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Take an emotional journey with the Utah Opera Chorus

Published March 10, 2014 2:57 pm

Opera • The chorus is integral to Utah Opera productions.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

There's much more to an opera chorus than carrying spears.

The singers also must be able to carry a tune, almost always in a foreign language. They add musical color and depth to the action onstage, often portraying multiple characters in an evening.

This month, the Utah Opera Chorus will be showcased in Puccini's "Turandot," which chorus master Caleb Harris said is arguably "the pinnacle of choral features in the opera world." Chorus members typically sing 20 minutes of music in a 2 ½-hour show. In "Turandot," they're onstage for more than an hour — about half the opera's running time.

"They experience the gamut of emotion," Harris said. "They call for the executioner to come with death and judgment, and the next moment they are empathizing with the Prince of Persia. The crowd goes through an incredible gamut."

"I love the emotional journeys choruses get to take," Paula Fowler, a 21-year veteran of the chorus, wrote in an email. "We get to flex our emotions, give them exercise. I really enjoyed the four acts of [Gluck's 'Orpheus and Eurydice'] when we mourned at a funeral, got angry in hell, were serene in heaven and then rejoiced at a celebration. We get to explore a similar range of emotions in 'Turandot' but with different motivation — we peasants are so confused and pliable to every whim of our cruel, icy princess."

Sometimes real life finds its way into the chorus' scenes. Jared Knowlton fractured his leg while skydiving shortly before the run of "La bohème" in 2010, so the creative team cast him as a beggar with a crutch. Mandi Barrus sang in 2013's "Florencia en el Amazonas" two weeks before giving birth. "It was fun to incorporate my hugely pregnant condition into the character and color of the scene," she recalled. Tom Klassen, a native Midwesterner, felt "another sense of connectivity with a reality that could have been all too real for me" while performing in 2005's "The Grapes of Wrath" with his wife and two children. And Fowler once fainted from hunger and exhaustion during a tech rehearsal for "Jenufa" in 2005; she recalled that it took a moment for her colleagues to realize it wasn't an acting choice.

Fowler is director of education and community outreach for Utah Symphony | Utah Opera, where she's worked for 17 years. That makes her an anomaly in the Utah Opera Chorus. Though most have significant musical training and experience, few work in a music-related field.

Chorus casting can be competitive. Dawn Veree Marshall, a receptionist at a law office who is in her second season with Utah Opera, said it took her three years of auditions to break into the San Diego Opera Chorus, where she ended up singing for five seasons.

The size of the chorus depends on the opera. There are 58 singers in the "Turandot" chorus, plus more than two dozen children from the Madeleine Choir School, 12 nonsinging men (known as supernumeraries, or supers for short) and six dancers. Harris said 36 is a more typical size for Utah Opera.

Harris casts the chorus for each production. Most operas have subsets of chorus members; in "Turandot," these include ladies in waiting, soldiers, wise men and assistants to the executioner. Some are cast based on physical type, but Harris selects others based on what he hears in rehearsal.

The rehearsal period usually lasts a couple of months. Utah Opera's January production of Verdi's "La Traviata" required seven rehearsals. For "Turandot," there were 14 music rehearsals, each running about 2 ½ hours, followed by eight three-hour staging rehearsals. Then there are the dress rehearsals and five performances. "That's 31 times these folks will be gathered together — 75-90 hours, plus commuting and prep," Harris said. On top of that, there are costume fittings and time in the hair and makeup chairs.

The singers are expected to be familiar with the score before rehearsals begin. "We have a focused rehearsal style," Harris said. He emphasizes the text first because it's important that the singers be able to communicate its meaning, even if the audience is relying on Supertitles for the translation. "Getting out the energy of expression is the final step," he said.

Harris said the chorus members aren't in it for the money, but he feels it important to pay them a modest stipend.

Fowler agreed the rewards of chorus singing aren't monetary. "It's wonderful to sing in a chorus where each person's vocal training and polish really make a difference," she said.

Tony Porter, a computer support technician for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, won't appear in "Turandot," but he calls his participation in the chorus a dream come true. He has sung in 57 productions, beginning with "Samson and Delilah" in 1992. "I can still remember standing onstage, waiting for the curtain to rise in the magnificent Capitol Theatre, hearing the symphony play the introduction, and then the curtain rose," he said in an email. "It was a magical moment for me. I can still remember the thrill it was to be on that stage in a real opera with a professional company for the first time. I still get that same thrill each night in the Capitol Theatre."

creese@sltrib.com —

Join the chorus

The Utah Opera Chorus announces auditions.

When • April 8, 10 and 15, 5-8 p.m.

Where • Utah Opera Production Studios, 336 N. 400 West, Salt Lake City

Information • Contact Shaun Tritchler at sricks@usuo.org.






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