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Full interview with Savannah Choral Society Condutor Peter Shannon 

How long has this show (La Traviata) been in the works?

Peter Shannon: Well, it’s been on the Choral Society’s program since before Christmas. So, in essence it’s been going for about six months. It really comes down to the last week, because the soloists are coming in on Friday and Sunday and they only have one week to go through all the blocking and production of the stage show itself. It’s really down to the wire. We have no real idea of what this will sound like until Wednesday when the orchestra comes in. That’s when we’ll find out just what the soloists take on the material will be. That makes everything about this concert, well, I suppose the word is exciting. (laughs)

Thursday and Friday we’ll rehearse intensely, because it’s so expensive to have this type of singers on hand. We’re very fortunate to have such goodwill on this project. The soloists are basically performing for me as a personal favor. In fact, there are four big soloists: two from New York City who have large opera careers in the U.S. and Europe — and then we have Irene Naegelin, Who’s playing the main character of Violetta. Her character is one of the most difficult roles in the entire world of opera to sing properly. She is a good friend of mine who’s had some huge success in Europe, and she just flew in from Frankfurt last night. However, because of all the airline problems, she’s stuck in Washington, D.C., poor thing. She’s a very valuable opera singer, as is our young and up-and-coming tenor who plays the role of Alfredo. That’s a very demanding and difficult role to sing as well. To be honest, at this stage in the Society’s life, there is no way we could afford people like this. The cost would be way too prohibitive.

What we’ve done for this one show is to use contacts of mine in the European opera world. I’ve been able to motivate friends to help arrange this. It is our big chance to bring over international quality talent and expose local audiences to that. And indeed to expose our Savannah Choral Society to real artistic excellence as well.

How many people in total are involved?

Peter Shannon: The Sinfonietta is about 40 members, and then we have about 70 in the chorus — plus eight soloists.

Will you be conducting the Sinfonietta as well, or just the Choral Society? How does that work?

Peter Shannon: Basically, in any opera, the orchestra is in the pit, the singers are onstage, and the conductor handles everything from that perspective.

Have you conducted La Traviata before?

Peter Shannon: It’s my first time doing La Traviata, but because of my Germanic training — I studied in Weimar in East Germany just after the wall came down, and lived and worked there for 15 years— my musical training has strong operatic roots. You see, anybody who trains in Germany to be an orchestral conductor as I did is actually trained as an operatic conductor, because you’re being trained to work in an opera house. Most of the state orchestras over there are attached to opera houses. If you go see a symphonic show in Germany, it is being played by an operatic orchestra. This is important to mention: although I was brought to Savannah by the Savannah Choral Society, my training is in orchestral conducting.

What is it about this opera that you find most interesting or compelling as both an audience member and as a conductor?

Peter Shannon: Well, as an audience member, when they say “grand opera”, they’re not joking! An opera is the best of chorus singing, the best of soloists, and it’s also pure drama being acted out on stage in front of your eyes. It’s also the best of symphonic music. So, talk about killing all the birds with one stone! This is it. For people who have never been to an opera, now is definitely the time. La Traviata is one of the most popular operas in North America. That’s because it is a classic love story which tells of great personal sacrifice, marriage, death and remorse. There are some beautiful, melancholic melodies that pull at your heartstrings right from the very beginning. The audience will enter a different world from the very first notes and be transported to another place. They’ll be whisked off to a “party world” set to some of the most famous songs in the history of opera.

Tell me a bit about the guest vocalists you have coming in. Some of them are very well-known and travelling quite far just for this one-night-only performance.

Peter Shannon: That’s what people need to be aware of. The amount of sacrifice that goes into just one night’s performance that will not be repeated. The tenor we have is studying with one of the most famous opera singers in the world at this moment — a woman named Barbara Bonney. Anyone with any knowledge of opera knows she is basically one of the finest living opera singers. Seriously! She’s hugely, hugely popular and has made some of the very best opera recordings available. She has been David’s coach in Salzburg, Austria, where she is Professor at the Mozarteum Conservatory. That’s one of the most prestigious music schools in the world.

