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Call of the Opera : Amateurs, Whether Singers or Not, Find 'Turandot' an Exciting Lure

February 23, 1990|PATRICK MOTT | Patrick Mott is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

Marcia Whitehead, a media relations specialist, has driven the 110-mile round trip from her home in Sierra Madre several nights a week for the last two months in order to spend hours being herded around at the point of a spear.

Dan Stroud, a 58-year-old lawyer who practices in Los Angeles, has made the drive to Costa Mesa after work all those nights because he loves dressing in sackcloth and being threatened with death.

But, hey, that's showbiz.

Or at least life in ancient China as seen through the eyes of Giacomo Puccini. It's also a consuming passion for about 80 amateur singers and opera lovers who want to be part of the show.

Since well before Christmas, they have come to the Orange County Performing Arts Center to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse and eventually perform in the chorus of Opera Pacific's current production of Puccini's "Turandot," one of the grandest of all grand operas.

These highly trained amateur singers--about 75% of the chorus members do not make their living as musicians--may live for their art, but all continue to heed that classic piece of musician advice: don't give up your day job.

"You go to work the next day and you've got circles under your eyes down to here and people ask you what you did last night and you tell them you were on your knees groveling," said Kate McCloskey, a commercial loan officer from Tustin who, like most other chorus members, plays the role of a wretched peasant in ancient Peking.

"But for me, most of the time, I get energy from doing this," she said. "Work is fine, but this is what life's about as far as I'm concerned."

Whitehead said she goes so far as to take a voluntary pay cut at her job in return for shorter hours to accommodate her rehearsal and performance--and sleeping--schedule. Such single-mindedness, she said, is a result of a metamorphosis she never thought would happen.

"I wasn't interested in music as a child," she said. "And I didn't particularly have a voice, but in my mid-20s it was noticed and I started (vocal) training with the stipulation that I didn't have to sing opera--because I didn't like it. But as my voice matured and progressed, I've found that the only thing it's suitable for now is opera. I taught myself to learn to like it, and now it's become an all-consuming passion."

For Stroud, his performance in "Turandot" represents a new and novel turn in a long-dormant amateur career.

"I'm the most surprised person in this room that I'm here," he said, gesturing around the dressing room. "I did a summer season of light opera in 1949 at the San Gabriel Playhouse and my next musical event was in 1988, when I did 'Brigadoon' with the La Mirada Civic Light Opera."

After singing in three more light opera productions, Stroud said he heard of the chorus call last year for Opera Pacific's production of "La Traviata" "and I just decided to do it. It was a challenge to do something I'd never done before."

And, like many other amateurs, the hook was instantly set deep.

"It was fascinating," said Stroud. "People ask me how I can work as a lawyer and sing in an opera at the same time, but I'm lucky that I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm and it carries me through."

Unlike Stroud, most of the "Turandot" chorus members maintain a close and continuous relationship with music and singing. Many continue to study voice, hold down solo positions in their church choirs or sing in choral organizations.

They may be good enough to be full-time professionals, but may not be able to afford to take the plunge.

"Many people who do develop professional capabilities in the arts don't find the opportunities there to earn a living," said David Di Chiera, the general director of Opera Pacific. "There just isn't that much happening."

In most American opera companies, said Di Chiera, "there isn't enough work for choristers to have full-time employment. I think the Metropolitan Opera is probably the only company that has its chorus on full-time contract. All the other companies are seasonal. That's why we schedule our rehearsals to accommodate (choristers' day jobs). We'll rehearse the principals, who are full-time professionals, during the day and the chorus in the evening and on weekends."

Choristers are paid for their services--$5 per hour for rehearsals and $45 for each performance; singers who have appeared in four previous Opera Pacific productions are paid slightly more--but the scale is low compared to that of orchestra members, who are paid about $23 an hour for rehearsals and performances.

The singers also are required to join the union, the American Guild of Musical Artists, while they work with the opera (the union lately has been pressing Opera Pacific for higher chorus wages).

They may continue to pay dues to maintain their union membership after the opera's run ends, or they may allow their membership to lapse, said Di Chiera. The last performance of "Turandot" will be on March 4.

Many members of the "Turandot" cast--and, indeed, of most large operas--don't sing at all.

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