The Philadelphia Singers ensemble is winding down its existence by introducing new music in ground-breaking formats. After 43 years as a professional chorale, it refuses to end with a whimper.
This weekend the ensemble will perform its penultimate production, “The Radio Hour,” an East Coast premiere of an operatic piece composed by Jake Heggie, co-commissioned by the chorale. The 40-minute work is written for two choirs, who are expected to perform dance moves, and a lead character who neither speaks nor sings.
“It is contemporary. In the best post-modern sense, it’s a hybrid,” said director and choreographer Sean Curran. “I don’t know of any choral operas with an actor as central character who doesn’t speak a word.”
That central character is “Nora,” whom Curran envisions as Dorothy (“Wizard of Oz”) or Alice (“Wonderland”) “all growed up.” Heartbroken from a failed romance, she comes home to a lonely apartment, listening to the radio to help her get through the end of a lousy day.
The chorus rotates through the radio dial, singing pop tunes, rap tunes, swing tunes, even ad jingles in real time as Nora turns the knob, sometimes landing on a station for mere seconds before moving on. Composer Heggie invented each song fragment in its particular genre.
“As you’re listening to this, you think, ‘I’ve heard this before,'” said David Hayes, music director and conductor of the Philadelphia Singers. “No you haven’t, actually. It’s because he’s so good at channeling those styles.”
Nora eventually discovers that the seemingly random radio mix is coherent. The radio is actually speaking to her.
“It’s divided into two choruses — the radio chorus and Nora chorus,” said David Hayes, the Philadelphia Singers music director and conductor. “The Nora chorus is her thought bubble. The radio chorus is trying to talk to her. The Nora chorus is reacting to the radio chorus. It’s like you’re watching someone’s mind talk to itself.”
Two years ago, Hayes was approached by John Alexander, artistic director of the Pacific Chorale in Santa Ana, California, asking if he would be interested in co-commissioning “The Radio Hour” from Heggie, known for his operas, including “Dead Man Walking.” Hayes almost immediately signed on.
“I like Jake’s work, but he has not written much choral work,” said Hayes. “Let’s do something out of our box. Let’s do something interesting. It didn’t take me long to think it through.”
“The Radio Hour” was originally programmed to celebrate Hayes’ final season with the Singers. He has been with the organization 23 years, and is leaving to increase his involvement with New York Chorale Society and Mannes College, where he is a faculty member. He will continue to teach at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where he is also on the faculty.
In November, the ensemble’s board decided the Singers could not survive financially and this would be its final season, suddenly making “The Radio Hour” part of its swan song.