Choral Forces: On the Eve of the 3rd Annual Toronto International Choral Festival, We Ask Some of Canada's Leading Singers What Makes Choral Works Different from Opera

By Citron, Paula | Opera Canada, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Choral Forces: On the Eve of the 3rd Annual Toronto International Choral Festival, We Ask Some of Canada's Leading Singers What Makes Choral Works Different from Opera


Citron, Paula, Opera Canada


A choral festival wears two hats. On one hand, there are the concerts that showcase choirs by themselves, rich in their diversity. On the other, there are the programs in which the choirs are joined by an orchestra and soloists. When the third annual Toronto International Choral Festival opens on May 31, five of the 30 concerts, including the opening and closing galas, feature orchestra and soloists.

Most professional singers cut their teeth on choral work. There comes a time, however, when singers in pursuit of a career move out of the choir to become a soloist. Where once they were one of the anonymous throng, they now are front and centre. They are also thrown very much on their own resources, unable to act as well as sing, and without the atmosphere of scenery or costumes to augment their performance.

To find out about the soloist experience in a choral work, Opera Canada talked to a wide array of Canadian singers, ranging from mezzo-soprano Catherine Robbin and soprano Karma Gauvin, whose careers are primarily recital and oratorio, to soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and tenor Ben Heppner, who spend most of their time on the opera stage.

To a person, the singers agree their role in a choral work is to tell a story. In fact, Robbin feels the singers and conductor are responsible for making the text meaningful for the audience. "There's a difference," she says, "between making music, and making music a vehicle for the text." bass Robert Pomakov defines a soloist's role as being "an orator, and an aria is making a speech." Baritone Russell Braun goes even further, equating his role in the sacred works as being a minister preaching to the congregation. Adds tenor Benjamin Butterfield: "You have to take people on a journey. That's the challenge and the mystique of a large choral work--to excite the audience's imagination with an internal sense of drama, rather than through the theatrics of opera." As Heppner points out, oratorio characters are, more often then not, generic roles, and since solos are not character-driven, wresting every essence of drama from the text becomes all the more vital.

While most of our interviewees felt they would prepare for a choral work as they would for an opera or recital, they also talked about working particularly hard on a choral solo to find the nuance, color, dynamics and musical lines of the text to bring out the drama. In fact, Pieczonka places the emphasis on "choral," and declares the choir is the star of a choral work. "Singers must submerge their diva instincts for the greater good of the work," she says. "These are not star vehicles. The music is the most important thing."

Certainly, being a soloist in a choral work means being limited by strict rules: the men in their formal wear, the women in their gowns. the de rigueur score book, the lack of physical expression, the group bows. Singers used words like "stoic," "restrained," "respectful," "sensitive" and "spiritual" to describe the experience, though Heppner calls the genre "stiff' and Pieczonka would like to see singers transcend the "prim stereotype."

The stilted conventions of oratorio came about when opera performances were forbidden by religious leaders during Lent. Handel, for instance, intended his 1732 oratorio Esther to be fully staged until the Bishop of London issued his interdict Although oratorios have been staged since their Renaissance beginnings, choral soloist work in its purist sense is shorn of the theatricalities of opera, and many conductors and audience members are determined to keep it thus. Heppner and several others lament this resistance to change. He prefers to get rid of the score book altogether, to allow more expressive use of the hands and body. "I think the audience would like to see us emoting," he says.

Rehearsal times for choral works are notoriously short. Usually, soloists have a private piano rehearsal with the conductor, then a rehearsal with the orchestra, followed by the dress rehearsal with the chorus.

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