The Atlanta Opera is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Walter Huff as its chorus master with three performances of operatic choruses tonight and Sunday at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts and on Tuesday at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center.
A native of Atlanta, Huff obtained a bachelor of music degree from Oberlin College and Conservatory, and his master’s degree from Peabody Conservatory.
In the fall of 2013, Huff joined the faculty of Indiana University’s esteemed Jacob School of Music as associate professor of choral conducting, fulfilling that full-time academic post while retaining his role as principal chorus master of Atlanta Opera and maintaining an active vocal coaching studio in Atlanta.
ArtsATL spoke with Huff on the eve of his 25th anniversary concerts.
ArtsATL: How did you get started with music?
Walter Huff: I started piano study early on and grew up singing in choirs. I was just drawn to the human voice and I always enjoyed being around singers of any type.
ArtsATL: So you would get called upon a lot to be an accompanist for singers?
Huff: I like that kind of collegial relationship and assisting people in their work. I went to Oberlin Conservatory for my undergrad, majored in piano, but I was in the choruses and I studied conducting there. I worked with singers and would wind up playing for their voice lessons.
That’s where it really started to get rolling because of established relationships with voice teachers. I learned the repertoire [and] started to work on the operas [while] still going with the choral elements. That went into grad school [at] Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore, and people outside of the school began to engage me either as a coach, a conductor or a music director. I stayed in that area a few years after I graduated.
ArtsATL: What brought you back home to Atlanta?
Huff: The Atlanta Boy Choir wanted me to assist conducting and play for them on some tours. I did that for a few years, got into the vocal scene in Atlanta and got a church job here. I was asked by Atlanta Opera to play for their rehearsal stagings, just as a rehearsal pianist.
Then Fred Scott, who was artistic director then, asked me if I wanted the chorus master position. I said yes. That was in 1988. Now I’m full-time associate professor at Indiana University in the choral conducting program, but I do come back and forth to do my duties here. I have an assistant here, which makes that possible.
ArtsATL: Could you talk about the difference between an opera chorus and other choruses?
Huff: Number one, for preparing an opera chorus, is that you always know from the very beginning that they have to have it from memory. Any instructions that I give, yes, they write it in their music while using it to rehearse, but they not only have to internalize the notes and text on the page, they have to internalize the nuances. Eventually I will start giving them memory assignments, so by the end of their prep, going into work on the staging, they’re not only off-book but they have all the nuances and details.
The other thing about opera which people don’t realize is that the world on stage is a very complex situation. There are times when you really can’t hear the orchestra in the pit [or] when you can’t see the conductor because someone with a big hat is standing in front of you or the director has put you way upstage. When I work the chorus, I have no idea in the end who’s going to be standing by who. It’s a fluid situation, because in opera they’re always moving. There’s also the phenomenon of a backstage chorus. You’re in the dark. Sometimes I’ll wear white gloves backstage so they can see me conduct. You have to start working toward all those from the very beginning.
ArtsATL: What have you observed as changes in the opera scene in Atlanta?
Huff: There [have been] changes, of course, in all the venues where people have seen opera here. Many people don’t know that this company started in the Alliance Theatre. That’s where I started. Actually we’re doing a small opera there this season because of the nature of that piece [Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers]. It’s really exciting we are doing it in a space where it should be: a more intimate environment.
We hopped around. We went from the Alliance to Symphony Hall to the Fox — which was a really big change in size — then to the Civic Center. Thank heavens for the Cobb Energy center. It is a lovely viable space. We have really found a great home.
It’s also interesting that we’re looking for other spin-off venues to supplement that. This choral concert is one of those examples. We’re using Emory’s Schwartz Center and Kennesaw’s Bailey Center. We used Emory for our production of Philip Glass’ s Akhnaten [in 2009], which was a perfect space for that.
ArtsATL: How big is the Atlanta Opera Chorus? Does that change much from production to production?
Huff: For this concert I have 50. If we do an Aida here, I’ll ask for 70. The norm is about 40 for most operas. If we do Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, I’ll use about 20 because that’s just what the music and the orchestration invites. You can go from a core of, say, high 30s to the bigger operas of 60 or 70. And then you stretch into Wagner . . .
ArtsATL: How about for the three main stage productions coming up this season?
Huff: The first is Madame Butterfly. What the audience conceives of tends to be the women — the geishas that come in with Butterfly and stay around her. But the total chorus is about 30. Rigoletto uses only men’s chorus; I have about 20 to 22 of them for it. For Figaro, it’s a small chorus. So what we’re seeing for this first concert is really the big chorus show.
ArtsATL: And that triad of performances of opera choruses is billed at the front of the company’s main season, that this is a first for the Atlanta Opera Chorus. Any chance you might do this kind of project again?
Huff: We’d love to do this again. And it’s important to say that we decided from the beginning, since we were doing it on college campuses, that it should have some educational aspect. So on the Emory concerts, we’ve invited the Georgia State University Singers to sing with us on three of the larger numbers [and] the Kennesaw State University Chorus [for the performance at Bailey]. When they come on we’ve got a hundred people on the stage. Audiences are really going to enjoy that collaboration.