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Opera is on the Verdi Chorus' menu

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Large classical music ensembles are no strangers to economic challenges, but the Santa Monica-based Verdi Chorus may be the only one whose existential crisis came when an Italian restaurant went out of business.

The opera-only ensemble of about 50 voices has lived to tell the tale, and this weekend, it will celebrate its 30th anniversary while also honoring the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, the great composer after whom it is only tangentially named.

The chorus began in 1983 as a house organ of Verdi Ristorante di Musica, a fancily redone former Wilshire Boulevard funeral parlor where singing was as much a fixture as veal scaloppine.

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Owners Bernard and Sheila Segal were music buffs — he made his primary living as an attorney — who were keen on pleasing diners' ears as well as their palates. From the restaurant's opening in 1982, they offered performances by rising vocal talents; after a year, they added a participatory dimension by creating an opera chorus that any customer could join. The Verdi Chorus was launched, with pianist Grant Gershon, now artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and resident conductor of L.A. Opera, as its first accompanist.

It was up to Anne Marie Ketchum, one of the restaurant's regular professional singers — when she wasn't teaching at Pasadena City College or pursuing an opera, concert and recording career focused mainly on the music of contemporary composers — to turn the mixture of amateurs and unpaid professionals into a force that could elicit sincere "bravos."

"It more or less changed my life, because I had a chance to make music," said Tom Redler, a dentist who'd been craving an outlet but hadn't found one until the night in 1984 that he came for a meal and a show and jumped at the announcement that diners who wanted to sing should leave their name with their waiter.

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In 1991, amid a sour economy, the Segals announced that Verdi was finished. "We were all stunned," recalled Redler, who's now retired and living in Carlsbad and travels 100 miles each way for the 12 weekly rehearsals that lead up to each concert. "I said to myself, 'What am I going to do now? It would be a big hole in my life without my music and without the Verdi Chorus.'"

He faced the crisis by raising $5,000 from a handful of like-minded chorus members and asking Ketchum to continue directing it, paid by the singers.

"She said, 'I love you all, you're like family to me. I couldn't conceive of not having a Verdi Chorus,'" Redler said.

Picking up the tale, Ketchum recalls that it had to be on her terms: The volunteer singers would handle all the business and fundraising; and when it came to the music, she'd be an absolute monarch. Wanting to take the chorus to the next level, she insisted on auditions for every spot.

"A couple of people didn't continue, and that was difficult, but growing pains are like that," Ketchum said. "It surprised me, in the long run, what it became. It's something I'm extremely proud of. We have singers who work very hard and are completely devoted, and it's an organization that I thinks makes a difference in the city."

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To her knowledge, the Verdi Chorus is the only vocal group — outside of actual opera choruses — with only an operatic repertoire. Typically, the accompaniment is a lone piano, with Laraine Ann Madden now occupying Gershon's former chair.

Several years ago, the widow of Walter Fox, a Beverly Hills physician and longtime chorus member, made a large donation in his memory, underwriting up to 14 professional section leaders and soloists who collectively are called the Walter Fox Singers.

The Verdi Chorus' annual spending for two programs totaling four performances has ranged from $73,000 to $87,000 in recent years, with donations covering up to two-thirds of the cost; Redler said it's splurging for its 30th anniversary season with a $98,000 budget.

Although it was named for the restaurant and is thus not specifically devoted to the music of Verdi, the 19th century Italian great has been a cornerstone of its repertoire. "Verdi loved to write for the chorus, and there's more music from his works for choruses than I find in a lot of the other composers," Ketchum said.

Concertgoers Saturday and Sunday will be treated to excerpts from Verdi's "Don Carlo," "Macbeth" and "Nabucco," sandwiched by introductory slices of Donizetti's "Maria Stuarda" and a celebratory finale from Strauss' "Die Fledermaus." The fall program, closer to the composer's October birth date, will be all-Verdi in honor of his bicentennial.

Not to be missed this weekend, Ketchum says, is the post-concert cake and rendition of "Happy Birthday" in the 600-seat church's reception hall.

"I've got to tell you, when Verdi Chorus sings 'Happy Birthday,' it's quite something to listen to,'" she said.

mike.boehm@latimes.com

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The Verdi Chorus

Where: First United Methodist Church, 1008 11th St., Santa Monica

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $10-$45

Contact: http://www.verdichorus.org or (800) 838-3006

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