On only April 6th and 7th at the First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, the Verdi Chorus, famous for its operatic repertory, and fascinatingly comprised of members between 18 and 80, will dazzle audiences with a performance entitled “L’Amore e la Vita” (Italian for “Love and Life”). Featuring four guest soloists, including the wife and husband tandem of soprano Jamie Chamberlin and tenor Nathan Granner, as well as mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond and baritone Roberto Perlas Gómez, the program is expected to celebrate the enduring, lively, and spring-time themes of romance and comedy.
The Verdi Chorus, which was founded in 1983 at the Verdi Restaurant in Santa Monica (it closed in 1991), continues to be proudly helmed by its proud and passionate Artistic Director, Anne Marie Ketchum, who has loyally remained with the group since its inception. In addition to being the Verdi Chorus’ Music Director and Conductor, as well as an established singer herself, she has 34 years of experience as an educator at Pasadena City College, where she started its opera program and directed countless stage productions.
Ketchum, who has dedicated her life to operatic music, has positively impacted her students’ lives, who have been forever changed by her guiding hand and insightful teaching. In an exclusive interview with LAexcites, Ketchum graciously touches on a variety of topics, including her introduction to music, the goals and opportunities of the Verdi Chorus, her expectations of “Love and Life,” the rehearsal process, what separates a traditional choir from an opera chorus, if anyone can be a great singer, her legacy, and much more.
When did you know for the first time that music was your passion?
Ketchum: When I was as child, I was in a church choir and we had a choir director who taught me basic vocal technique and how to read music. When I went to junior high and then high school, I joined other choirs, participated in musicals, and it just happened. You realize somewhere along the way who you are, especially when you get older, and that’s what occurred in my case.
Now in its 36th season, what are the goals of the Verdi Chorus and, in your mind, have they changed over the years or always remained the same?
Ketchum: Our goals have basically stayed the same. I’ve always been interested in bringing operatic music to a public that loves it as well as those who haven’t heard it before. We’re spreading the word with the Verdi Chorus.
What’s changed is that we want to give more opportunities to young opera singers. I have Walter Fox section leaders and we have an Apprentice Singers program with college-aged kids who receive scholarships for their musical education.
Tell us about how you came to pick the selections for the upcoming ‘Love and Life’ program on April 6th and 7th. Are there certain songs you’re personally looking forward to the most?
Ketchum: I choose pieces that I really love and that goes for every concert we do. With ‘L’Amore e la Vita,’ it was prompted by a concert that we had a year and a half ago, in which Nathan Granner proposed to Jamie Chamberlin, who immediately accepted. I invited them back (they are two of the four soloists in the upcoming concert) and they will share a romantic duet from ‘Don Pasquale’ and ‘The Elixir of Love’ (both by Gaetano Donizetti).
One of my favorites is ‘Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso’ (from Puccini’s ‘La rondine’). Translated, it means ‘I drink your fresh smile.’ It’s really beautiful. The tenor sings to the soprano, she answers him, and the chorus expands into this romantic melody.
What has the rehearsal process been like in preparation for this spring concert?
Ketchum: It’s essentially every Monday night, although we do add two Wednesdays the last few weeks before a concert. We’ve got a nice, big group with sixty voices, comprised of all ages and people. And they all come together because they love this. In rehearsal I’ll often say, ‘You’re having too much fun; let’s get back to work’ (laughs).
Opera choral music is very different than choir because it’s drama and theater. In a conventional choral concert, the music is simply arranged by a choir director for an ensemble of performers. In its opera form, there’s an action and a story that are being portrayed in which individuals are observing and commenting on a dramatic situation.
The second difference between the two is the style of singing. With operatic singing, you open up your throat and let out big notes; it’s a freeing feeling.
If I asked your students what your most common note or piece of advice is, what do you think they’d say?
Ketchum: You’d have to ask them, but we often talk about technique, getting your breath down, lowering the larynx, lifting the soft palate, and purifying the vowels. I also emphasize what is written in the score and to do what it says. But my singers also have to ask themselves why a composer put in a certain note, as there is always a dramatic reason. Also, why the tempo is slow or fast is apt to reveal an emotional quality to be explored.
Do you think anyone can learn to become a great singer by becoming well-versed in the physiological processes that go into it (i.e., breathing, posture, etc.), or do you think there’s a strong innate component that can’t be denied?
Ketchum: I think it’s a combination. There are those who can automatically sing beautifully and those who have to learn how to make their voice sound more pleasing. I think the latter group is in better shape versus those who just do it naturally. If you know how your body is working, you are aware of what to do in order to comply with the musical direction and align with the moods and intent being conveyed to produce a somber, strident, or frivolous sound.
It’s important to understand it from a physical standpoint because you can hurt yourself if you don’t. By being able to break down the technical facets of singing, you can express your voice in a beautiful and healthy way and even course-correct the sound for maximum theatricality and drama.
The non-profit Verdi Chorus has taken an active approach to the surrounding Southern California communities, helping to train select college voice students and other young professional singers. To this end, is there an outreach example that you’re most proud of?
Ketchum: I am really pleased with our most recent Apprentice Singers program since we’re able to give scholarships to young singers and give them a repertoire that they may not normally sing (e.g., Verdi, Puccini).
I also love our Walter Fox section leaders. There are about 15 of them; they’re given some authority, they often work on new material, and we’ll have an extra showcase for them in May.
You’ve had an illustrious career and done everything imaginable in the realm of voice and opera. What is, ultimately, the legacy you want to leave behind to your students?
Ketchum: A love for the art form and a desire to always be involved with it in one way or another. With all those students, very few are going to go on as opera or professional singers. However, if my contribution enriches lives and creates a spark so that there are more opera fans and supporters, then that will be very important to me. I want to keep it alive for the next generation who might become inspired by one of our wonderful concerts.
For more information, please visit verdichorus.org