A musical staple of Santa Monica is wasting no time starting its 40th anniversary season, sending its audience into a spiritually and philosophically engaging journey this weekend.
On Sunday, the First Presbyterian Church will play host to the Verdi Chorus’ performance of “This, and My Heart, A Portrait of Emily Dickinson and Her Worlds Through Text and Song.” The combination of theater and concert piece celebrates Dickinson’s works by interspersing spoken readings with musical settings of her poems. Verdi Chorus Artistic Director Anne Marie Ketchum will portray the icon in both text and song, accompanied by Fox Singers Alexandra Bass, Tiffany Ho and Megan McDonald to express Dickinson’s thoughts through singing of her poetry.
“This, and My Heart” was written by Ketchum along with pianist Victoria Kirsch and actress Linda Kelsey, premiering in 2009 and subsequently performed throughout Southern California. Ketchum has been the conductor of the Verdi Chorus since its start in 1983, when operatic showcases were a staple of the Verdi Ristorante on Wilshire Boulevard. Four decades later, the outfit has become what Ketchum calls a “major force” in the Los Angeles music scene, including 65 singers in total to perform a variety of operatic works. The chorus working exclusively within the opera world has created a unique space for the group.
“Some people sitting out in the audience will say it’s not just sound, it becomes like a visceral experience, which is interesting,” Ketchum said. “Most groups, if they’re going to do any opera, they’ll do (one) concert … but we only do opera. So there’s a great deal of variety in all that, it’s very theatrical.”
The 65 voices of the chorus were whittled down to three Fox Singers, a satellite group that provides performance opportunities to young professional singers. Bass, Ho and McDonald have all been classically trained, and Bass noted that the Verdi opportunity “kind of seemed like a natural place to go” when seeking out gigs in the Los Angeles area.
“Sometimes you’ll find there’s a different feeling singing regular standard choral music and operatic chorus music,” Bass said. “It allows us to use kind of our full instrument without having to necessarily worry about having to blend for a more specific choral sound.”
McDonald met Ketchum while the latter was filling in for a voice teacher at California State University, Northridge, helping the young singer prepare for her graduate recital. Currently a section leader with Verdi, McDonald said her performances with the group introduce audiences to “what opera is without sitting through the three-hour opera.” Ho echoed her fellow singers’ sentiment, calling it a “unique experience to explore so many different operas in one concert alone.”
“There (were) just so many opportunities to refine your own craft, to expand your knowledge of the repertoire as well … we get to find pieces that just have so much excitement.”
One of those pieces is “This, and My Heart,” which looks at Dickinson’s life through her different areas of thought, rather than a chronological overview. The selection of songs for the performance was a complex process chosen based on what best fit the poet’s “essence,” touching on subjects such as nature, fame, religion, love and death.
Having previously sung these works, Ketchum was able to have an edge on how to coach the singers, sitting down with the trio to evaluate the multiple interpretations of Dickinson’s work. She likened Dickinson’s poetry to having multiple people looking at a painting and having different ideas of what is occurring, saying her thoughts widen every time she studies the material.
“I chose these three singers because I knew that they had the soul and the mind to be able to take this depth on and interpret it well,” Ketchum said.
Ho admittedly wasn’t too familiar with Dickinson, who riveted mid-19th century readers with her expressive, experimental poetry. While interpreting the material herself, she tried to not get “lost in the depth” of the performance.
“It’s finding that balance between, as a singer when you’re going to perform this, how deep am I willing to go?,” she asked herself. “How deep am I available to go? How deep can I go while still being present, so that I can be here with my audience and share this with them.”
Sunday’s audience will be along for a journey that Ho called a “kaleidoscope of emotions,” and McDonald said will be a “very emotional, beautiful and melodic journey.” Bass noted that preparing for the performance has forced her to expend mental and physical energy to connect with the poet.
“Not only (is) the poetry so hard, it’s so beautiful, and you’re really just diving deeper and deeper into each meaning and what it could be, but you’re also learning the intricate notes and it’s not easy … but it’s exciting … and I’m really excited to see how the audience interprets all this because the music is not your average concert,” McDonald said.
Tickets for the show, which begins at 4 p.m. Sunday, are available to purchase on the Verdi Chorus website, www.verdichorus.org.