Backstage with Matthew - November 14
One of the things I love about playing in repertory (changing productions night to night) is that we are constantly creating different worlds onstage. That magical shift is embodied in the incredible San Francisco Opera Chorus, a group of 48 talented singers who shift seamlessly between productions, languages, characterizations, and dramatic styles. Next Saturday, on November 19, we are presenting the SFO Chorus in Concert at the Wilsey Center’s Taube Atrium: a unique chance to experience this extraordinary group in a very different context.
One of our longest-serving choristers is mezzo-soprano Shelley Seitz, who is celebrating her 40th year in the chorus. Joining much more recently is tenor Michael Belle, tenured in 2014 (A chorister hired for all the operas in a season is a regular chorister and once a regular chorister is hired for their third year, they receive tenure if a spot is available).
Shelley has sung her whole life, taking the leads in musicals in high school. Although her time at UC Berkeley took her away from music, she gravitated quickly back to it and jumped at the option to be one of the extra choristers in the great “Wach auf” chorus in Meistersinger back in 1971. That was at a time when the Company would bring in outside choruses to supplement larger operas. After six years of auditioning (during which time she was also a supernumerary here, spending every minute she could watching the great singers of the 1970s from the wings), she was awarded a regular chorus position by then Chorus Director, Richard Bradshaw. Over the years, she says, things have become more precise on stage and the working conditions more humane. This has been Shelley’s “one constant thing in life”—a home that has always felt like a place of belonging.
Michael has had a rather different trajectory. His first career was as a software quality engineer but he was getting frustrated by the unstable nature of the work, particularly during the challenging times of the dot com bust. He had built a computer for a friend who offered to pay him in voice lessons. Michael had spent time in college singing barbershop, doo-wop and jazz, and decided to give singing another try. He was singing in the chorus in Porgy and Bess in Chicago when SFO’s Chorus Director Ian Robertson spotted him in an audition for SFO’s Porgy and offered him not only the Gershwin, but the entire season!
At SFO, choristers have a slightly different rhythm to many other parts of the Company. Their contracts are essentially calendar-year contracts and they begin learning the music for a whole calendar year in March/April, getting the music and memorization honed, and costumes fit, before any staging begins. They can be working on a November production like Butterfly nine months before you see it on stage.
Depending on the familiarity of the repertoire, the pacing of learning a new show can vary wildly. Shelley has sung Butterfly over a hundred times; Michael around 20. But both say that once they have learned a show it never leaves. Memorization can be tricky: not only are you memorizing operas in Czech, French, Italian, German, English, etc., you are also memorizing the whole ensemble. You have to understand how your part fits into the whole.
In a world in which so much is changing night to night, a great constant is the choristers’ dressing rooms. We have four regular chorus dressing rooms in the basement (two for men; two for women) and then a number of other dressing rooms for large chorus operas. Regular choristers have their own stations, complete with personalized make-up kits. Basic make-up is done by the choristers themselves; for more complex make-up like the Butterfly faces, they visit a centralized make-up room. You can glimpse a little of that in action here.
Each dressing room has its own culture: Shelley describes hers as quiet and calm. Michael’s, he acknowledges with a crafty grin, is “pretty rowdy.” The world of costume and make-up is a dramatic one. Choristers are individual characters and certain directors delve deep into that. David McVicar developed entire personas for every chorister in our recent Andrea Chénier—their relationships, their jealousies, their ambitions. It gave a wonderful foundation to play off.
There is jockeying as to who is getting the best costumes in each production and certain costumes stand out. For Michael it was the suits they wore in the 2015 Lucia, not least because it was noted that he resembled former general director, Lotfi Mansouri! Shelley’s standouts are the Fledermaus costumes for their exquisite beauty, and the fantastical costumes of the 2007 Macbeth. For Shelley, the costume is a liberating force. As she says “You can put me in front of 3,000 people in a costume and I’ll do anything. Put me in front of a group in a church just as I am, and I’m petrified!”
The SFO Chorus is a world of great singing, magic and transformation. From night to night they bring alive the myriad worlds that keep us transfixed on the War Memorial stage.