Wednesday, April 18, 2018

THE VERDI CHORUS, A Musical Family Related by the Love of Opera

The Verdi Chorus today

Aristotle once said, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Nowhere is that phrase truer than with a choir. When individual voices, each unique in character and personality, begin to resonate together they create an entirely new, and often thrillingly exciting, sound. If you’ve ever experienced the goosebumps that come from hearing a choir in action, you know what I mean.

For the past 35 years, members of The Verdi Chorus have celebrated their shared love of music, and their ability to raise those goosebumps, by lifting their voices in song. This spring, they will mark their milestone anniversary with two special concerts on April 28th and 29th at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica. On the program: nothing less than four passion-filled scenes by Verdi from I Lombardi, La Forza del Destino, Nabucco, and La Traviata, plus a big finish from Johann Strauss’ effervescent operetta, Die Fledermaus.

No other choral group in Southern California performs their particular repertoire and, as any chorister will tell you, it is an experience like no other. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life and on Monday nights you’ll find more than fifty singers, age 22 to 80, rehearsing under the direction of Anne Marie Ketchum. Among its members are four unique individuals who represent the average, everyday folks who populate the sections. They sing because they love it. Meet Bobbi Mapstone, Rana Ebrahimi, Patrick Mack, and Peter Goldman.

The Verdi Chorus at Ristorante di Musica in the early days

Bobbi Mapstone (alto), one of the original members of the group, is a photographer who couldn’t read music and only sang folk songs while plunking her guitar when she started. She enjoyed opera but says she had an untrained voice. Then, 35 years ago, she happened to attend a friend’s wedding reception at Verdi Ristorante di Musica in Santa Monica. She says, “While we were there, Bernie Segal, the owner, invited everyone to join a brand new opera chorus and no audition was required. That sounded too good to pass up and, before I knew it, I found myself in the soprano section. Singing in the shower was a favorite activity, but to sing opera in my shower was thrilling. Soon I discovered I was not a real soprano and moved through the voice ranks until I landed happily with the 2nd sopranos - the women’s bass section.

Verdi Ristorante had become a proving ground for many singers but, when it closed, the chorus sadly came to an end. By then, passion had exceeded the quality of our singing and when a few enterprising members asked Anne Marie if she would continue the chorus privately she agreed, with one important condition. Everyone had to audition. This was nerve wracking for me but singing with Anne Marie was addictive and she wanted to create a group that would contribute to the music of Los Angeles.

Auditions and artistic control made all the difference; without them there would be no Verdi Chorus today. It’s been a large learning curve and I feel privileged to sing glorious opera music with talented singers and soloists. I enjoy the struggles with language, speed, and dynamics and the nerves and often panic as the performance approaches. Then it’s that special weekend. We dress in black and bling, and the energy is high. The church has excellent acoustics and there are stunning moments when our sound soars to the rafters giving us chills and thrills. My 35 years with the Verdi Chorus has resulted in a greater love of music, and new skills and friendships. Attending opera can be difficult; we know so many choruses that it is hard not to sing along!”

The Verdi Chorus, from the archives

Rana Ebrahimi (soprano) is a student who was born in Iran but moved to the U.S. in 2013 to pursue her dream of becoming an opera singer. She was already a flutist and a classical singer back home but she enrolled in the Music Program at Pasadena City College to gain performance experience. In Iran, there had been little to no opportunity to perform.

Rana says, “It was at PCC that I met Anne Marie Ketchum de la Vega. She was the opera director there and she also taught classes. Words cannot describe how much I learned from this amazing woman. Aside from vocal technique, she helped me come out of my shell and find confidence on stage, mainly because I was new to the U.S. and hadn’t made any friends yet. When I realized she was also the director of Verdi Chorus, I asked her if I could join. Luckily, I was accepted. In Verdi Chorus people support and help each other in every way they can. That’s why we sing with a lot of passion. It is not just a chorus to me. Verdi Chorus is my music family and I am so fortunate to be a member!”

