The Chorus (a.k.a. Operatic Footsoldiers)

One of the more delightful aspects of coming to Dallas the past few years has been carving out the time to visit some old friends from college (undergraduate school) who have settled in the area for their livelihood.  My best friend in college, and among the first persons I had met when I moved onto campus at Baldwin-Wallace, was one John Petty.  I was always fascinated by his insights, and although we rarely agreed on many topics (then and now), our conversations were always thoughtful, intelligent, and civilized.  I continue to admire his drive, as he has now gone back to school to obtain a Doctorate, remains vibrant as a film historian, is a published author, and continues to write thought provoking editorials on his, admittedly very liberal, blog (when he has free time…which is rare these days).

John attended the final dress rehearsal of Boris Godunov with his lovely wife Judy a few weeks ago, and emailed to me what would have been an enviable review for even the most media credentialed critic to have written.  In it, however, he respectfully expressed some reservations about the Dallas Opera Chorus.  He basically said that they seemed tired, out of steam, and just going through the motions by the start of the final scene of the opera.  Well, never being one to miss an opportunity to NOT argue with John about something, I wrote a reply that I hoped would have helped “explain” his perceptions.  While I did not offer excuses, I did offer reasons.

By the time we even got to the final dress rehearsal, the chorus (which includes a fine children’s chorus), which has many fast and complicated costume changes, extremely strenuous staging, and the most full-throated formidable singing of the evening, had been executing this opera for five straight (late) nights, in slow and arduous rehearsals.  It is not as though they were not prepared either, as Chorus Master Alexander Rom was absolutely diligent and thorough in his duties.  No; they were just really exhausted!!

Unlike some major Opera Companies, this chorus, while being a fully professional enterprise, does not represent full-time employment.  Indeed, virtually every member has a full time job outside of the Opera House, or are full-time students, OR part-time students with yet other part-time jobs in addition to their responsibilities with the Dallas Opera.  Imagine working ALL day, and then coming to the opera house for another 4-6 hours thereafter, usually until midnight; only to do it several days in a row as we approach opening night.

I have, however, expressed in the past that the true measure of an international level Opera Company can be quantified based solely upon the strength of their orchestra and their chorus, first and foremost.  My mind then races back to the 70’s when the Metropolitan Opera Chorus demanded parity with the orchestra in areas of pay and benefits.  I further recall the many opera choruses that I have sung with over the years (including the Metropolitan), before becoming a full fledged principal singer, and painfully recollect the many years of prejudice–yes, PREJUDICE–that singers had experienced because of stereotypes that classed them as non-musicians, or musically inept.  Well, decades of hard work by all singers (soloists, and choristers alike), as well as some hard, bare knuckle negotiating, has erased some of those stereotypes, and settled compensation issues.  But it is never too late to list the many credentials that the professional chorister must holster.  They include: absolute proficiency in music and sight singing, command of several languages including Italian, German, French, Russian, Czech, Spanish,–and increasingly, Chinese, and some Japanese; and of course English (which, by the way, is NOT easy to sing!).  They also need to act, be nimble on-stage, portray perhaps a number of different characters in one night, be adept at stage combat, and without a doubt, DANCE {reference La Traviata, Die Fledermaus, Countess Maritza, The Merry Widow, and many others}.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I believe that individually they would like the opportunity to take a few more solo bows, would probably love the challenge of a full-time chorus position (for those who are not), and would love to not have to wait for union contract negotiations (once every 3 years or so) to demonstrate their relevancy.  I, for one, have nothing but complete respect, appreciation, and empathy for their many functions on the stage.  In Boris Godunov, Turandot, Carmen, Otello, Tosca, Peter Grimes, War and Peace, Billy Budd, and countless others; the chorus actually accounts for creating an entire additional character to the story line, collectively.  At the Met, Paris Opera, Covent Garden, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and La Scala, the chorus must have as many as 30-50 operas solidly in their heads, and at their command, as production schedules have been so terribly condensed that there is little time for rehearsing, let alone learning!  I will never forget entering the chorus lounge at the Met in the very early 90’s and seeing a newly hired full-time chorus member with some 22 scores stacked at his side, one open on his lap, with his head-phones firmly in place, as he studied on every break and over every lunch hour–and I’m sure at his home (whenever he got there!), all in an effort to achieve what seemed to be the most daunting musical mission I could have conjured.  Then I thought:  “That is a REAL opera professional!!!”

To the Dallas Opera Chorus specifically:  I will miss the pleasant smiles from all the ladies, and the fist bumps from the men as they bustle to the stage.  Until next year, keep up the good work of being “REAL opera professionals”!!!

And just for the record, after almost three full days off before we opened Boris Godunov in Dallas, the chorus took to the stage, rested and ready, for what turned out to be an historic night of singing and presentation by all on-stage; including themselves!