She’s been working not only with our tenor, but with our Violetta as well. She lives in Switzerland and he in Austria, and they have spent quite a bit of time travelling vast distances to rehearse just for our little Savannah Choral Society! To travel from one country to another for this particular show? We’re so thrilled to have that sort of buy-in from people we never could afford.

The SCS production of Elijah was a smash success. Do you feel under great pressure to repeat that success with this production?

Peter Shannon: Yes. Absolutely. But it’s a pressure I welcome, because I feel that Savannah has not really fully come to terms with what the Savannah Choral Society can offer. In particular, since I came over to work with them. I mean, my goal was to bring them to the next level of professionalism. That’s something of my trademark in Europe. I did that in Heidelberg. It took a while, but after 12 years, I left them and by the time I did, they were a very well recognized, premiere orchestra. I’ve cut my teeth on this sort of thing before. It’s demanding, but I enjoy it.

In Savannah I want us to show that the success of Elijah wasn’t a fluke. We can keep doing this at this level of quality. If the people of Savannah truly want this caliber of classical music, they can have it! But at some stage, Savannah as a whole will have to kind of come down off the fence and start seriously backing it. What we’re trying to do is enthuse the community and especially those who were avid fans and supporters of the old symphony. We want them to realize that there is now an organization in town that is willing to give them the quality of music they supposedly feel they have been missing. It’s important to mention that although the Savannah Choral Society has worked in the past with the Sinfonietta —on Elijah and the Holiday Pops show— this our first official concert together. The Holiday Pops show was the moment when people walked up afterwards and said, “My God, this is amazing! Will it happen again?”

How much more elaborate a show is this than the last one?

Peter Shannon: It doesn’t get any more elaborate than this. I can’t see us doing anything that is more elaborate and more stressful or requiring as much work as putting on a fully staged opera. First, it’s two-and-a-half hours long. But the costuming and direction is bringing the Choral Society into a realm they have never approached before. They have no experience at doing anything like a staged opera, and for many in the group there is a huge learning curve. So, just to mount this means we’ve already taken a huge leap forward.

Is there any concern this is too much too soon?

Peter Shannon: Well, I don’t think it is. Part of being a good Artistic Director is to be able to soundly judge. You only grow when you push yourself. That’s almost a law of nature. So, I feel that Elijah was a big step and there were many people —both in town and in the chorus itself— that didn’t think we’d be able to make that work. We proved them wrong.

Have you encountered any resistance to the scope of these shows, or any incredulity that such productions could be mounted?

Peter Shannon: Absolutely and in no uncertain terms! People said it was too large a work. We were involving the AASU chorus as a kind of educational outreach, and some said it was too many fingers in the pie and how in the name of God could I manage to scrape it all together with so little rehearsal time. But that’s why I’m an Artistic Director and their job is singing in the chorus. I have to learn how far I can go without pushing things over the edge. (laughs) We’re looking over the edge right now, Jim, but we haven’t fallen over! (laughs) We’re teetering, but there’s no doubt in my mind that everyone will profit from this in an intrinsically humanistic way. It’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone involved at all levels to give their best. But it’s also a requirement! You can’t stage an opera of this size and magnitude without an awful lot of people working very, very hard. The crowd will see that from the first moment of the show. This isn’t something you just slap together!

You mentioned to me that despite all the recent activity regarding classical music in our community, you see this show as something of a turning point for the Choral Society and the Sinfonietta in general and for your own continued involvement in particular. In a nutshell, why is the success or failure of this particular event so key to the viability of both entities?

Peter Shannon: The work that’s been invested in these two shows is a little bit unnatural. To be honest, I simply can’t continue to call in favors for the Savannah Choral Society. That sort of thing can’t sustain itself. We need the entire community to take notice: what we offered in October that was so warmly received, we are now attempting again. We need to have some sort of large-scale recognition of the popularity of the collaborative efforts of the Choral Society and the Sinfonietta.

