundreds of opera choruses by over 50 composers. We have been spear carriers, cannon fodder, wretched refuse, amiable peasants and villagers, witches, prisoners, courtiers, riffraff, servants, hand maidens and ladies-in-waiting — and we’re here. Unlike the leads, choruses are neither wicked nor clever nor powerful. We are incredibly ordinary — ugly ducklings that will never make swan. Opera leads get to live and die heroically. We never get the gal, the gallows or the guillotine. If we rode off into the sunset, who would notice or care? Yet we get to sing some of the most extraordinary music. We are the answer to the opera riddle, What is often heard, rarely seen and always there?”

The Leaders — Soloists are charismatic, powerful, captains of their fate; beautiful, brave, and most likely to succeed. They live and die gloriously and are born leaders. Choruses are born lemmings. We bear the consequences of our leaders’ feckless decisions. Aside from being numerically superior, we have little to recommend us. Yet the quality and quantity of our music is equal to theirs. Are choruses important? Composers seem to think so. Macbeth has six choruses. Otello, five. Cavalleria has five in 75 minutes. If we are the Rodney Dangerfields of opera, why did great composers lavish so much extraordinary music on us?

We set the stage for the action to come – In Cavalleria Rusticanna, we sing of golden flowers, good wine, and adoring spouses waiting faithfully at home. An aural wallpaper of bucolic Family Values, our music tells who we are, where we are, and what we stand for. Unfortunately, we are oblivious to the passion and betrayal which simmer below the surface. No one said we were smart.

We raise the emotional level – Our chorus from Aida is Grand Opera at its grandest. It rouses the audience as few opera choruses can. A stirring anthem of solidarity, it celebrates the triumph of the Egyptians over the Ethiopians. Imagine the chorus’ reception when the opera premiered in Cairo in 1871!

We hold a mirror to the lead singers, good and evil – Choruses and leads are joined at the hip. When the leads raise their cup, so do we. Imagine a drinking song without us. If our leaders betray their trust, we may cast them off and overthrow them. In Verdi’s Macbeth, we recoil in horror at Macbeth’s bloody deeds. As Scottish refugees, we are casualties of regal ambition and disregard. Lemmings need leaders and vice versa.

Left alone, we whisper, misbehave, and conspire – Absent our leaders, we can’t always be trusted. In Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, we get roaring drunk. As prisoners in Fidelio, we whisper for fear of being caught. In Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, the servants, left alone, run amok. The cat’s away. No leader, no lemmings. We’re having fun but wary. “Zitti prudenza?” Quiet. Careful. Someone is coming.

We are the composer’s voice – And rarely, as in Verdi’s Va Pensiero, we alone are given the music to move nations and generations to come. The chorus becomes a character, a conscience, the composer’s own voice. In the face of evil and silence, we sing aloud the aspirations and longings that lie deep within us all. After a quarter century as Verdi Chorus, we are the composer’s clay, what he wishes, his great chameleons.

Dick Hutman, Verdi Chorus member