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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One of opera's most adored spectacles, Aida, opens tonight at the Portland Opera in Oregon. 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 Opera Chorus - as much as any soloist - can make a good production sublime.

NPR's senior correspondent Ketzel Levine has their story.

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KETZEL LEVINE: We were eavesdropping on chorus member Joanna Ceciliani singing to a CD in her car.

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LEVINE: Sounds just like you, right? Could be, with a certain innate talent, if not confidence. In fact, Joanna Ceciliani had such a lack of confidence she told no one in her family she'd auditioned for the Portland Opera Chorus until she got in.

Ms. JOANNE CECILIANI (Chorus member): And I don't think I've ever been as happy as when I got the letter saying we'd like you to be in these two operas. I mean, maybe when I had my children. It was fabulous.

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LEVINE: Enveloped in music, we arrive at the riverside headquarters of the Portland Opera, where syllable by syllable, beat by beat Aida is coming to life.

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Keeping his flock in tight formation, meet chorus master Rob Ainsley.

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Mr. ROB AINSLEY (Chorus master): It's exciting when that happens.

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The bigger the chorus the more exciting it is when everything happens at exactly the same time. It's like magic. Same thing, once more.

LEVINE: The real magic is the delight Rob Ainsley takes and puts into rehearsals while so focused on sound and sensibilities.

Mr. AINSLEY: In a chorus, the instruments they're using are physically a part of themselves, and therefore, there's a much more emotional attachment to that instrument. That someone is singing as loudly as they can because that's how they feel. I mean, you them to do it less loudly, it's almost kind of a personal affront to them.

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LEVINE: And why would you want to offend a teacher, a trucker, a coffee 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. It's tough to get into this chorus. Sidle up to a couple of the bass baritones and you'll see why.

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LEVINE: The clear town of Brandon Langford.

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The resonance of Andre Flynn. And...

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The physicality of Barton Riffy(ph), one of the few full-time musicians in the chorus, who plays, tunes and teaches piano in addition to singing in the opera.

Mr. BARTON RIFFY (Chorus member): I'm a good singer, but I don't think I would've been good enough to really make a good living to justify being a soloist. Because to do that you would have to give up, I believe, a lot of things. And I see soloists come through who have given up things like family, home. And I'm really coming to terms with where I'm at at this point in time.

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LEVINE: With the opening of Aida weeks ahead, weeks that will fly by, chorus rehearsal chugs along evenings, weekends, in the shower, in the car.

Meanwhile, there are costume fittings with Frances Britt, who made her debut with the Portland Opera Chorus in 1964. Frances Britt is now the costume shop manager...

Ms. FRANCES BRITT (Costume shop manager): OK. So holler when you get it in.

LEVINE: And the woman has collected a patchwork of stories, like the time when the Duke in Rigoletto had a small onstage faux pas.

Ms. BRITT: The duke had lace-up boots. And he tore the crotch out of his breeches and there was no time to take him out of the boots so that I could sew them on the machine. So I got 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.

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LEVINE: The chorus gets tighter, sharper. The change in energy is palpable as weeks left of rehearsal dwindle to days. It's likely not on anyone's radar that singing has been proven to release endorphins, increase serotonin, fight depression. They're all too blissed out.

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Mr. MICHAEL MILLHOLLEN (Chorus Member): You have this entire range of emotions within you.

LEVINE: Tenor Mike Millhollen.

Mr. MILLHOLLEN: 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.

LEVINE: And that goes double for bass-baritone Carlo Antinucci.

Mr. CARLO ANTINUCCI (Chorus member): If I can use this analogy, I mean, it may be in some way when two people connect on a relationship level, with its physical intimacy, all at the same time.

LEVINE: Are you trying to say it's sort of like great sex?

Mr. ANTINUCCI: Well, yeah. I think. Yeah, I mean, I think that's how it is.

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

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The curtain goes up tonight on the Portland Opera's production of Verdi's Aida, starring - in case you hadn't noticed - the Portland Opera Chorus.

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Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: You can watch the Portland Opera Chorus rehearse Aida with chorus master Rob Ainsley and discover more music at npr.org/music.

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