Verdi Chorus to stream Spanish love songs in first of three musical soirees
By Bridgette Redman

In the face of a drought of live musical performances, the Verdi Chorus’ Artistic Director Anne Marie Ketchum has summoned the love stories of Spain to sate the thirst of audiences from Santa Monica to Pasadena and beyond.

Amidst a pandemic in which singing is one of the more dangerous activities people can do together, Ketchum is directing an online series of musical soirees, starting with a dalliance in Spain with “Amor y Odio, Songs of Spain and the New World.”

This first concert in a series is dedicated to the songs and Spain’s zarzuelas, a performance that’s similar to musical theater with a mixture of spoken and sung text.

To make the concerts safely work, she is calling upon the Fox Singers, a group of young professionals who make up the section leaders of the chorus. There are 15 members in the ensemble and six of them will rotate performing in each of the three planned hour-long concerts. The series has been dubbed “Verdi Chorus Presents.”

“We will really get focused and show off who they are and their personal artistry,” Ketchum said.

The Verdi Chorus was founded in 1983 under Ketchum’s direction. Before the pandemic, they held two to four concerts a year focusing on grand opera choruses. The chorus provides opportunity for talented amateur singers to perform side-by-side with professional singers. The chorus started its life at the Verdi Restaurant, but when the restaurant closed in 1991, they continued, eventually gaining nonprofit status. It has a repertoire of more than 300 choruses from 81 operas in seven languages.

Ketchum’s starting with Spain because she has had a long-running love of Spanish song. She jokes about how her first boyfriend was a Latino and she married a Cuban, so the music of Spain is in her blood.

“I’ve always sung songs in Spanish and loved it,” Ketchum said.

“There is really just something about the passion that this music shows. I call it ‘Amor y Odio’—love and hate. The passions are there—they don’t mince words. (The songs) are just kind of out there. Some are fun and happy; some are a little spicy.”

The singers will gather one at a time in a recording studio with a pianist safely distanced. A Grammy-winning recording artist will record each of them singing their parts. Even the two singing a duet will record their parts separately. The concert premiered online on November 8 and is available still.

Ketchum hopes these concerts will be an antidote to the discord that society is experiencing with people feeling lost, angry, alone and stuck in their houses.

“Music has always been a healing thing,” Ketchum said. “Being together and making music and going to hearing music is something we all need and humanity has needed for all the many centuries we’ve been on this world. We can’t be together right now, but we can simulate it. We’re trying to do that as much as we can, find this healing quality, find a way to get out of the ugliness of this day and remember who we are basically as human beings.”

Ketchum has led the chorus through many changes over its 35-plus-year history and the pandemic is just the latest, though it brings challenges unlike those faced in the past.

Ketchum said it is doable by staying flexible.

“If you are an artist or musician, you have to be flexible first of all, all through your life,” Ketchum said.

“Life hands you all kinds of things. This year is absolutely insane. Many challenges you face just by being who you are. I love to make music. I love to get other people to make music. Now we just have to work a little harder to make that happen. The basic goal is the same—the art form and the beauty—let’s figure out how to get it out there and make it happen.”

The Fox Singers are all vocalists Ketchum—who created the opera program at Pasadena City College and taught on the voice faculty for 34 years—has personally auditioned and chosen because they are career minded.

She said that, like many people in the performing arts, their careers have just stopped because of the pandemic. She recognizes many young singers forced to take a year off will end up leaving the profession and doing something else. She’s hoping that these concerts—for which the singers will all be paid—will help them stay on track.

The ensemble was named in memory of long-time chorus and board member, Walter Fox. They serve as section leaders, rehearsal coaches and featured singers.

While the concert is free to view, audience members are invited to make donations to the artist fund that the Verdi Chorus has set up.

“We’ve had some wonderful donations and people are being generous,” Ketchum said.

The Fox Singers participating in “Amor y Odio” are:

• Sarah Salazar, soprano

• Tiffany Ho, soprano

• Elias Berezin, tenor

• Joseph Gárate, tenor

• Esteban Rivas, lyric bass

• Judy Tran, mezzo soprano

All of the members of the Fox Singers, Ketchum said, have voices that can handle the operatic repertoire, can lead a section of people of all ages, have high-quality musicianship and have personalities that mesh with hers.

“Each one of these singers is enthusiastically working on this music and I’m so happy about that,” Ketchum said.

Salazar and Ho sing a duet and trade off in a collection of nine songs in a set. Berezin is a tenor who started out as a baritone. He closes the program with a famous piece about a city in Spain that was written by a Mexican composer.

Gárate, whom Ketchum describes as an absolutely romantic, charming and marvelous high tenor, is singing a set of passionate arias. Rivas sings a song taken from Spanish pop, a sweet love song by Maria Grever. Tran will accompany herself on piano and singing a set of Afro-Cuban songs.

“Amor y Odio” will be the first of three concerts. The next one will be Italian songs and will come out around the beginning of the year. The third one will be a concert of American art songs that will likely include classic musical theater such as Rodgers and Hammerstein and other songs possibly going back to the 1920s and ’30s.

“I think we all need a little more music in our lives right now,” Ketchum said. “Let’s get back to who we really are and what we’re really all about and get away from all of the conflict for a while and into some beauty, into some humanity and art.”