Toledo Opera Honors its Own with Great Opera Choruses

Toledo Opera presents “Celebrazione del Coro, a concert of Great Opera Choruses,” April 21 and 23 at The Valentine Theater. The evening promises not only highlights from the greatest operas ever written, but a chance to celebrate the sometimes unsung heroes of Toledo Opera — the local singers that make up the chorus and are the backbone of every production. 

Conductor Kevin Bylsma has been planning this first-of-its-kind concert since 2019 when, like many productions, it was delayed due to the pandemic. It’s an evening of choruses and arias with four guest artists plus Toledo Opera’s resident artists. Bylsma says he has bookended the evening with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco,” opening with the overture and ending with “Va, pensiero,” also known as the Hebrew Chorus. “Va, pensiero” is a famous chorus piece due to its association with the Risorgimento or the unification of Italy — a social and political movement that consolidated regions (then separate nation states) into one country (modern day Italy) to throw off the rule of northern Italy by the Austrians in 1871. Italians were moved to see themselves in the same plight as the Hebrew slaves in the opera, but it’s a deeply moving piece even if you don’t know that or understand the words.

Kids – Opera’s Future

The evening will also feature a children’s chorus singing the “Evening Prayer” from Hansel and Gretel, and the “Toreador Chorus” from act IV of “Carmen,” sung in French. When asked how kids get involved, Bylsma says, “Rachel Cammarn, who does public relations for the Opera, sent out an announcement for kids to audition and one to local papers as well. Sixteen children responded and 14 were selected, only because two of the children were very young. The children’s chorus range in age from 9 to 14.” Adds Bylsma, “I find it hopeful and gratifying that there are 16 children out there who now know about opera. There were a few who told me, ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to do.’ For them to have that opportunity makes me so happy.” The chorus will be onstage the whole time, sitting down on risers during the arias. “We will have subtle lighting changes throughout the performance,” says Bylsma. “The most prominent during a piece from “Mephistopheles” that takes place in heaven where we’ll use a sky-blue background. I will be hosting from the orchestra pit, giving background on each piece.”

Why the “Celebrazione?”

The chosen pieces for this performance are from operas Toledo can’t produce because they’re too big in scale, like Puccini’s “Turandot.”  “Aida” is another opera that is a little too big. So, this concert is an opportunity to do some great music from these kinds of operas. To further illustrate, Bylsma points to Wagner, another composer whose scale is enormous. “The Metropolitan Opera is doing ‘Lohengrin’ this season and their chorus alone is 130 people, and our chorus is about 60 people. We can’t do the whole opera, but we will perform a selection from it,” relates Bylsma. All the pieces selected for “Celebrazione del Coro” are close to his heart. “Tannhauser,” also composed by Wagner, is a favorite since his childhood, and they’ll be performing the entrance of the guests from Act II.

The Unsung Heroes

“The chorus tends to get overlooked in most companies,” says Bylsma. “They’re the local people who are always there, but our chorus is the face of Toledo Opera. There is no better way to highlight the people who are the success and the face of the company than to do a concert around them. These are a diverse group who love opera so much that they come to rehearsal after working a regular job all day to work hard all evening, every evening, before the opera opens. In our chorus we have a prison guard, a psychologist, music teachers, and a detective from the Oregon police force — all connected by their love of opera. It’s through these voices that Opera stays alive and is passed down to another generation, it’s time to celebrate them.”