So there's been a great amount of discussion amongst the chorus over the past couple years about our doing a flash mob. Video clips of singing flash mobs have been showing up on YouTube for decades and, of course, choral and opera groups are particularly suited to making a big, healthy noise in a big public space. Unlike pop singers we don’t need any electronic assistance in the amplification department. The problem is that almost as soon as all these videos started popping up the whole thing became passé faster than you could say ‘prestissimo’.
The other challenge is that we needed a good excuse. We couldn’t just wander into the local Barnes & Noble, gather around the escalator atrium and burst into song. Well, we could... but it would be so much better if we were doing it for a good cause. Enter Stacy Brightman, Director of Education and Community Programs for LA Opera. She had been approached by the people at City of Hope to organize a flash mob for a groundbreaking ceremony they were having in conjunction with a new building and to commemorate their 100th anniversary. The LA Opera Chorus is comprised of union musicians (who are also paid union wages) so unfortunately, hiring them wouldn’t be feasible. However, Stacy had called on the Verdi Chorus in 2010, inviting us to perform at the opening ceremonies for the ‘Ring Festival’ at the LA County Museum of Art. It was a pretty swank gig, and I speak with certainty when I say we covered ourselves in glory.
The date was set for Thursday, January 17th and we would have one rehearsal on the Monday prior. The flash mob portion would be the drinking song,’Libiamo’ from Act I of Verdi’s La Traviata, and then we would take the stage and sing what is essentially our theme song ‘Va Pensiero’ from Verdi’s Nabucco, capping it off with our first public performance of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel.
That last song is special to all of us in the chorus for one very important reason. Every summer the Verdi Chorus has a potluck party. It’s a grand tradition where we welcome new members to the chorus and have a chance to share food and visit. Since our rehearsals are almost all about the work, it’s a rare social gathering. There’s also quite a bit of very loud singing -- mostly Broadway showtunes after imbibing several glasses of wine -- and it’s always a lot of fun.
A few years back our Director Anne Marie Ketchum, had to undergo chemotherapy treatment, and she continued to lead our rehearsals in spite of all of the physical challenges that faced her, which couldn’t have been easy. At the party that summer, as the evening drew to a close, the chorus began singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” one by one the members spontaneously walked toward Anne Marie and gathered around, surrounding her with the rich, warm strength of their voices. It’s now the traditional ending to every summer event, and Anne Marie always says a few words about how important it was to her. Even for those of us who weren’t there that first time, it’s a moving moment that speaks volumes about what a family we are and how much support we offer to each other.
We had a large number of the chorus willing to participate and, for the first time, everyone received their music electronically via email. Big leap into the 21st century for the Verdi Chorus.
Monday’s rehearsal came, and we were joined by the soloists from the Domingo-Thornton Young Artists Program; Soprano Alisa Peterson and Tenor Ashley Faatoalia.
We’d done the ‘Libiamo’ before but Anne Marie (knowing us all too well) had something up her sleeve to ensure that we all got through the performance mistake free. Crib sheets. Very small pieces of paper, easily tucked into the palm, with not only the Italian lyrics on them but put down on the page in rhythm. Don’t ask me how she thought of that or even made it make sense, but it did the minute you looked at it.
Rehearsal went well with our guest soloists and Stacy Brightman came to cheer us all on. After they left we went through the rest of the program. I love singing Rodgers and Hammerstein and was really looking forward to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ During the first run through I could tell most of us were singing over the lumps in our collective throats. Then one of our youngest members, who just happens to be finishing her own chemotherapy, became emotional, and she in turn was comforted by her section mate sitting beside her whom had lost her husband of 40 years just a matter of weeks before.
The afternoon before the event I got an email from our President Thelma Sherman, that a number of us, myself included, were going to be fitted with a microphone and needed to arrive early for a sound check. A Microphone!?!? Seriously?...Me? I’m not exaggerating in the slightest when I tell you I can be heard through brick walls. With ease. But with electronic amplification I might actually qualify as a nuclear grade military weapon. What about all those poor innocents gathered to enjoy the flashmob caught in the cross-fire and struck deaf? Weren’t we going to be outside? I suddenly had hellish visions of all the woodland creatures..birds, squirrels, deer, house cats, evacuating every tree, shrub and glade en masse for miles in every direction in the frantic search of quietude. Then the real terror dropped down around me like a biblical plague of locusts and my blood ran cold. What if I was really terrible and EVERYONE HEARD?
We all arrived at the City of Hope campus the next morning, and I was wired for sound along with a dozen of us while the others decamped to the vast meeting room that had been set aside for our comfort.
This was one of my favorite parts of the day because we were then literally in a ‘War Room’ setting with Anne Marie and DeReau K. Farrar, assistant to our conductor, mapping out our intended musical assault on the unsuspecting audience using a large whiteboard and dry markers. It was decided that we would flank the seated guests and join the majority of the standees until the right moment when we would let loose.
We casually strolled down to the courtyard where everything was set up and joined the milling crowd. Dr. Michael Friedman, the CEO of City of Hope and an opera lover himself, gave a short speech about the dedication of the Kaplan Family who were the major donors to the capital campaign for the new facility, and they broke out the golden shovels for the fresh plot of dirt in front of the dais. Then, suddenly, the LA Opera soloists were already singing the Act I duet from Traviata and followed with the ‘Libiamo’ while I silently prayed for my microphone to malfunction. The audience was certainly surprised when we joined in and then we moved up to the stage while our accompanist, Larraine Ann Madden played the lead in to ‘Va, Pensiero’. The thing about performing is that when it’s happening it goes by so fast, mostly because of the adrenaline. It’s over before you realize, and this was no exception.
We had a grateful audience, not only in the courtyard, but from the stage when I looked up you could see all the patients at the windows of all the surrounding buildings who weren’t able to come outside for the concert lining up to listen to us, which finally made me glad for my microphone.
So there’s been a great amount of discussion amongst the chorus over the past couple years about our doing a flash mob. Video clips of singing flash mobs have been showing up on YouTube for decades and, of course, choral and opera groups are particularly suited to making a big, healthy noise in a big public space. Unlike pop singers we don’t need any electronic assistance in the amplification department. The problem is that almost as soon as all these videos started popping up the whole thing became passé faster than you could say ‘prestissimo’.
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