Patrick Mack (tenor), a travel consultant, has been singing with Verdi Chorus for fifteen years. He found the group by way of a friend’s suggestion but he never thought he’d join another choir. “I ran into a colleague at a work function who had heard I was an opera singer. She started babbling on about this ‘Verdi Chorus.’ Well, I had sung in the chorus with the Baltimore Symphony for two years and figured that part of my life was over. I was riding a very high horse called, ‘I’m a soloist.’

My colleague continued to harass me every time she saw me for the next 7 YEARS (!) until I finally came in for an audition and found this musical family. I’m constantly astonished at the musicianship our director, Anne Marie Ketchum, achieves. Her level of preparation and her constant attention to detail are obvious in our performances. Many of us are just people who really love to sing. In the years I’ve been with the chorus, I’ve gotten to perform some of the greatest music ever written for the voice, and no one complains I’m too loud!”

Peter Goldman (bass) is a publicist by day, singer by night. The Verdi Chorus first came into his life as a client for Davidson & Choy Publicity where he works. Peter says, “I always like to think new and exciting things will continue to come into my life if I’m just open to them, but it really was beyond my wildest dreams that I would ever have the opportunity to sing opera alongside first rate opera singers. Initially, I went to their annual summer party strictly to learn more about the group we would be representing. But, two things happened at that party. First, I was gobsmacked by the talent and genuine camaraderie and family spirit of the group. It seemed every walk of life was represented there and they all had one thing in common - an incredible love of the music.

The second thing that happened, which stunned me to no end, was that I was encouraged to audition the following month to join the chorus. While scared to death, (I hadn’t sung since college and that was decades ago) I gathered the courage to give it a go figuring nothing ventured, nothing gained. To my absolute surprise and joy, I made the cut, and I am continually amazed how being part of such a dynamic musical group has changed my life.”

Of course, none of this would be possible without the woman they all sing the praises of, Founding Artistic Director, Anne Marie Ketchum. In 1983, Anne Marie was one of over 20 professional opera singers at Verdi Ristorante in Santa Monica, an elegant high-end Italian restaurant where a handful of soloists would perform on any given night.

She says, “Grant Gershon, the Artistic Director of The Los Angeles Master Chorale was one of the pianists and Evan Kleiman, who is known for being the ‘fairy godmother’ of the LA food scene through her show Good Food on KCRW, was fresh out of culinary school and working in the kitchen. Needless to say, the food was fantastic, and singing on a stage surrounded by commissioned art of all the Verdi opera characters in such a beautiful space was a wonderful thing.

The owner of the restaurant came up with the idea of starting an opera chorus comprised of the patrons from the restaurant, and as I had a background in conducting, asked me to lead it. We wound up with about 30 singers, and while no auditions were required - and the sound of the chorus reflected that - everyone had a great time and the performances were packed with family and friends.

When the restaurant closed, as restaurants will do, the singers didn’t want to stop. Tom Redler, Peter Kahn and Walter Fox were members of the chorus as well as incredible philanthropists. They were instrumental in raising funds so the chorus could go on. I was asked to continue as Artistic Director, and I agreed, under the condition of having full artistic control, and instituting auditions for all members to bring the Verdi Chorus up to the next level musically.

Over the years, the Verdi Chorus has evolved on every level. There truly was no way of knowing what we would grow into as a performing arts organization. We’ve not only long outlived the restaurant where it all began and where we first started presenting opera choruses in concert, we have also become a force in the L.A. classical music community and are proud to be able to provide career development opportunities for young professional singers.”

For a look at their upcoming program, tickets, and more information, visit their website at Parking is free and a reception follows each concert where you can meet the artists.

THE VERDI CHORUS: The Force of Destiny
April 28 (7:30 pm) and April 29 (2:00 pm)
First United Methodist Church
1008 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90403
Tickets: $10 - $40 (800) 838-3006 or
Guest soloists: Shana Blake Hill, Karin Mushegain, Alex Boyer, and Ben Lowe
Accompanist: Laraine Ann Madden

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