What would opera be like if the audience could choose another ending? Would Romeo and Juliet survive? Would Otello believe Desdemona, not Iago? Would Thais decide not to enter the convent?
In a nod to the fickle finger of fate that afflicts fictional characters, Genevieve Thiers and Katie Calcamuggio have created a program in which the audience can decide what happens to the heroine.
“We start out with ‘Jeune Fillete,’ a French folk song,” said Thiers, “and since everyone has to die sometime, we’ll probably conclude with ‘When I am Laid to Earth’ from ‘Dido and Aeneas.’”
The Bethel program will be the third time the two have used this concept and the very first concert tested their mettle. “The audience did all sorts of awful things to the heroine,” the soprano continued, “like broke her heart, had her go mad and even become a madam.
“But then they sent her to heaven,” she added. “Somehow there’s always compassion in the life after death part. But then they did choose to reincarnate her as a hippo, so the lenience didn’t last long.”
The singers must be well-prepared, she admitted, noting “We have 32 songs, of which only 13 are ever sung.”
Thiers received her master’s in music performance at Northwestern University and has sung locally with American Chamber Opera, OperaModa, Elgin Opera, Chicago Chamber Opera and Fulcrom Point. She has also sung cabaret and jazz programs at numerous venues, focusing on songs sung or written by Doris Day, Henry Mancini, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee and others.
Mezzo-soprano Katie Calcamuggio is a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and has her master of music degree from Northwestern University. On three occasions, she has collaborated with the two-time Grammy-winning eighth blackbird and has sung with Opera on the James, the Freeport Symphony, Syracuse Opera, Opera Omaha, Florida Grand Opera, Opera New Jersey and Glimmerglass Opera. Closer to home, the prize-winning singer has appeared with the Park Ridge Civic Orchestra.
“Gen and I met when we were both getting our master’s at Northwestern,” Calcamuggio said. “We’ve remained friends and we decided we wanted to collaborate on something. This is it.”
The idea came to the mezzo-soprano as she thought about the paths we choose in life. “I was talking to someone and said that if only we knew how our choices would come out,” she began. “And then I thought that it would be great fun to do a recital in which the audience makes the choices about our heroine.”
The two singers worked on the program together, incorporating not only art songs from the English, French, Italian and German repertoire, but also from musical theater. “We have Mozart and Sondheim, Schubert and Flanders & Swan,” she continued. “At first the audience is wondering what is going on, but pretty soon they are joining in and laughing.”
Pianist for the show is Saori Chiba, a native of Tokyo, who has collaborated with Christoph Eschenbach and violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg at the Ravinia Festival. She is also an accompanist for Chicago Opera Theatre.
“Our pianist has to be very laid back. The program is a lot to ask of an accompanist,” Calcamuggio concluded. “But everyone has a good time, and the more fun the audience has, the more fun we have.”
Jeff Panko is the artistic director of the concert series and choirmaster at the church. “I came here because the sanctuary has spectacular acoustic,” he said, “and this is now our 15th season. Actually that doesn’t surprise me, as music is very much a part of worship at Bethel.”
For a decade Panko has been accompanist for Judith Haddon, who has sung in opera houses throughout the world including the Metropolitan in New York, Covent Garden in London, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera and the Hamburg Stadtsoper. She is now professor of voice at the Music Conservatory of the Chicago College of Performing Arts, Roosevelt University in Chicago.
“Genevieve is one of her students,” he said. “I had heard about her, and this program has been in discussion for more than a year, but this will be the first time we actually meet in person.”
Panko’s career has included accompanying soprano Natalie Mann in a program at Carnegie Hall. “Now, when people ask me how to get to Carnegie Hall, I don’t say ‘Practice, practice, practice,” I say ‘Know a soprano,’” he admitted, laughing, but he wasn’t kidding. He recently went to Los Angeles to accompany Mann for a disc of 20th and 21st century art songs titled “Experience.” It will be released by Albany Records Nov. 1.
He also teaches advance piano students at the New Music School in Chicago. But, he admitted, being a church musician is a good fit. “My grandmother was a church musician all her life,” he said, fondly. “She started when she was 12 and retired after 73 years. I never thought I would be doing this, but Bethel honors music and welcomes the programs I have been arranging for 15 seasons.”
Bethel’s concert series continues with two performances by the Chicago Children’s Choir at 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m Saturday Dec. 7. For the third year in a row, The Voice of Chicago choir will display its talent by performing a lively range of traditional favorites and seasonal selections from around the world during its Christmas Celebration Concert.
The spring season begins at 7 p.m. Saturday March 8 with Grammy-nominated Guitarra Azul, which will play a mix of rumba, flamenco, Latin jazz, and world sounds, with Latin percussion and fiery Spanish guitars.
Pianist Victoria Young, 13, returns to Music@Bethel at 4 p. m. Saturday May 10, as an encore to last year’s successful performance. A top-prize-winner in international competitions, Ms. Young is now giving recitals in concert halls throughout the world.