Desert Song : The Santa Fe Desert Chorale

It’s known as a “good gig”–a fulltime summer singing job for which age and experience are a plus (not a liability), solo and ensemble opportunities are plentiful, the pay is good, and housing is cheap (or free). In addition, the setting is a popular tourist destination, full of visual and performing arts and natural scenic beauty.

It’s Santa Fe, but it’s not the opera. The Santa Fe Desert Chorale has garnered critical acclaim and a very loyal following, performing for mostly sold-out crowds. You haven’t heard of it? Though well known regionally and in national choral circles, the Santa Fe Desert Chorale just might be one of the best-kept secrets among professional singers.

Since its founding in 1982 by director emeritus Lawrence Bandfield, the Desert Chorale has had a low turnover rate among performers. This past summer, however, fully half of the 20 singers were first-timers. They hailed from 12 different states, from California to Oklahoma to Connecticut.

“I don’t care a bit where they’re from,” says newly appointed artistic director Dennis Shrock. “I care about talent.” Schrock anticipates openings for every voice part during the two concert seasons in 2000 (June_August summer season and a shorter December season), and will continue to hold national auditions “as needed” in New York and San Francisco. “My central philosophy,” says Shrock, “is that the best choir is made up of the best singers.”

Is he worried about being inundated with applications and audition tapes once the word gets out? “No, not really. I want to hear a lot of singers. It’s like finding the right repertoire. I may look through 45 pieces of music until I find the right one. It’s the same thing with singers.” Initial auditions are generally by tape and resume. Tapes include simple vocal exercises for range and voice quality, as well as two contrasting songs. “They can range from an opera aria to an art song.”

Potential candidates are then called back for a live audition, although occasionally a singer, like soprano Christine Laird, is hired on the strength of her resume and audition tape. Laird already had extensive ensemble and solo experience, performing in concerts with Concora, The Gregg Smith Singers, The Cambridge Singers, and the Robert Shaw Festival Singers.

Shrock makes it clear that this isn’t an “apprentice” or training program. Singers range in age from mid-20s to late 50s, and “the more experience the singers have, the better.” Shrock looks for singers who already “…know how music goes, how to make a piece of music speak–singers who are expressive, not mechanical.” Singers must have good technical control of pitch, since the music is sung a capella or with small instrumental ensembles.

The daunting amount of repertoire to be learned, along with the difficulty of music, ranging from “early Renaissance to yesterday,” demands singers who are excellent sight-readers with a wide range of capability, both with regard to dynamics and timbre. There are five separate concert repertoires performed during the summer, and each singer prepares three full concerts plus a “cameo” program that typically features 6_16 singers. Shrock hopes to add solo recitals to next season’s schedule.

Santa Fe Desert Chorale members begin rehearsals in mid-June and have their first performance about a week later. Singers rehearse five hours a day (10 p.m. to 1 p.m., and 2:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.) except on performance days, and they typically have two days off per week. In 1999 singers were paid $12 per hour for rehearsal, $22 per hour for recording, and a flat $56 per performance. “That adds up to $2,200_$2,500 for the eight-week season,” says Shrock. In addition, housing is provided by the Chorale on a sliding scale. The cost ranges from free (for a room in someone’s house) to about $25 a week for a private “casita,” a little guest house.

What about singing at 7,000 feet above sea level in a dry desert climate? “Just like the Santa Fe Opera singers,” says Shrock, “you have to deal with it–acclimate yourself and stay hydrated. Water bottles are mandatory at every Desert Chorale rehearsal and performance.” Shrock, a singer himself, stays in touch with the physical demands of singing by continuing to perform regularly. As a conductor, he swears you’ll never hear him ask for straight tone. He has written about “Vibrato in Choral Singing” for the Choral Journal: “It’s all about breath flow.” Even after a three-hour rehearsal, Shrock states, “You should be in as good or better voice than when you began. If one is singing correctly, vocal demands are challenging but not insurmountable–certainly not detrimental.” Amazingly, not one singer missed a single performance all summer.

Alto Lisa Chumley, a four-year veteran of the Chorale, says she felt completely prepared for the first performance, even with such a short, intensive rehearsal period. “Dennis is a musical collaborator. He knows what he wants, and he knows how to ask you to do it.”

Even though this was the largest crop of new singers in Chumley’s experience, Shrock impressed the singers by individually introducing all of the singers to each other at the first rehearsal. “He had completely memorized our bios and knew who we all were!” Chumley hopes to spend many more summers singing in Santa Fe. “The music, the people, and the land draw me here.” So much so that she recently bought land in New Mexico. “I have no idea what I am going to do with 160 acres on a mesa, “ she laughs, “but to get there, I actually drive past Georgia O’Keeffe’s former studio. It’s magic here.”

One singer who will definitely be leaving a vacancy in the Santa Fe Desert Chorale is Matthew Oltman. After four seasons with the Chorale, Oltman returned to Des Moines, IA at the end of the summer just long enough to pack his bags and move to San Francisco to join the internationally famous concert and recording ensemble Chanticleer. “Chanticleer is the biggest thing in my career–a wonderful opportunity! The staff was impressed that I had sung with the Desert Chorale,” says the 24-year-old tenor. “They knew I could handle a really intense rehearsing, performing, and recording schedule.”

Oltman dislikes the divisiveness between “opera” singers and “choral” singers. “I haven’t switched focus or changed sides,” he says. “I still love opera and solo concerts. I just didn’t know what the potential of the choral art was until I sang with the Desert Chorale.”

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.