HGO Needs a Lot of Good Men (and Some Women, Too)

You sing; you drink; what's not to like about being in the opera chorus?
You sing; you drink; what's not to like about being in the opera chorus?
Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Over the last ten years, Keenan Manceaux has sung out strongly in Italian, French, German, Czech and, yes, occasionally English, while working his way through costume fittings and wig adjustments and holding down a day job.

Other than a little Italian, Manceaux doesn't have a firm grasp on any language beyond English. But that hasn't stopped him from being part of the Houston Grand Opera chorus, and he wants anyone thinking about trying out to know that a lack of fluency in other languages won't be a bar to them, either.

HGO has sent out its annual notice that it's looking for chorus members -- it's a bit short on men, particularly -- for its 2011-12 season. Art Attack wanted to know about how tough a job this can be, so we talked to Manceaux, who by day teaches private voice lessons at Deer Park High School and who is also the music director at a church in Cypress.

The first step, he says, is to master the sounds and the tunes. "We're given the music. We're taught the notes and the rhythm first, then we're taught the language, how to pronounce it the correct way," Manceaux says. They also have to learn what it means, "so you have an emotional context for what you're doing."

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Eventually, he promises, "after you do enough operas, a lot of the words come back, and you remember them."

Manceaux had arrived in Houston and was working on a doctorate when a friend persuaded him to audition. With a bachelor's and a master's in performance from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Lousiana State University, respectively, he was used to performing onstage.

He was hooked almost immediately and decided to sign up for more and more productions. Those getting into opera work should recognize that each production usually means about six weeks of rehearsal, and 18 hours over three nights each week, he adds.

Not all shows require the same number of chorus members and can vary anywhere from 20 to 80 singers, Manceaux says.

He says he loves doing the work because "there's nothing boring about being in the opera. That's what's exciting about live performances." And there's also the chance to be onstage with some of the top internationally known opera stars of our day, he says.

"To be a small part of that, not that many people get that experience," he says.

Friends and family come over from Louisiana to see him in some of his productions and his students attend as well. It helps him in his teaching, he says.

"It makes a big difference," he says. "I can tell them I have been where you are also and you can get to where I am. If anyone works, they can become a better singer. You can become better if you work at it."

Auditioners are expected to present two arias "of contrasting style, tempo, in original language and by memory." They may be asked to sight read. HGO would rather applicants sing from an opera, but they'll listen to those who prefer to sing from an oratorio. There will be an accompanist there, but singers should bring their own music.

In the 2011-12 season, a chorus will be required for Il barbiere di Siviglia - Rossini (men only), Fidelio - Beethoven, La Traviata - Verdi, Don Carlo - Verdi and Maria Stuarda - Donizetti.

Auditions are 6 to 9 p.m. August 26 and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. August 27 at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, 510 Preston. For information, visit www.houstongrandopera.org/auditions or call the HGO Rehearsal Department at 713-980-8679.

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