For over 60 years, the Collegiate Chorale has explored great music through great voices, and with a real innovative spirit -- whether it's offering an unrecorded Richard Strauss one-act opera, all of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," the first New York City performance of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" in more than two decades, or the American premiere of Paul McCartney's "Liverpool Oratorio."
Much of that spirit has come from maestro Robert Bass, who has served as the group's conductor and music director for 25 years. To celebrate that quarter-century, Bass is now moving in a new direction: He has appointed Tony Award-winning actor, writer, and director Roger Rees the chorale's artistic associate, and together they have embarked on the creation of collaborative performances that aim to find the nexus between concert work and work for the theatre.
"Shakespeare and Verdi," which will be performed Wed., April 20, at Carnegie Hall with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, is the latest fruit of their labor, coming on the heels of February's "An Evening of American Operetta: Sigmund Romberg, Victor Herbert, and Rudolf Friml" at Alice Tully Hall, a paean to the forebears of American musical theatre.
Still, "Shakespeare and Verdi" seems different, the dramatic and theatrical quality of the program somehow lifted up to a considerable degree -- not merely by Rees selecting scenes by the Bard to be followed by a musical "response" from Verdi, but by his performing the scenes beside two other veteran actors: Tony winner Richard Easton and three-time Tony nominee Dana Ivey.
After two scenes from "Othello" are performed, for example -- Act I, Scene 3, featuring Rees as the Duke of Venice and Easton as Othello, and Act III, Scene 3, featuring Ivey as Emilia, Rees as Iago, and Easton again as Othello -- a performance of all of Act I of Verdi's "Otello" follows, with bass Ryan McKinny as Montano, tenor Richard Cox as Cassio, baritone Mark Delavan as Iago, tenor Rodell Aure Rosel as Roderigo, tenor Lando Bartolini as Otello, soprano Kallen Esperian as Desdemona, and the Collegiate Chorale as the Cypriots.
The back-and-forth continues throughout the evening: Rees, Ivey, and Easton play the witches from Act IV, Scene 1 of "Macbeth," followed by the "Witches' Chorus" from Act III, Scene 1 of Verdi's same-name opera. Later, there's even more from the dark world of the Thane of Cawdor: Act I, Scene 5 of the Shakespeare play, with Ivey as Lady Macbeth, Rees as the Messenger, and Easton as the Thane, followed by "Lady Macbeth's Drinking Song," from Verdi's Act II finale. And just to put a fine point on the proceedings, excerpts from plays featuring flitting, flustered, fatuous, fat Falstaff -- "Henry IV, Part Two" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor" -- offer a chance to explore Verdi's "Falstaff" as well.
The complementary push-pull between material, genres, and aesthetics, Bass and Rees agree, allows the work of both artists to be considered innovatively. More to the point, the evening aims to bridge the gap between theatre, opera, and choral music.
"I really felt that after 25 years it was time to think about taking the Collegiate Chorale in new directions beyond the traditional concert world," Bass said during a joint interview with Rees. "With 'Shakespeare and Verdi,' the genesis, I think, was for Roger and I to explore how the relationship between words and music really works. Roger selected all the Shakespeare source material and I helped select the 'responses' by Verdi."
"We also created this event because of the theory that you can only learn to play tennis by playing with someone that is better than you," Rees added. "In other words, Verdi and Shakespeare are comparable in ways that are much, much cleverer than any of us are. As everyone knows, Shakespeare was the source material for some of Verdi's best work -- that's why it's instructive to hear the Shakespeare extracts in English before hearing the Verdi -- for the composer said Shakespeare was the greatest explainer of the human heart there has ever been."
Bass' friendship with Ivey -- who, like Easton, is an enviably versatile actor who segues easily from contemporary plays to more-classical work (both appeared in last winter's Lincoln Center Theater revival of "The Rivals") -- led to the partnership between Rees and Bass. "A few years ago, we were doing a concert of 'Oberon'," said Bass, "and I asked Dana, who is a friend, to recommend an actor who could deliver the dialogue. He did that for us, and I've been sort of white-on-rice about him ever since -- totally intrigued by the whole notion of two people getting together, bouncing ideas off of one another."
For Rees, the collaboration also dovetails with a longstanding and admittedly esoteric aesthetic interest -- one that those familiar with his extensive work on stage and the large and small screens may be unaware of. "Not to be extreme," he said, "but music doesn't need any explanation, so for me this wasn't about a further understanding of the music. For me, I'm really an anthologist -- I'm very interested in juxtaposition, and that properly filters into everything I do, for I believe there's juxtaposition in all things. During my 30 years with the Royal Shakespeare Company, I discovered how 'King Lear' is the funniest play ever written because of its irony and poignancy -- a weak-kneed, naked man shaking his fist at the world. I also learned you cannot respond to great writing if you turn Shakespeare into a religious object. I prefer instead to think of Shakespeare as a man who wore a pair of Levi's."
Bass not only admires Rees' fascination with juxtaposition; he also didn't hesitate to take advantage of it. "When we started working on 'Shakespeare and Verdi' about a year ago," Bass said, "we had an outline of it and we both knew the operas. We kept going back and forth -- Roger would come back with comments about this scene or that scene. The only thing I was sure of was that since we have such a large chorus -- and the first act of 'Otello' is really very grand -- we should use it. Then Roger -- and quite brilliantly, I thought -- came up with the idea of taking certain excerpts from the first act of the play, whereas Verdi didn't think of using the first act of the play in his opera at all."
Rees' overall contribution to "Shakespeare and Verdi," Bass concluded, "infused a great humanity into the piece, which maybe isn't something he will tell you because Roger is so modest. I know that for me as a conductor and a musician, I am always looking for a new perspective on the music. Together I think we've worked on the musical excellence of all this a great deal because Roger's point of view is different from mine. Yet those points of view are happening simultaneously -- there again is the juxtaposition -- and what you get is an atmosphere from which a different aesthetic evolves. We argued a lot -- should be more explanation here, should there be underscoring there, should we cut the music? But we're trying to capture something -- to balance them, theatrically and musically, with these excerpts. I mean, you can arguably dress the actors up in costume, sure. But that's really not quite the point."