Alexander Rom, chorus master for the Dallas Opera, is a fascinating person who is surprisingly personable and humorous. He always looks so serious when he comes out for a bow at the end of the chorus’ part in the production that his affability takes you by surprise. However, his “bow” demeanor is influenced by his relief that things went well or his unhappiness when they didn’t. He is not seated in the audience, enjoying the performance; he is backstage working and sweating bullets the whole time.
You would think that the chorus master’s job is finished once he trains the chorus for the production. In that, you would be wrong. He acts as a co-conductor the whole time, just not from any position where we in the audience can see him.
“Sometimes, I run back and forth behind the scenery a couple of times in quick succession,” he says. “It all depends on where I need to be at any given moment.”
Suppose that the men’s chorus is marching across the stage facing stage left. He needs to be there conducting to keep them all together since they can’t look sideways at the conductor (which would look ridiculous). Then also suppose that the women’s chorus is on the other side of the stage and has a tricky entrance. He has to run around the back of the scenery again to catch their eye. And so it goes for Alexander Rom until the chorus work is finished. It’s no wonder he keeps so trim.
He has held this position with the Dallas Opera for an amazing 22 years, which is way past the shelf life of most conductors these days. He is a distinguished composer, voice teacher and Russian diction coach, which he still does for the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He has also staged operas himself with great success and is an honorary visiting professor at the Sibelius Academy and the Conservatory of Music in Helsinki, Finland.
He is a native of Kharkov, Ukraine. However, he is Russian-trained and graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory of Music with a degree in choral conducting. “The training in Russia is very strict and comprehensive,” he says. “We all had to work very hard, but it gave me a foundation on which to build a career.”
The recent challenge is the chorus work in two major operas on stage at the Winspear Opera House—Puccini’s masterpiece, Turandot and Dominick Argento’s completely different The Aspern Papers (which closes on Sunday).
“These two operas were both a great challenge for the chorus,” he says. “In Turandot [by Puccini] the chorus sings as much as the major characters. The first act is especially challenging since they sing so much of it.”
Puccini’s opera is well-known for the first act choruses; the “Song to the Moon” is particularly lovely. “The other problem is that the chorus has to portray many different characters in the show,” Rom says. “They are dejected citizens, they are an angry mob, they are soldiers, and they are court servants. In one particular spot, the women have a very quick costume change from townspeople to Turandot’s handmaidens. We had staff from wardrobe standing by and temporary changing rooms set up right off stage. It is a frantic few minutes and then they have to walk out on stage looking serene.”
Things are completely different in Dominick Argento’s atmospheric mystery opera, The Aspern Papers. In this opera, the chorus is a part of the orchestra. We are familiar with this effect in many movie scores when chorus singing, either on words or vowels. Argento uses this effect most skillfully, so much so, in fact, that some in the audience were not aware of it.
“No chorus in this one,” said a man behind me on opening night.
“We are crammed into the pit,” Rom says. “We sing at the beginning of each act and then not again until the end. It is hard to keep the voice warmed up when you have to sit quietly.”
I asked him about his role in this opera and he said that it is just as critical as in any time when they are on the stage. “I am in the pit with them. I give a warning when we are about to sing so they don’t all have to keep track. Then I bring them in and red-telegraph the conductor’s moves so the chorus sees them way in the back of the pit. I am also aware of balance, because it is hard for them to hear while they are singing in thick tight space.”
Rom is more than a conductor, however. He is a surrogate father, confessor, stand-in brother, counselor, and friend.
“They are like my children, no matter how old they are,” he says. “Many of them I have known for years and we have lived our lives together as closely as any family, maybe closer than some.”
Some choristers have gone on to careers as an opera star themselves. One example is Clifton Forbis, a dramatic tenor who graces the stage of major opera houses around the world. He is currently the Associate Professor and Chair of Voice at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of Music. He sang the incredibly challenging role of Tristan in the Dallas Opera’s stunning production of Tristan and Isolde last season. On May 17 and 19, he will sing the equally difficult role of Sigmund in the Dallas Symphony’s concert performance of act one of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre, the second of the four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung). Rom is especially proud of him.
“I love them all, my choristers” he says with such sincerity that it makes you feel a little a little envious that your boss doesn’t always say that about you.