When I think of summer 2009, I’ll remember a few things. Phish’s tour. A frustrating Cubs season. And Rigoletto.
Around May I heard that an amateur group named the Apollo Chorus needed men for a performance of Verdi’s opera at Ravinia. I had the time, and although I haven’t listened to much opera since I left school in the 90’s, I’ve always liked Verdi, who balanced melody and intensity like few others. So I exchanged a couple emails with the coordinator and went to the first practice in June.
There was talk of tryouts, but I went in not knowing how high the group’s standards were. For the first hour the group read through a few bits of the opera, and I felt comfort in hearing people around me making about the same amount of mistakes I did, but I still didn’t know. Then there were tryouts – the people new to the group formed a line and each did a few scales and arpeggios for the director. Choral singing doesn’t usually involve singing solo, and although I didn’t feel nervous in line, I sounded nervous when it was my turn. I walked back to the train feeling annoyed with myself. Then two days later I got an email confirming that I was in the summer group.
I’ll remember a few things from the first half of the summer when our schedule was mild. The time I found a free parking spot for our rehearsal room (not an easy feat in downtown Chicago) and the time I was late because part of the Blue Line was shut down. Getting a CD from the library in an attempt to learn the opera, a well-intentioned but wrong idea. (The learning would come when we started hammering it in August.) And trying to memorize long strings of syllables, such as “o tu che la festa audace hai turbato.” I still don’t know what all of that means, but I got good at singing it going down the C# minor scale, at various tempos and dynamic levels.
The show was August 15, and around early August we started practicing more often: two days in a row with one or two days off. We did two sessions with the conductor, James Conlon. His assistant conductor Emanuele did a lot of work on our Italian. (Pronouncing “Rigoletto” itself correctly is not easy for an English speaker, and I’m still not sure if I have it. The good thing about choral singing is that if you’re not sure what you’re doing, you can do it quieter.) On the week of the show we spent two days running it down at Ravinia with Conlon, the soloists and the Chicago Symphony – two days of sun, uncomfortable chairs and opera rehearsal language (“letter 23B,” “poco piu mosso” and the like). It was nice, but a lot of work to maintain the facade of being a choral singer on the same professional level as the rest.
August 15 arrived. I left early for fear of traffic jams and ended up having time to buy a new pair of pants because I wasn’t sure about the ones I had on. We did the show. The “o tu che la festa” scene (the one we nailed in rehearsals) was a bit shaky but the rest of the choral parts went okay. But my strongest memory will be one scene where we weren’t involved. Conlon brought a lot of energy to his work, energy directed inward which the musicians needed to project outward, and I will remember seeing him pull the music out of the orchestra and soloists.
There were three reviews the Monday after the show. One was very nice about the chorus. The other two thought Ravinia should have hired a professional group. I suppose I would rather hear a professional singer than myself, too. But it doesn’t matter. We had a good experience, Conlon and the soloists seemed to have a good experience, and either the audience was very polite or they also had one. And, now that it’s over, I have resumed normal life without making the effort to portray a professional choral singer.