Atlanta Opera Chorus puts the ‘Oh!’ in the opera

All was not completely well in the land of “Tosca.”

Things had started promisingly enough. Michael Gaare’s velvety smooth tenor expertly enfolded each pesky syllable and note of “E lucevan le stelle,” temporarily transforming a cavernous Atlanta Opera rehearsal room into the magical, “And the stars were shining” place of Puccini’s famed aria.

But then Gaare’s voice quavered slightly.

“Excuse me,” he said quietly. “Can I get some water?”

For the next few minutes, chorus master Walter Huff waited patiently to resume the anxiety-inducing auditions that had been playing out since the night before. Eight years earlier, Gaare had made the Atlanta Opera chorus as a baritone out of Pebblebrook High School’s performing arts program; now after a break of several years due to sinus surgery and a voice change, the 27-year-old was eager to start singing professionally again.

In some ways, the stakes were just as high for Huff as the 44 gifted singers who would make their pitch in this high-class, operatic version of “American Idol.” With four operas to be produced in the 2009-10 season, he still had some key spots to fill in the choruses. The first production, Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love,” wouldn’t debut until Oct. 3 — still 14 weeks away on this sultry Saturday afternoon in late June. But it was important that Huff get it right now. Also on tap for this 30th anniversary season was Verdi’s massively challenging “Aida,” which truly puts the “Oh!” in opera — it boasts two separate choruses and a triumphal march scene in which, Huff quipped, “everyone who’s ever even thought about being in ‘Aida’ is onstage.

Chorus is crucial

Each opera this season will use a different number of chorus singers, from as many as 70 for “Aida” to 30 for “Elixir.” Many of those slots go to members of a “core” group who had successfully auditioned in the past and who could end up performing in more than one production. But it was more than a mere numbers game Huff was playing. He was also solidifying the ranks of opera’s true unsung heroes.

“The chorus is hugely important,” said Ryan Minor, an assistant professor of music at Stony Brook University in New York and the associate editor of “Opera Quarterly.” “It’s like in the Tour de France. There are people who are never going to be riding up front, but their job is to provide critical wind resistance.”

Sometimes that “wind resistance” involves interacting with the principal singers in ways that draw out their characters or underscore key plot points for the audience. Sometimes the chorus members become characters in their own right, actually advancing the storyline or altering the dynamics of a scene.

“You’re the leader of such-and-such city and you run into the enemy you’re secretly in love with,” Minor chuckled, describing a classic opera conflict between the lead characters. “The moment wouldn’t have any dramatic impact if the chorus wasn’t there.”