Between 1991 and 2007, Donald Palumbo held a top position on Chicago’s classical music scene. As Lyric Opera of Chicago’s chorus master, he prepared the company’s choristers for performances of dozens of operas, ranging from familiar works by composers such as Handel, Mozart, Donizetti and Verdi to modernist operas by Luciano Berio (Un Re in Ascolto) and world premieres by Anthony Davis (Amistad) and William Bolcom (A View from the Bridge). With Palumbo’s emphasis on both technical precision and emotional depth, Lyric’s chorus became known as one of the opera world’s finest.
The Metropolitan Opera lured Palumbo from Chicago in 2007, but this spring he will take a short break from his duties as the Met’s chorus master. He will be back in Chicago, once again preparing a chorus for full-length opera performances. For the first time, however, he will be working across the Loop from the Lyric Opera House, getting the Chicago Symphony Chorus ready for concert performances June 23, 25 and 28 of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (A Masked Ball), led by Music Director Riccardo Muti.
From 1999 to 2001, Palumbo was chorus director of the Salzburg Festival, where Muti is one of the summer event’s most high-profile conductors. But they didn’t work together until 2010, when Muti made his long-awaited Metropolitan Opera debut in one of Verdi’s early works, Attila. Preparing the chorus for that acclaimed production was a high point of Palumbo’s nearly 15-year career at the Met.
“Muti and I had met a couple of times, but we never had a chance to work together. Attila at the Met was my first and only time — up until now — working with him,” said Palumbo in an interview from New York. “For me, it was just a dream come true. I have such respect for him as a conductor, especially in Verdi. I’ve worked with a lot of conductors. And sometimes I like to say there are a few conductors that I feel can just pick up the phone and dial into certain composers; they have direct contact. Muti and Verdi represent that for me. Musically, this Attila at the Met was just spectacular. I’m really excited to work with the maestro again.”
Un ballo in maschera is 19th-century opera at its most dramatic. Full of heartfelt, romantic music, it features star-crossed lovers (in this version a colonial Boston governor and the wife of his best friend), political enemies plotting a coup, a mysterious crone who prophesies the governor’s assassination. It bristles with magic potions, mistaken identities and a quest for revenge that goes fatally wrong. The chorus is integral to the action — it supplies the first voices we hear onstage — and Verdi is one of opera’s greatest choral writers. But Ballo does not have a famous, stand-alone chorus like the pensive “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco or the rousing Anvil Chorus of Il trovatore.
“It’s not like Aida, it’s not like Otello,” Palumbo said. “That being said, there are some [indelible] moments. After the governor is shot, there’s a very short moment when the chorus sings this prayer, and the soloists join in. It’s so simple, so contained. I think it’s one of the most beautiful moments in all of Verdi’s choral writing. It’s not a very long sequence, but it’s like the heavens open.”
Working with Riccardo Muti at the Met “was just a dream come true. I have such respect for him as a conductor, especially in Verdi.” — Donald Palumbo
In some ways, preparing a chorus for an opera in concert performance is easier than getting it ready for a fully staged production. There are no worries about maintaining a unified sound while the singers move about or are scattered around the stage. But Ballo presents different challenges. For one, the male chorus is often split between the governor’s loyal supporters and those plotting a coup. Making that division clear amid the rows of stationary, identically dressed choristers on a concert stage isn’t easy.
“On the stage, you can show these two separate groups,” Palumbo said. “You can see, in their bodies, who they are. In a concert performance, we have to be very careful that the color of the sound shows the difference between them. We would do that in a staged performance, but it’s so much more important in the concert performance when you don’t have that visual element creating the separation of the groups.”
Sizable chunks of the opera’s choral music are meant to be sung offstage, posing another challenge. Palumbo says the chorus will probably stay seated rather than stand for those portions.
“When the men arrive in the Gallows Scene in [Act 2], they start offstage,” Palumbo said. “In the music, you can hear that they’re actually walking onto the stage, taking steps. So we’ll probably try to do that with dynamics, to start as softly as possible and then become more present in the singing.”
As always in opera, however, the conductor has the final word about how the chorus sounds.
“My role ends once the maestro shows up on the spot, ready for rehearsals,” Palumbo said. “I have done the preparation work; the chorus is now a malleable ensemble. It’s going to do whatever the maestro requires to execute his musical conception of the piece.
“That’s why I enjoy being a chorus master. When we prepare something, I have to make sure that I make every member of this large group understands the piece, understands the structure, understands what we’re going for dramatically. I know full well that the tiny details, or tempi or phrasing, are part of what the conductor will bring to the performance, based on his understanding of the score. In a way, I have to prepare the chorus for almost any approach to any given opera. We don’t know what’s going to be asked of us until the conductor arrives.
“I actually enjoy the process of turning over my chorus to a conductor,” said Palumbo, recalling his early days at the Dallas Opera as an assistant to Roberto Benaglio, best known as the distinguished chorus master of La Scala in Milan. “The Dallas company’s music director, Nicola Rescigno, would arrive for rehearsals and ask Benaglio about the state of the chorus. I remember thinking, ‘Wow! What a responsibility to have to provide the conductor with a chorus that can be that malleable and ready to adapt.’
“I never wanted to be a conductor because I don’t know how to tell instrumentalists how to play better,” said Palumbo, who never took formal choral conducting lessons. He learned his craft from singing in choruses himself, attending hundreds of performances as a student in Vienna and doing miscellaneous musical jobs for opera companies from Providence, Rhode Island, to St. Louis. In addition to his Metropolitan Opera post, he is also a vocal coach and a vocal arts faculty member at the Juilliard School.
“I wanted to be a chorus director because after training and studying for as long as I did,” he said, “I think I know how to make a chorus sound better.”