Friday, 19 August 2022

Singers flock to learn an opera in church clothing

“THE challenge for today is to get all 230 of you working as one single unit,” said conductor Will Dawes to the assembled throng at St Mary’s Church last Saturday

“THE challenge for today is to get all 230 of you working as one single unit,” said conductor Will Dawes to the assembled throng at St Mary’s Church last Saturday.

Gulp. This seemed like a daunting task, but the 33-year-old who began his career as musical director for the Henley Choral Society straight out of university looked distinctly unruffled.

The occasion was a one-day singing workshop, and the challenge from our perspective looked slightly different: to learn Verdi’s Messa DaRequiem — one of the greatest choral works ever written — by 4pm, and then perform it in front of a small audience. Double gulp.

We started with a 10-minute warm-up which included physical jerks as well as vocal techniques, as Will assured us this was going to be tough on our arms, legs and shoulders as well as our vocal cords. Will, who steps down from his role in Henley in the summer to pursue other artistic avenues, then gave us a brief introductory talk on the Catholic funeral mass we were about to tackle.

“Verdi’s refrain Save Us From Being Judged By Fire is all about purgatory, where Catholics believed you go to have your sins purged by fire,” he said.

Despite this, Verdi was a virtual agnostic. The reason he was able to invest so much drama, passion and romance into this work was because his Requiem was actually “an opera in church clothing”.

And then we were off. There are no flies on Mr Dawes, and there was no time to labour any one line in particular. Luckily, I was flanked on both sides by plenty of singers who knew what they were doing (and if they didn’t, they were pretty adept sight-singers).

By 4pm, with an hour’s break for lunch, the 82 members of Henley Choral Society together with 149 visitors from as far afield as Portsmouth and Cirencester had covered five extracts, all of which were beautiful, and some of which were just downright confusing — such as the Sanctus for two choirs which meant we were divided into eight parts instead of four. Following the score at this point felt like the domain of University Challenge finalists.

“It’s all about coming along and having a go, and if you get lost, just sit back and listen,” said Will, during the tea break. “It’s a fantastic occasion, with a huge turn-out, and I’m just delighted.”

Indeed, all our frustrations faded away when we sang for our guests at an informal performance at the end of the day. After all, there can surely be nothing so exciting or moving as belting out the bellicose hellfire lines of the Dies Irae along with 230 other singers.

l Henley Choral Society sings Verdi’s Requiem for double choir with Southern Sinfonia at Reading Concert Hall on June 8. Box office (01491) 572795 or visit

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