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Arts & Culture

Houston Grand Opera Chorus

As opera-goers we're spoiled rotten in Houston. We're so used to superb choral singing in Houston Grand Opera productions that it becomes very easy to take it for granted that idiomatic, energized, precise ensemble singing with tonal beauty and crisp diction are the norm at opera companies everywhere. But just travel outside Houston and it becomes quickly and glaringly apparent that you'd have to travel internationally to find other opera choruses whose performance standards match HGO's. Seldom are the choral numbers the highlight of every opera performance the way they are at HGO.

It is a privilege to work with Maestro Bado.  He has extremely high expectations, and you want to exceed them.  He is disciplined and focused, and expects no less of you.  And, as I’ve heard other choristers say, he has ears in the back of his head!  

Nancy Hall, 1st year Houston Grand Opera Chorister

Much of the credit for the Houston Grand Opera Chorus’ success rests with Chorus Master Richard Bado.  On a recent sunny afternoon in his impeccably appointed office at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music (where he holds the position of director of opera studies), Bado talked about his road to HGO.

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, his academic career — he holds degrees in piano performance from West Virginia University and the prestigious Eastman School — suggested that the young musician was aiming to follow in the footsteps of Van Cliburn.  Or, given his gift for accompaniment for the likes of his former New York City roommate Renèe Fleming, perhaps he was poised to become the next Gerald Moore.  As it turns out, neither of these career paths were ever his goal.  “I never wanted to be a concert pianist,” says Bado.  “I wanted to be a high school choir director, because I had a phenomenal choral program at my high school, and that’s what I wanted to do.  In second grade I remember saying to the teacher, ‘when you lead us your hands are always going to the same place…could you teach me what those are.’  Those were beat patterns but I didn’t know that then.  So in second grade I wanted to know what the beat patterns were; I think I was destined.”

Richard BadoMany years later, with his piano performance degrees in hand, Richard Bado first came to Houston Grand Opera in 1984 as a member of the HGO Studio.  “When I came to the Studio one of the first things I was assigned to do was accompany chorus rehearsals,” he explains, “and I really enjoyed that a lot.  Then I got on staff as assistant chorus master and I asked to do as many chorus shows as possible.  In 1988 I applied for the job of assistant chorus master at English National Opera.  The ENO offered me that job, but at the same time David Gockley offered me the chorus master position at HGO…so I took the HGO job in the Fall of 1988.   My first show in that position was a world premiere by Philip Glass: The Making of the Representative for Planet 8.  And now I’m in my 21st year as chorus master at HGO.”

Working with Richard Bado has been particularly rewarding.  He’s a perfectionist and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little intimidated by him, but it makes me work harder and sing better so I don’t get “the look.”  Although he’s very fair.  You don’t get “the look” until you have repeatedly done something wrong.

Eileen Buerkert, 1st year Houston Grand Opera Chorister

HGO Chorus

So twenty-one years into his tenure as HGO chorus master, how does Richard Bado elicit superb performances from his chorus time and again.  What’s different about his rehearsal process that consistently yields such results?  “Once I get to the rehearsal process that’s the easy part,” replies Bado.  “It’s all the preparation before that, it’s my own preparation.  I start really early, people accuse me of over-preparing but I don’t think that’s possible. I start with the basics: ‘What’s the story of the opera?’  Then I look through and see what the chorus needs are; I have to figure out years in advance in a budgetary sense how much rehearsal we’re going to need.  Then I sit down with the score even before I sit at the piano, seeing what are the vocal needs or requirements: Is the orchestration big?  How many people do I think we’ll need in this piece?  How many sopranos, altos, tenors and basses…do I want to make an even split or not?  Is it a tiring piece for them to sing?  How high is it?  How low is it?   And then it’s just a matter of drilling and learning the piece inside out.”

Now here’s where it really gets interesting, where Bado goes way above and beyond the call of duty in preparing his chorus: “As I’m learning the piece I actually sing all the parts all the time, even though I’m not a singer,” he continues, “so I can figure out where every breath is.  Then I take [the individual choristers’] music before they get it, and I edit the music and mark everything in it.  So that when they get the music it’s already marked for them so we don’t spend any rehearsal time on that.  That’s what I learned from Robert Shaw who learned it from George Szell.  There’s no question: this is where this cut-off is, this is where this final ‘t’ is going to be placed, this is the beat where this final consonant is placed.  Each chorus member is handed a very specific musical blueprint.”

