By May S. Ruiz
It might surprise some people to know that the Pasadena City College (PCC) has an opera music program. In fact, PCC’s administrators themselves didn’t think to offer the course until Anne Marie Ketchum, a full-time faculty teacher, established it.
Ketchum, a South Pasadena resident, is also the master behind the Santa Monica-based Verdi Chorus, which is celebrating its 36th season with a Spring Concert ‘L’Amore e la Vita’ (Love and Life). It will hold two performances at First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica on April 6 and 7, 2019.
A few weeks before Verdi Chorus’s spring concert, Ketchum sat down with us to talk about her two major endeavors.
“I started teaching at PCC in 1981 where we had a song and dance group that performed with the big band, which became the musical theatre workshop. But my love was classical music and I found there was an awful lot of interest among the students. The administrators had no clue, they thought the kids wouldn’t be interested. So I set them straight and started the opera music program, which became an immediate success. It grew to the point that we were doing major productions once a year. We did a workshop program in the fall and a full opera production in the spring – sometimes it was a series of one-acts and at other times it was a full opera. We did ‘The Magic Flute,’ ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ ‘Merry Widow,’ and many other well-known operas. The last one we did was ‘Tales of Hoffman.’”
Continues Ketchum, “I taught at PCC for 34 years and, in fact, just recently retired. I enjoyed teaching, but it was time to change my focus and do other things. And I was lucky enough to be able to retire at an age when I could still do that. I wanted to make sure that the opera program continued, so, along with some of my colleagues, we made a push to engage someone to replace me as opera director. They hired Maria Fortuna Dean and she’s doing a wonderful job keeping that program robust.”
At the time Ketchum was teaching at PCC, she was also an opera singer at a dining place in Santa Monica called The Verdi Restaurant. She recalls, “The Verdi Restaurant was a beautiful place with elegant décor, served delicious Italian food, and had dinner shows. I was one of about 25 opera singers who would sing three or four songs. On any given night, we would do a show of opera arias, duets, etc., and then a late night performance of Broadway hits.
“The owners of the restaurant decided it would be a good idea to form a chorus made up of patrons. They asked me to lead it because I had some conducting experience – having done my undergraduate degree in choral conducting. The professional singers from the restaurant, like me, did solos with the patrons who were part of the chorus. Every time the chorus sang the restaurant had a full house because all their friends and relatives came. They loved it so much that when the restaurant closed, the chorus didn’t want to quit. Consequently, several of them got together and raised some money to keep it going. They asked me if I wanted to head the group and I said yes, with the stipulation that we auditioned everybody. It wasn’t something we did then because the owners of the restaurant didn’t want to turn anyone away. But when I took over, I thought it was important to elevate the quality of our show. My other condition was that they take care of all the business and leave all of the artistic decisions to me. It’s highly unusual for an arts organization to give its artistic director complete control, but they agreed. Thus, in 1983, Verdi Chorus was born.
“We found various places to perform until we finally ended up at the First Methodist Church in Santa Monica. We grew into a huge company of strong singers and good musicians of all ages from every walk of life and every place on earth. I have 15 section leaders – which is also very unusual in a group like this – of young, paid opera singers to sing with the group and to do some of the small solos.”
The section leaders, named the Walter Fox Singers after the family who donated the funds to maintain it, became an offshoot of the Verdi Chorus. These are young, serious-minded talents who are pursuing a career in opera. Describes Ketchum, “Most of them are either opera students in the universities, or grad students, or those who have just graduated and starting careers. This gives them an opportunity to learn music that they might not have learned, probably because as a young singer they don’t do all the big heavy singing. We’re doing Verdi, Puccini, and some of the big opera; this also gives them the chance to sing solos, which they may not have gotten to do in school. It’s like a launching pad for them.”
Asked if she has helped start someone’s career in opera this way, Ketchum responds, “Yes, as a matter of fact, there’s one that comes to mind – Babatunde Akinboboye who’s from Nigeria. We call him Bobby and he was a Walter Fox singer for several sessions. He’s done marvelous work and has flourished. Another one is David Childs, who was with us for several sessions a year ago, and is now going to Rabbinical School. He’s going to become cantor and I think he’s just absolutely perfect for that. There are several who have gone in various directions in music.”
Verdi Chorus’s ‘L’Amore e la Vita’ features two returning soloists, Nathan Granner and Jamie Chamberlin, for whom this year’s performance marks a particularly happy occasion. Ketchum elucidates, “When they sang with us last season, the Sunday matinee culminated with Nathan proposing marriage to Jamie onstage, to the delight and surprise of the audience and Jamie. She not only accepted, but did so with several high Cs! To have them back as husband and wife, and heralded by Verdi Chorus with ‘Si celebri alfine’ from Verdi’s ‘I Vespri Siciliani,’ seems wonderfully right! I’m also thrilled to have the wonderful Danielle Marcelle Bond, who I am a huge fan of, joining us. Additionally, I’m delighted to welcome back Roberto Perlas Gomez, one of our favorite baritones and part of the Verdi Chorus family. The fact that these four incredible soloists are also connected as dear friends makes having all of them together for this concert even more special.”
The longevity and success of Verdi Chorus seems incredible given the general belief that opera isn’t mainstream and is a niche. Making it accessible and appealing to a larger population could prove to be challenge. While Ketchum agrees with that assumption, she contends, “Sure, there is a wide swath of the populace that’s clueless about opera. But I have to say that people who love opera are often fanatical about it. They champion it wholeheartedly and go to great lengths to support it. Furthermore, our chorus members and Walter Fox Singers are involved in many things in their daily lives and meet other people. Through simple word of mouth, people are finding out about us. But we are also very consciously doing a lot to actively promote the work that we do – we now have a PR company that publicizes us, we’re on social media like Facebook and Twitter.
“One other thing I want to point out is that our ticket prices are much lower than other opera events. In many instances, someone will come to the concert and get turned on to opera because of that. It’s not as expensive, it’s a one-night thing, and it’s a couple of hours. We don’t have sets and we’re not in costumes, yet there’s something powerful and lyrical in the acting and the soloists’ performance. It’s different from your normal choral music because there’s so much going on, it’s exciting and magnificent. Opera might be one of the most complex of the performing arts. Opera is theatre – there’s passion and intrigue, comedy and tragedy, and everything in between – and that’s why the art has survived over a long period of time.”
This weekend, let the Verdi Chorus transport you into another world for a celebration of love and life. For opera allows us to escape the monotony of our mundane life even as it mirrors its confounding complexities.