Kennesaw State University hosted the Atlanta Opera’s first-ever Choral Celebration at the Bailey Center on Tuesday evening. It was a concert that honored Walter Huff’s 25-year tenure as chorus master of the Atlanta Opera. While Huff and the Atlanta Opera Chorus, accompanied by pianist Brian Eads, played the starring role this night, there was a cast of characters — both singers and local celebrities — who made appearances too, adding to the evening’s excitement.
Previous to his work with the Atlanta Opera, Huff’s extensive life in music included posts as a vocal coach at the Washington National Opera, Peabody Opera Theatre, and Tanglewood Music Center, as well as a term as chorus master with the San Diego Opera. He served as a faculty member at Georgia State University for several years, and recently accepted a position as associate professor of choral conducting at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacob School of Music. But Huff’s role as chorus master at the Atlanta Opera has been one in which he has both mentored and collaborated with Atlanta singers for over 100 main stage opera productions, impacting the city’s cultural landscape.
After a crisp rendition of “Fuoco di gioia” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun kicked off the evening with a recollection of his own 10-year history with the company as a stage director and his interactions with Huff, calling him “one of the most important chorus masters in the country.” It was an endorsement that was reinforced with each operatic selection performed by the stellar chorus and by each ensuing testimonial.
Jay Hunter Morris — the Heldentenor who stepped into the hefty role of Siegfried at the last minute in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Robert LaPage Ring Cycle (and to great acclaim) — spoke after a lovely rendition of “Placido è il mar” from Mozart’s Idomeneo. Morris revealed that it was Huff who had prepared him for conservatory auditions in the late 1980s and again years later, and then collaborated with Morris during a pivotal moment within his singing career.
Lois Reitzes, host of the WABE-FM program Second Cup Concert, and William Fred Scott, former artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, were in attendance, and each stepped forward to sing Huff’s praises. Scott spoke of Huff’s limitless repertoire and their shared vision for an opera chorus that was “precise, yet suave — perfect, but not pedantic.”
The program was somewhat autobiographical, showcasing a bit of the music that Atlanta audiences have heard during Huff’s stint in Atlanta. The brindisi summoned our memory of Mary Dunleavy singing the role of Violetta only a year ago; Huff programmed Psalm 104 from Philip Glass’ minimalistic opera Akhnaten, harking back to the AO’s semistaged production at the Schwartz Center in 2008 (with the composer sitting in the audience); Giacomo Puccini’s Moon Chorus from Turandot brought to mind the 2007–08 season, when Dennis Hanthorn was at the helm and the Atlanta Opera found a permanent home at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
But above all, Huff could not overlook the incredibly ebullient productions of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that took place in Atlanta in both 2005 and 2011, which led to an invitation by the Opéra-Comique in Paris for an eight-week tour throughout Europe. Accordingly, the Bailey Center audience reveled in “Oh Lord, I’m On My Way” from Act III of Porgy.
Yet Huff’s programming was intended to highlight not his own career but rather the variety of vocal shades that one encounters throughout operatic repertoire and, moreover, to showcase what the Atlanta Opera chorus is capable of achieving. Huff reminded us of the vast range of characters that his working opera chorus has embodied over the last 25 years.
The Atlanta Opera Chorus accomplished this and was even able to show off a little, aptly boasting two selections from the verismo repertoire: a light and airy “Bell Chorus” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci early on and finally closing with the “Easter Hymn” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. The latter selection featured glamorous soprano Indra Thomas as Santuzza.
Huff’s “Silver Celebration” was merely the first offering of the Atlanta Opera’s 2014–15 season. Atlanta audiences will also hear Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre as well as the Atlanta premiere of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers at the Alliance Theatre this season.