First, we count sing through the music with someone doubling our parts on the piano, if need be.  Then, when he feels we have a handle on the notes and the rhythms, we speak the text.  When he’s satisfied with that, we put it all together.  This approach works marvelously and we don’t waste time struggling with everything at once the first time through.

Eileen Buerkert, 1st year Houston Grand Opera Chorister

Once in rehearsals, Bado employs another technique he learned from the legendary maestro Robert Shaw.  “I use the system that Robert Shaw taught me of count singing where we break apart the elements,” he elaborates.  “You first learn rhythm, then you learn pitch, then you add text, then you add dynamics…you just layer, you don’t do everything at once.”

“This group has a combination of two things going for it,” Bado continues about rehearsing the HGO Chorus.  “It has the professionalism of a professional group, and the spirit of a volunteer group.  95% of them work 9-to-5 jobs, and we rehearse 6 days a week.  In order to do that on top of another job you have to love it, or you don’t do it.  So there’s a good attitude to begin with.  I’d say 95% of them have voice degrees, though that’s not a requirement.  They’re not shower singers.  And every time we come to a production it’s an event; it’s not like ‘oh, we’re just doing another Boheme which we just did last year.’  They’re discovering the piece each time. So the combination of good, well-trained singers with this spirit makes for a good product.”

My favorite part of this job is working with Richard Bado.  It can be unnerving how high his expectations are but it’s always rewarding in the end.  I leave every musical rehearsal with a positive attitude and feeling like I’m a better musician.  Working with him has been a gift.  I’m really looking forward to “Chorus!” rehearsals.

Michael Salinas, 5  year Houston Grand Opera Chorister

The “product” Richard Bado refers to is so good, in fact, that the Houston Grand Opera administration is paying its chorus the ultimate compliment of building an entire production around it.  Chorus! will showcase the HGO Chorus in a plethora of greatest choral hits from opera, oratorio and even musical theater.  “It’s like doing a recital,” explains Bado.  “In a recital you do a lot of different repertoire.  We’re not used to doing that in an opera house in one evening.  You’re doing a whole evening of Verdi, or a whole evening of Wagner.  Here we’re doing a slew of different composers over the course of the evening.  So the challenge is to make each piece sound different.”

“Now although we’re having 80 choristers,” he continues, “we don’t use 80 for every piece in this evening.  For example, we’re doing a Purcell piece, and if we used 80 chorus members that would sound absurd.  So I think we’re having 24 in that piece.  Some pieces are men only, some pieces are women only.  Always the beginning and end of each Act we’ll use all 80.”

Not surprisingly, Bado reports that logistics played an important part in the planning for Chorus!:  “You have to look at the production end to figure out how many people are in this number, and while they’re onstage, these people are offstage changing costumes, ’cause it’s a HUGE production with hundreds and hundreds of costumes.  Figuring out how many will be in every number and working that out with the costume and set designers was challenging.”

As for choosing the Chorus! repertoire, Bado says a variety of languages and styles was the goal.  “There are pieces people would recognize immediately, like The Anvil Chorus (from Verdi’s Il trovatore), and pieces that they might not know.  We’re doing a 17-minute section of Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina.   We’re doing “Va pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco, we’re doing musical theater, some Rodgers and Hammerstein, some Bernstein, there’s the Entrance of the Guests from Tannhäuser, and there’s oratorio.  We also wanted to put some stuff in from future seasons to introduce them to the public, like the Peter Grimes excerpt.  And you need a variety of loud and soft; [the chorus] can’t be singing loud all night, or no-one will have voices left by the end of the evening.”

In Chorus!, HGO’s chorus members are more than a highlight of the show.  They are the show, in a fully-staged, elaborately costumed and produced tribute to their versatility and excellence…as well as a tribute to the man who leads them.

I have learned much from working with Richard over the years.  Now, 77 productions later, I feel like I owe everything to Richard.  He has made me the musician I am today.

Chuck Winkler, director of “Opera to Go!”
and 17 year Houston Grand Opera Chorister

Eric Skelly has written for Playbill, Time Out New York, and Cues Magazine