Any group endeavor has its ups and downs. From the business world to creative spaces, groups go through high points before often ultimately breaking apart, either due to financial troubles or a lack of new ideas to forge artistic paths. While many groups serve as cautionary tales, one creative endeavor in Santa Monica has persevered through the decades, traversing its musical mastery through different points of the city’s history.
For the 2023-24 concert season, the Verdi Chorus is celebrating its 40th anniversary, a testament to the countless singers that have engaged in operatic choral music under the leadership of Artistic Director Anne Marie Ketchum. The Verdi, named for Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi and the old Verdi Restaurant in Santa Monica in which the group was born, is a unique Southern California treasure by focusing primarily on diverse operatic selections.
Four decades after starting as a collection of what Ketchum called “passionate amateur music lovers,” the chorus will be performing its Fall 2023 concert featuring operatic sequences from Guiseppe Verdi at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Monica, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday.
“This concert is such a landmark event, not only for the chorus and audience members who have been with us from the very beginning, but for new opera enthusiasts we are welcoming for the first time on both sides of the concert stage,” Ketchum said of the show.
The director recounts 1983 like it was yesterday, stating that the Verdi Restaurant was a “very elegant place” where a company of about 20 young professionals would perform opera alongside more contemporary works. The restaurant regulars came up with the idea of transforming into a chorus, and Ketchum was asked to lead due to her prior conducting background.
“There was a lot of enthusiasm, and I chose relatively simple things for them to do,” Ketchum said of the early years. “And they had such a good time … every time the chorus sang in the restaurant, [the] place was packed with their friends, their relatives, anybody else that came along. The chorus grew … it was a good thing, it was everybody having a good time and making really good music.”
One of the enthusiastic members was Bobbi Mapstone, who remains the last of Verdi’s original singers 40 years later. Mapstone decided to join the chorus after a push from friends, and had joy at Monday rehearsals in the restaurant, able to eat delicious leftover cakes from the prior night’s dinner service. Although not trained in the art of opera, Mapstone has grown incredibly close to Ketchum’s group and the musical form.
“It’s got theater, it’s got music, it’s got singing, it’s got everything … so [Verdi] really made a difference in my life … it’s been very, very special, and I can’t believe it’s [been] 40 years,” she noted.
After the closure of the restaurant, Ketchum was able to make the group official, complete with auditions and the ability to perform more complex pieces. Finding new venues was just as complex, as Verdi performed in various bars, hotels and synagogues, before finding home at the First Methodist Church in Santa Monica, followed by a recent move to the First Presbyterian Church. With every new venue and idea for a show, membership grew as well, with the group boasting 60 singers in 2023.
“We were not by any means mainstream, we didn’t really start to move into the music world for quite some time, but we really did grow,” Mapstone said of Verdi’s path. “And it’s been such an incredible learning experience for me to go from really no classical music at all [to] becoming passionate about opera.”
The group grew in diversity over time as well, bringing in singers from all walks of life, ranging in age from 18 to the 87. Ketchum says that they all learn from one another because they’re “not all exactly the same kind of person,” which coincides with opera where they are portraying characters unlike themselves.
Having a diverse support network has led to group expansion into such endeavors as the young professional group Fox Singers and the Sahm Foundation Apprentice Singers scholarship program. Through all the growth, Ketchum showed gratitude for her team escaping “various difficult times” like the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2008 financial crisis.
“I think the fact we’re still doing opera courses, and people are still coming on and passionate about it, I think that’s a lot to celebrate. I think it’s quite astounding … and I’m incredibly grateful that this has been a part of my life,” Ketchum said.
For more information on the Verdi Chorus or the Fall 2023 concert, visit verdichorus.org