Opera Chorister for a week

Almost everyday I’m grateful for my choir. It is so unique and has given me so many opportunities and exposed me to so much unique music. And last week was no exception. Last week, when we premiered an opera. Yeah, it was a church opera, but we had professional soloists, a professional orchestra, and a professional director.

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Final Scene from Saturday performance (by Mark Christman)

The opera was called The Shoemaker and was written by local composer Stephen Paulus and local librettist Michael Dennis Browne. It was comissioned by a local church and based on a short story by Tolstoy, What Men Live By. Paulus and Browne had written a church opera, about fifteen years ago called Three Hermits, and this is to be a partner piece to that one. Unlike Three Hermits, Philip Brunelle and the Plymouth Congregational Church choir were given the opportunity to premiere this opera. And so, we did.

I’ve never been involved in anything in the theater. At least not since about third grade when I proudly played a Christmas Tree in a school pageant. And I guess I was one of the leads in a set of five Vacation Bible School plays in late elementary school or middle school, but the point is that I’d never been involved with anything involving a director. Or an assistant director. Oh yeah, and a professional orchestra. This was far outside my comfort zone.

That said, I did it. There were numerous rehearsals, dress rehearsals, etc. We had rehearsals with the soloists, without the soloists, and with a subset of soloists. We had rehearsals with Philip at the piano, Sonja at the piano (Philip directing), and full orchestra. Our last dress rehearsal started 4.5 hours before the first performance. Our costumes/choir robes are sweaty.

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Final Dress Rehearsal (by Mark Christman)

But despite the rough “tech” week and the bigger commitment needed to participate, I did it. And I’m exceedingly proud of being involved. But the cool thing is, I’m not the only one. The composer and librettist were at almost every single staged rehearsal. We were working with director Gary Gisselman who is a professional theater director and teaches at St. Olaf College. The soloists were mainly our church section leaders (and superb musicians) but they seemed to greatly enjoy this experience as well. And the soloists that Philip hired from outside the church also seemed like they felt blessed to be involved.

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Leads L-R: Simon the Shoemaker (Jim Bohn), Michael the Angel (Dan Dressen),

and Matryona the Shoemaker’s Wife (Krista Palmquist) (by Mark Christman)

The more we got into the music, the more deeply it became a part of us, floating around in our heads day in and out, even once the opera was finished. The music and lyrics are unbelievably gorgeous. (Luckily both performances were recorded by a professional choral sound engineer.) To see for yourself, check out the sound clip attached to this MPR article. (There are three songs in the piece, the second and third are sung by my choir.)

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Opening Chorus (by Mark Christman)

At first it was just bizarre. Goofy the way I stood up at one point to talk to the female lead. Awkward to hand out the props. (I handed off about half the props in the whole, minimalist show.) Frustrating trying to figure out when we were supposed to come in. Nerve-wracking doing anything (even a portion of the show) from memory. But by the second performance, during the Sunday service, in scene three, I had to avoid looking in areas of the congregation. Because people had tears running down their faces and I was desperately trying to keep it together and keep singing. At least one of the male leads was also crying, causing the nine year old girls to cry as well. And while part of the crying feeling for me was relief that this immense effort was over, another part was definitely sad. We were just getting into our groove! We were just getting to the point where we all had the lyrics to the final chorus memorized. It was just starting to gel. And then it was over. And we said goodbye to Stephen, Michael, Gary, Scotty (the AD), and the external leads. Then we turned in our music. Tomorrow will not be a better or a worse Sunday. Just very, very different. And less stressful on the voice. (And I go back to my place hiding behind the organ, not seeing anyone.)

For more:

The Star Tribune Article. (Missing some critical facts, btw).

The program (PDF).

More photos on Flickr.