"Repeat after me: French is not hard." So began the first chorus rehearsal for The Pearl Fishers. I felt like I was back in college, in a class requiring about fifty more prerequisites than I had. The rehearsal even began much like a college class: going over administrative stuff, introducing the 'teacher' (Chorus Master John Baril) and moving everyone around so they sat according to voice type. Then it was time to get down to business.
I'm not going to lie – I can't sing. Oh, sure, I'm a rock star in my car. But these guys can really sing…and they make it look as effortless as tossing off a commercial jingle. (I am jealous.) The rehearsal was part language class, part music class, and part history class. Nobody had sung this opera before, so John had them start by singing "la" instead of the words. After a bit, the chorus practiced making some of the French sounds and repeat some of the recurring phrases. All the while, John directed the singing, occasionally throwing out comments or advice.
The chorus rehearsals are accompanied by former Ensemble Artist coach/pianist Steven Aguiló-Arbues. Steven knows a ton about opera and I learned that the whole score for any given opera is rarely performed. Directors and conductors make musical cuts – some are traditional and some are based on popularity. The Pearl Fishers is interesting because there were about a trillion different endings circulated – sometimes Zurga died on the funeral pyre, sometimes Zurga was stabbed in the back, sometimes the lovers appeared on a rock singing a love duet.
Before rehearsal, I chatted with chorus liaison Park William Showalter, who's been with the chorus since the company began. He said the chorus really felt like a family, which is good because they'll be spending a lot of time together for the next month. In addition to the 36+ hours of rehearsal, they've got to memorize and practice the pieces on their own time.
Wow! Who signs up for that kind of commitment? Choristers Chris Larsen and his wife Andrea, for one. They moved to Denver two years ago and wanted a way to spend time together and be involved in music. They began in La traviata; Pearl Fishers will be their fifth opera. Shane Delavan, who's been a chorister for fourteen years, says he enjoys the chance to stretch his musical ability and expand his experience as a musician. Each production is a new and different experience – even if it's an opera he's sung two or three times. Shane noted that you get to work with a lot of great conductors and directors, but it's his fellow chorus members that keep him coming back.