I suppose with the demise of the Savannah Symphony, we have some ground to make up with some people. They were big fans of the Symphony, and are a little wary of something new. Whereas in other cities without that particular baggage, the people might be much less wary and much more enthusiastic! Dealing with that situation is something I think of as a challenge, and a fair one at that. If you want people to back something, then you have to provide something. I feel everyone should come out and support La Traviata — if only to pick up the gauntlet that’s been thrown down by me, the Savannah Choral Society and the Savannah Sinfonietta in the shape of this concert.

By that I mean that the common goal of both our organizations is much greater than the sum of their parts. That’s certainly the case with the chorus. What’s coming out of the choir as a whole is much better than the individual vocalists, which is the way it should be. We can do this here in Savannah, but we need the presence of the public. People can’t stay away from these massive concerts we’re putting on and then turn around and complain that there’s no classical music in Savannah. I’m not trying to be provocative, but what I am doing is trying to make clear that we are taking the challenge from this community and hoping to energize some of the people who have been openly dismissive of the state of classical music in our city. We are demonstrating to the community in no uncertain terms that we’re not only alive, but we’re kicking as well, thank you very much! We’re doing what we said we’d do, and we’re looking forward to our future.

The kind of investment in time and energy that the Savannah Choral Society is putting in, we want to do it. But financially, we’re barely scraping this all together. These soloists that we’re flying in, their special rate for a show like this —even for a friend— would normally be between $5,000 and $10,000 a night. For me to be asking people to do that would put us all out of business in one show! So I hope people realize that we’re investing in Savannah’s artistic future. This is our product. Now we need people to come out and buy our product in order for this to be sustainable, and not just something that happens once or twice and then vanishes.

We’re trying to prove a point. We did it with Elijah, and now we’re doing it once more. We know now that we are capable of doing things of this scale and that they won’t be disappointing. Like anything in the business world, you have to have a solid product for people to invest in. You have to show it off and let them test it. When it comes to anything connected with professional, symphonic music in this city, people have been burned before and they are wary of donating or supporting it. But there’s been so much talk about education over the past week or so in the daily paper, and if you want to roundly educate your kids, there needs to be classical music on hand in the community. Without a viable orchestra and choral group, there’s not a local talent pool to draw from to actually teach them. That’s an important point to make. There’s more to classical music in Savannah than just putting on shows.

Do you feel that the success or failure of the local classical music scene hinges on whether or not the major groups in town are able to combine forces and work together, rather than operate as separate entities, or do you feel there is enough funding and/or interest among the public to support a number of different groups that are essentially aimed at the same demographic?

Peter Shannon: At the moment, I think we have the ability to bring a very high quality product to the stage. If the people in this city don’t want to support it, then I suppose Savannah shouldn’t have it. That’s not me being spiteful, it’s just the reality of the situation. I’m not going to make Savannah embrace classical music — but I am determined to let them know that it’s out there and easily available to them. The Choral Society and the Sinfonietta have to leave no stone unturned to make sure that happens. The overwhelming response we get from the community so far is that they’re amazed at the level of quality we are now able to give them for their money.

Now for this show, I’ve pulled out the big guns. I mean, if anyone around here still has a question mark over whether or not there is currently an ability to stage top-notch classical events using all local talent plus a few special guests, then this is slam-dunk time. Brace yourself, Savannah. I feel very confident that with the amount of energy that’s gone into this it can’t be anything less than an artistic success, and a triumph for the whole community as well. To your readers, I say don’t read about this, not come see it and then say to yourself, “See, I knew it’d go bust.” As (Lucas Theatre’s Executive Director) Ken Carter says, with classical music, you vote with your feet. Every empty seat at this performance will be a vote that says people here don’t want this — or they don’t want it badly enough to ensure it continues. I don’t want to be pointing a finger at Savannah, but that’s the truth of the situation. This is not something that can be sustained without the enthusiastic support and financial backing of the entire community.

Savannah’s Choral Society & Sinfonietta present: La Traviata

Where: Lucas Theatre

When: 7 pm, Sat., April 19

Cost: $47 - $27 ($5 discount for students and kids under 12) at lucastheatre.com or 525-5050

Info: savannahchoralsociety.org

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Jim Reed

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