Interview: Verdi Chorus Artistic Director Anne Marie Ketchum On Organization’s Artistic Growth & Stability

By David Salazar

It all started in a restaurant. Specifically, the Ristorante di Musica in Santa Monica, California.

That’s where the Verdi Chorus could be seen throughout the years since its inception in 1983. As patrons arrived to enjoy their meals, the music of the great opera composers would be just feet away.

But the restaurant goers were not the only ones benefiting from the exchange. The opportunity to sing in such a welcoming environment allowed the members of the Verdi Chorus to take some risks.

“It was a great training ground for many, many singers and several who sang there went on to substantial careers,” Anne Marie Ketchum, the Founding Artistic Director of the Verdi Chorus told OperaWire in a recent interview. “It was a wonderful place to try things out, there was a great freedom to it.  We sang everything from opera to Broadway musical theatre, as well as the works of Jacques Brel, Kurt Weill and others.”

Starting All Over

And while performance art is undeniably one of the most challenging industries to break into and then sustain, there is another that is equally challenging – the restaurant business. Many industry experts note that 90 percent of all independent restaurant establishments close after their first year, and of those that make it past the first 365 days, 70 percent will close their doors within the next three to five years.

The Ristorante di Musica was one of those establishments that overcame the odds, but it too inevitably closed its doors in 1991.

That could have been the death of the Verdi Chorus as well. With its stable home-base of eight years no longer around, the organization would likely have to rebuild its brand, find a new venue to perform in, and also find a new audience.

“The future of the Verdi Chorus was in doubt only momentarily, for about three minutes,” Ketchum revealed before noting that a number of chorus members, headed by Tom Redler stepped up in a big way. “They put up the money to keep it going, and asked me if I would agree to continue in my role of Artistic Director, as they loved what we were doing so much.”

Ketchum agreed. Realizing that the moment afforded the organization an opportunity for change, she issued a few new regulations for the betterment of the organization.

The first of these was to audition all the members of the chorus and all potential newcomers.

“I was determined to have the musical quality of the chorus go up,” she noted.

The second condition she put on taking over the organization artistically was that other members of the organization “take care of all of the business end of things and leave all of the artistic decisions to me.  They enthusiastically agreed.”

New Directions

Unsurprisingly, the biggest hurdle the organization had to overcome in its new state was finding a place to perform. The Verdi Chorus found itself a nomadic organization, appearing in a variety of locations including a hotel and a drag bar in West Hollywood.

But eventually, the Verdi Chorus found its new home – the First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica.

“It’s a wonderful space which features beautiful acoustics and a terrific piano, as well as ample rehearsal space and parking,” Ketchum explained.

This gave the company the newfound stability it needed to continue its growth along a number of different paths.

“The Verdi Chorus has changed and evolved in every way an organization can grow – in terms of financial stability, artistry, and size. We have also become a force to be reckoned with in the Los Angeles classical music community,” Ketchum asserted.

Crafting A Vision

With a wide range of stability at the forefront, Ketchum was able to truly craft her vision of the musical ensemble as she saw fit, creating unique programs that explore opera’s expansive but often overlooked choral repertory.

The programming for a particular concert often develops in a number of unique ways.

“How I decide a program begins with opera pieces that interest and excite me,” she noted regarding her process in curating concert programs. “I am constantly writing them down, or thinking ‘This is a piece I’d like to do sometime,’ or people will mention a particular opera for me to take a closer look at.”

Oftentimes, Ketchum finds herself really excited about a specific opera and she seeks out a guest soloist who collaborates with him or her on the program.

“This can lead to my hiring a second guest soloist, and then a third, and making sure there is enough great material for all of the soloists to sing,” she added.

Finally, sometimes she just wants to challenge the chorus with new repertory and builds a program around that. She balances out those choices with “less challenging” music.

“I always try to program both the familiar and the unfamiliar. I like to educate our audience, and also do things that intrigue me,” she noted.

This is how the Verdi Chorus’ last two concerts came together. In the fall, the organization put on a showcase with an emphasis on such tragic works as “Mefistofele,” “Aida,” and “Nabucco.”

“These are some of the works that really move me on the deepest level,” Ketchum explained.

Noting that these works could be a bit “heavy in tone,” she sought to balance things for the Spring concert and put on selections from works that “truly is the ‘Rom-Com’ of opera.”

Entitled “La vita e amore” and set for showcases on April 6 and 7, these performances will feature music from Donizetti’s famed comedies “Don Pasquale,” “L’Elisir d’Amore,” and “La Fille du Régiment,” in addition to music from “Les Pêcheurs de Perles,” “Lakmé,” and “La Rondine.” Additionally, there will be music from two Verdi tragedies – “I Vespri Siciliani” and “Ernani” – to provide some contrast to the merry proceedings. It will also feature four soloists – soprano Jamie Chamberlin, mezzo-soprano Danielle Marcelle Bond, tenor Nathan Granner, and baritone Roberto Perlas Gómez.

“It is truly a program dedicated to the themes of springtime, life, and of course, love!”


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