Passion in Portland: Oregon Chorus Sings 'Aida'

The Portland Opera Chorus at dress rehearsal i i

hide captionThe Portland Opera Chorus at a dress rehearsal of Aida.

Cory Weaver
The Portland Opera Chorus at dress rehearsal

The Portland Opera Chorus at a dress rehearsal of Aida.

Cory Weaver
Members of the Portland Opera in dress rehearsal for Verdi's "Aida." i i

hide captionMembers of the Portland Opera Chorus rehearse Verdi's Aida, an opera that treats the chorus almost as another character. It requires powerful and precise singing.

Cory Weaver
Members of the Portland Opera in dress rehearsal for Verdi's "Aida."

Members of the Portland Opera Chorus rehearse Verdi's Aida, an opera that treats the chorus almost as another character. It requires powerful and precise singing.

Cory Weaver

Opera's most adored spectacle, Giuseppe Verdi's Aida, opens Friday night in Portland, Ore. Alchemy will be in the air, as 70 men and women hang up their street clothes, trade in their separate selves and combine to create a single character: the operatic Chorus. Whether that character wears the costumes of Egyptian priests or Spanish gypsies, the members of the Portland Opera Chorus know that — as much as any soloist — a solid body of choristers can make a good production sublime.

On the way to the riverside headquarters of the Portland Opera, chorus member Joanna Ceciliani practices in her car, singing alongside a CD she's popped into the stereo. She has a certain innate talent and confidence. But it was a confidence she had to learn. She says she kept her Portland Opera Chorus audition a secret from her family, until she got in.

"And I don't think I've ever been as happy as when I got the letter saying we want you to be in these operas. Except maybe when I had my children."

Coming to Life

Inside the opera house, Aida is coming to life — syllable by syllable, beat by beat — thanks to chorus master Rob Ainsley, who keeps his flock in tight formation.

Some of the real magic is the unstudied delight Ainsley brings to rehearsal, which belies his intense concentration on sound and sensibilities.

"In a chorus, the instruments they're using are physically a part of themselves," Ainsley says. "Therefore, there's a much more emotional attachment to that instrument. With an orchestra, if you ask someone to play less loudly, there's no real emotion in asking that question. But if someone is emoting while singing — as loudly as they can, because that's how they feel it — if you ask them to do it less loudly, it's almost a kind of personal affront to them."

And why would you want to offend a teacher, a trucker or a barista? The Portland Opera Chorus is dominated by folks with day jobs, though each is a card-carrying member of the American Guild of Musical Artists. All are paid, but not all comers are welcome. Competition to join is stiff.

Wearing the Part

Meanwhile, as the chorus rehearses, there are other operatic adjustments to be made, such as costume fittings with Frances Britt. She made her debut with the Portland Opera Chorus in 1964. Britt is now the costume shop manager, and she's collected a scrapbook of stories, like when the Duke in Rigoletto had a small onstage faux pas.

"The duke tore the crotch out of his breeches," Britt recalls, "so I had to get down on my knees and I just stitched him up by hand, and the sweat was just running down. That's probably my most memorable moment."

As weeks left of rehearsal dwindle to days, the chorus gets tighter, sharper; the change in energy is palpable. It's likely not on anyone's radar that singing has been proven to release endorphins, increase serotonin levels or fight depression. They're all too blissed out, like tenor Michael Millhollen.

"You have this entire range of emotions within you," Millhollen says. "You don't get many situations that allow you to express those emotions, but in opera you get them all. You can just pour them out and your whole life expands by doing this, and I think you live more completely."

And chorister Carlo Antinucci, a bass-baritone, admits that when every aspect of the music comes together, there's a distinct emotional and, well, almost carnal connection.

"If I can use this analogy, it may be in some way like when two people connect on a relationship level, with its physical intimacy, all at the same time. Yeah, that's how it is."

So you've got to ask yourself: Why aren't I in a chorus?

Portland Opera's production of Verdi's Aida runs through May 17.

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