Opera for All: The Laboratorio Opera Choral Workshop. Conductor: Maestro Alvaro Lozano Gutiérrez. Miles Nadal JCC. February 24 to April 14.
I know I’ve really enjoyed an opera when I leave with an irresistible urge to belt out some of the arias. While this may not reflect artistic merit, it shows that the Company has performed so exuberantly that musical vibrations have been transferred from the stage to me to the point that I need to release the same vibrations myself. Until now, when I’ve had this impulse, it’s mostly been thwarted by my short-lived memory for the tunes and lyrics, plus the usual inhibitions of the untrained singer. After a few sour notes and missed intervals, I stop before I replace a beautiful memory with a discordant one.
Still, I’ve always been convinced that singing one of the great opera choruses at full throttle would be a euphoric experience, and over the next seven weeks, I’m going to get my chance, by participating in Laboratorio: Opera Choral Workshop at the Miles Nadal JCC.
Judging from the turnout at the first session on Thursday night, there are many others who have harbored the same fantasy. When I arrived one minute before it was due to start, so many people were already seated with their black binders and highlighters at the ready, that I thought I’d gotten the time wrong. The room buzzed with a greater sense of expectation than you feel before a sold out concert, as we waited to find out how Maestro Alvaro Lozano Gutierrez, the workshop leader, would transform us into an opera chorus able to manage The Triumphal March from Aida and seven other choruses including the Anvil Chorus, in time for our debut on April 17.
We soon learned that Gutierrez has developed a successful program that he’s executed many times in Italy, mostly with children’s choruses. It’s a populist approach that provides the participants with on-line links to each vocal part, so that it isn’t necessary to be able to read music, and everyone can practice at home. For the first meeting we only had the sheet music to the Triumphal March from Aida and The Voyager’s Chorus from Mozart’s Idomeneo, without the on-line links, so it was more improvisational than it will be going forward, but within 15 minutes of getting started we were singing the Triumphal March in 4 part harmony. Gutierrez takes each section, sings a phrase for that vocal range to repeat, does this several times, and then moves to the next section until the Sopranos, Altos, Tenors, and Basses are individually prepped. Then he unleashes the entire chorus at once.
I joined the Alto section and did my best to hang onto the harmonizing notes that embellished the Sopranos’ more dominant melody lines, providing my first lesson in choral singing: it’s very hard to resist defaulting to the melody. The second rule of choral singing, I learned is: when in doubt, sing softly. As I did my best, feeling excited but anxious, I looked around at other faces ranging in expression from ecstasy to confusion to embarrassed apology. Some bodies swayed, some eyes were shut in concentration, and absolutely everybody participated.
Partners with the Miles Nadal JCC for this project are the Alliance Francaise and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, three members of the Bloor St. Culture Corridor as well as the Canadian Opera Company. Its purpose is to bring an art form that has been exclusive to more people, eliminate barriers to musical education by making it accessible and affordable, and most of all FUN. The entire program costs $50 and includes a dress rehearsal at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Co-chaired by two intrepid volunteers, Elizabeth Abraham, and Briony Glassco, the project might be called a Labartoria of Love. Their hopes of getting 80 people to come out were modest; they have 140 people registered. The chorus is not auditioned, so the vocal range is wide. Some participants are members of the MNJCC choir and there some trained vocalists in the midst, and then there are wannabes like myself. Whatever the vocal skill, everyone is welcome, but at this point, more men are especially welcome as the soprano and alto sections are full.
C’mon guys, we need you to pound those anvils.