Would you care for some Puccini with that pasta? How about a little Rigoletto with your risotto?
The concept of combining the sounds of opera with the tastes and smells of Italian cuisine was integral to the creation of the Verdi Chorus, which celebrates its 40th anniversary with a pair of concerts Nov. 18 and 19 in Santa Monica.
Things have changed a lot for the ensemble since the early 1980s. Food service is a thing of the distant past for the chorus. Its artistic ambitions have risen enormously; its repertoire has expanded exponentially.
But its essential mission — bringing singers together to perform great opera choruses — remains the same. And the product remains uniquely delectable.
“An opera chorus engages in a different kind of singing,” said Anne Marie Ketchum, the chorus’s artistic director since its founding. “It’s a full-out kind of singing. There’s no holding back.
“Members of the audience have told me it’s a visceral experience to hear this massive sound, and some of our singers have said it’s quite liberating to be able to let go.”
The Verdi Chorus’s origin story is, if not exactly operatic, certainly unusual. In the early years of the Reagan administration, the music-loving owners of an Italian restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard decided live opera would perfectly complement their establishment. They hired a group of professional singers, including Ketchum, to perform for the diners.
“It was a high-end, lovely Italian restaurant, beautifully decorated with original art on the walls depicting scenes from Verdi operas,” she recalled. “We had a company of 20 or 25 singers. On any given night, you’d hear three or four of us.” One of their piano accompanists was the young Grant Gershon (now artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale).
A year or so later, the owners had another idea: Why not form a chorus featuring some of their regular customers? “They came to me since I had a conducting background,” Ketchum said. “So we started it.
“Because the chorus was made up of patrons of the restaurant, the owners did not want me to audition anybody. I had to take anyone who came in the door. We did simple things, like “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco, which is mostly unison, and it’s gorgeous and deeply meaningful. That kind of became a theme song for the chorus.”
This went on for a decade or so, until the restaurant was forced to close during an economic recession in the early 1990s. At that point, several members of the chorus approached Ketchum, telling her they wanted to keep the ensemble going. More important, they were willing to put up money to make it happen.
Ketchum agreed to stay on, but with one caveat. “I insisted that all the artistic decisions would be left to me,” she said. “To this day, I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder saying, ‘I don’t like that piece.’ It’s a comfortable position to be in.
“We ended up performing in some pretty strange places for a while,” she recalled. “We performed in a hotel in Santa Monica, as well as a few different churches and a synagogue. At one point, we performed in a gay bar in West Hollywood. We ended up at the Methodist church in Santa Monica, where we performed for a long time before moving to First Presbyterian Church, which is perfect.”
Over the years, the ensemble has sung an amazing 300 different choruses from 81 operas.
“We primarily focus on the 19th century and early 20th century,” Ketchum said. “We do the big warhorses, as well as more obscure works by composers we know, such as early Verdi. We haven’t done too much contemporary music, but I’m looking to open things up a little now.” She noted that she’s looking at some pieces by her late friend, composer Daniel Catán.
Who exactly is in the chorus, which currently consists of just over 60 singers? “They’re lawyers and doctors, business owners and housewives,” Ketchum said. “There are people of all ages, from 22 to their 80s. That’s one of the things I love about this. It’s really kind of astounding to see these people who are all so different come together to create something beautiful.”
As well as dramatic. Opera choruses, Ketchum emphasizes, are theatrical. “They’re not just singing notes,” she said. “They’re telling a story when they sing.”
The chorus has implemented several upgrades over the past decade. Ketchum now has 16 young professional singers she uses as section leaders. There is also an apprentice program for college students, who earn scholarship money through their participation.
The chorus performs two programs per year, in the fall and spring. For this, its 40th anniversary season, the ensemble is adding a special performance: its first presentation of a complete opera, Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, on Jan. 20, 2024.
The chorus’s regular audience, which has bounced back to pre-pandemic levels, is around 250 per concert (for a total of 500 per program because each is performed twice over a given weekend). Its annual budget is around $150,000.
Ketchum, who turned 73 this year, recently retired from the voice faculty at Pasadena City College after 34 years. “I stick with things, don’t I?” she laughed. She plans to stay on the Verdi Chorus podium for the foreseeable future.
“I feel most alive when I’m in front of the chorus, working on a rehearsal,” she said. “That creativity — findings things in a phrase, communicating that, hearing it come back at me — I’m not ready to give that up. I don’t think you can have a full life without some connection to art.”
The Verdi Chorus performs music from Nabucco, Don Carlo, and La traviata, plus music by Camille Saint-Saëns and Pietro Mascagni, at 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 18 and 4 p.m. on Nov. 19 at First Presbyterian Church, 1220 Second St. in Santa Monica. Tickets are $40 to $50 general admission, $30 for seniors, and $10 for students. Find more information on the Verdi Chorus’s website.