We recently had a sit-down with Verdi Chorus director Anne Marie Ketchum, in anticipation of their upcoming concerts on November 16 & 17. After more than 30 years, this choir is still growing, with a unique mission and an unusual setup. Here’s the interview:
LDG: With so many choirs in Southern California, how is Verdi Chorus different?
AMK: For starters, As far as we know, we’re the only choir that does only opera.
LDG: How did that concept come about?
AMK: There was a restaurant in Santa Monica, the Verdi Restaurant — very elegant, very high-end. It’s actually where top chef Evan Kleiman got started. There was a small stage, and we did shows with 20-25 singers — basically opera, with lighter fare in the late show. The owners really wanted the patrons to sing opera, and my conducting background helped there. We had principal singers and top-notch performers. Suzanna Guzmán, John Atkins and others went on to major careers.
LDG: And the choir came out of that?
AMK: When the restaurant closed, the chorus members wanted to continue. So we started a choir with the same focus, and I agreed to take it on, with two conditions from the beginning: we would audition everyone (even the veterans), and while the others would take care of all money matters, I wanted total artistic control.
That model is still working: we have a fantastic board of directors. Board meetings are more like potlucks and parties, and we get a lot done.
LDG: Sounds like they’re really committed.
AMK: This group kind of has that effect. There’s a passionate response to what we’re doing. We have 50+ singers now, with lots of section leaders — about 15 at this point, and all paid.
LDG: And they’re also their own group, yes?
AMK: Yes — the Walter Fox Singers. They get to do their own shows, as well. We did one last year, and the next is coming up on February 1st. It’ll be semi-staged, and since most of them are so young, there’s lots of energy, and it gives them a chance to show off their immense talent. The group is named after Walter Fox, who was part of the original group and on the board for years. After Walter passed away, his wife, Barbara Miller-Fox, set up an annual donation that has allowed us to grow this program. The Fox Singers also have opportunities for small solos.
We also have the Sahm Foundation Apprentice Program, which is 3 or 4 years old. There’s a lot of competition for those spots, and we have a new crop of apprentices for each concert. That foundation grant allows us to create a role “learning singers” rather than just for working singers. It’s good for their voice, as well as their spirit and education. The apprentices are usually college students or grad students. We see the program as a sort of “church job on steroids”, but of course with different rep.
LDG: How about you? Why opera?
AMK: I’ve done lots of opera, of course, but I’ve personally also performed contemporary [classical], chamber music and even married a composer. But in 2005, I had a bout with breast cancer, and went through the whole thing with chemo and radiation. During that whole time, the chorus people were amazing to me. The experience caused me to really recognize how my conducting was affecting my own life, as well as others. I’m expanding my own focus there as a result, asking, “What’s my place in the world? Where can I do the most good?”
The thing is, when you sing opera, you sing differently than in a choir. It’s more theatrical, and singers love that! Choral skills still matter, so I still need to get a sweet sound from a big voice, for example. It isn’t something that happens automatically. I encourage our singers to use their voices in an artistic way, and to follow the score.
LDG: And what about repertoire? It’s clearly not limited to just Verdi.
AMK: We perform predominantly 19th-century works. Mozart is harder to extract for chorus, for instance. As choruses developed in opera, it was Verdi who really loved to write for them. He knew how to shape a character with real power and delicacy.
LDG: And this program, “Sound & Fury”? What do you have planned?
AMK: We’re doing the beginning of Otello — the storm scene, which uses a big chorus and makes the most of Otello’s very different entrance. There’s the tenor-baritone duet for our two male soloists, Alex Boyer and Malcolm McKenzie. They’re both very powerful, and Alex’s career is growing fast: he has a big, beautiful voice and is good on stage, but is also a delightful human.
Then we’ll do bits from Il Trovatore, featuring the wonderful Shana Blake Hill. She’s as musical as anyone has even been. We’ll do the “Anvil Chorus”, of course, and will end the first half of the concert with the 2nd act finale.
The second half starts with Turandot: calling in the executioner and his blade, calling for the moon to rise. Alex will do “Nessun dorma”, of course. Then pieces from Tosca, with “Vissi d’arte” from Shana, and Malcolm will sing the Te Deum with the chorus. We’ll finish up with a little dessert, singing pieces from The Merry Widow, hoping to make everyone fall in love and feel good. I like a lot of contrast: serious moments, challenging music, and moments of sheer, pure beauty.
LDG: It doesn’t get better than that,
AMK: Music does that. This is the way we tap into the deepest parts of who we are. I’m so grateful that this gets to be my life.
The Verdi Chorus will perform “Sound and Fury” twice this weekend: Saturday night at 7:30pm, and Sunday at 2pm. Please visit their website if you’d like to attend, donate to their ongoing programs, or be part of one of their upcoming seasons.
Many thanks to Anne Marie for taking the time to speak with us!