On the heels of a two-week whirlwind tour to sold-out crowds in Argentina, Bel Canto Chorus director Richard Hynson joked, “We are working our way around the world, country by country.”
Previous tours include trips to Western Europe, Central Europe and Canada. In its 81st year, the Bel Canto Chorus continues to grow in voices and musicianship, and Hynson is proud to be only the choir’s fourth director, following James Keeley, Fr. Francis Drabinowicz, and its founder, Thomas Stemper.
Established in 1931 as the Festival Singers of Milwaukee, the group began with four women and four men, who performed Hans Gruber’s Festival Mass in the chapel of St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee. According to choir member and Bel Canto historian, Jim Hill, no one can determine how many people attended its first concert, or even the date on which it was performed.
“There was very little documentation from this period of the chorus’ history on which to base any extensive narrative, and there are no surviving members to interview,” he said, adding, “But we do know that sometime during 1931, a local music teacher named Thomas Stemper assembled a very small choral ensemble to perform the Gruber Festival Mass. It was this work that inspired the group’s original name.”
The a cappella ensemble included Stemper’s wife, Elsa Van Asche Stemper, and his nephew, William Hargarten.
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Members came from all occupations
According to Hill, just 14 years later, with Elsa still at the podium, the singers numbered 72. Their members came from all occupations and social statuses in the Milwaukee area, such as students, housewives, police officers, chemists and insurance agents, but not one was a professional musician. Their performances seemed to be as eclectic as their membership.
“They performed before Catholic Holy Name groups, conventions, dedications, memorial services, holy hours, and radio programs,” said Hill. “One of their more interesting, unusual and attentive audiences was the prisoners at the Milwaukee County House of Correction.”
Performing to rave reviews at venues such as the Pabst Theatre, the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel praised the Festival Singers in 1945 for singing with “spirit and confidence” and “disciplined modulation and balance.”
Priest becomes director of choir in 1947
By 1947, Stemper resigned his position due to poor health, and a few months later, the choir was reorganized under Fr. Francis Drabinowicz, pastor of St. James Parish, Oak Creek, and a former music professor at Saint Francis Seminary, St. Francis.
Renamed the Bel Canto Choir, Fr. Drabinowicz and the 50-member group performed its first concert at the Pabst Theatre in April 1948. The program included a mix of sacred music, such as Grieg’s “Ave Maria,” and popular music that included Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” A local critic described the performance as an “auspicious beginning” for the new group.
Fr. Drabinowicz continued to lead the Bel Canto Choir until his retirement in 1956. In addition to many smaller performances, the group also performed one a cappella or piano accompanied concert per year at the Pabst Theatre.
From Oak Park, Ill., James Keeley had aspirations for the priesthood, and moved to Milwaukee in 1948 to attend Saint Francis Seminary. He later received a degree from Milwaukee State Teachers College, and taught Latin and Greek at Marquette University High School before pursuing a music career.
Prior to directing the Bel Canto Choir, he served as organist and choir director at St. Patrick and St. Hedwig parishes in Milwaukee, and Christ King Parish, Wauwatosa.
A musical prodigy, Keeley memorized Gilbert and Sullivan librettos as a boy, and helped to start the Skylight Theatre in 1960. He was one of the stars of the theatre’s first performances. He also worked to coordinate the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s television appearances, conducted the 1965 Lakeshore Arts Festival Orchestra, guest conducted other orchestras, and taught organ and harpsichord as a member of the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music staff.
Boys Choir, Senior Choir also perform
The most recent development of the Bel Canto Chorus is the Boys Choir directed by Eileen Shuler. The performing choir is targeted to grade four and up, and is the result of Hynson’s long time dream.
“We wanted to get the boys and young men to get to a high level of musical experience in a safe, social environment – one where they don’t have to worry about girls giggling and teasing them about singing,” he said. “We are still in the building stages, but it is very successful and we have had some great performances.”
The Boys Choir recently hosted the Chorknaben Uetersen Boy Choir from Germany and both performed in Mequon on July 9.
“We also have a senior singers program designed to offer the therapeutic benefit of singing to our older adults,” said Hynson. “It is really a cradle to grave community of arts and we cover basically every stage of music making.”
More complicated scores as Bel Canto Chorus
His first performance of the Bel Canto was Nov. 18, 1956, with 39 volunteer singers. The choir’s popularity and membership grew, and in 1964 became known as the Bel Canto Chorus, performing more complicated scores, such as Verdi’s “Requiem,” Beethoven’s “Symphony No. 9,” Puccini’s “Turandot,” and Handel’s “Messiah.”
The 150-member chorus performed two major concerts per year at the Milwaukee Auditorium and, after 1968, in the Performing Arts Center’s Uihlein Hall with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, and frequently with nationally recognized soloists.
A frightening event occurred as the choir was due to perform Verdi’s “Requiem” at the Oriental Theater in March 1961. Just before the curtain was to rise, a section of bleachers collapsed, leaving four singers hospitalized with injuries. The next day, a Milwaukee Journal front-page headline announced, “Phantom of the Opera Strikes Bel Canto.”
Despite their shock, the performers insisted that the show must continue, and gave a full performance.
In the mid-1970s, the chorus commissioned Gian-Carlo Menotti to write “Landscapes and Remembrances” for the United States Bicentennial. The piece was recorded and broadcast on PBS, and later, at Menotti’s invitation, the choir performed at his Spoleto Festival in Italy. While in Italy, the Bel Canto Chorus performed a Mass for Pope Paul VI at St. Peter’s Basilica on July 4, 1976. Over the next few years, the chorus performed “Carmina Burana” in Mexico City, and Menotti’s “Missa O Pulchritudo” at Spoleto and the Vatican.
Hynson is 4th director of chorus
After Keeley retired, Hynson became the director of the Bel Canto Chorus and worked to increase musicianship. He is in his 24th season with the chorus.
“We have a four-concert season and an annual Christmas concert,” he said. “Some of our concerts are repeated in different venues and with smaller programs. All in all, we perform about 12 to 14 times per year.”
The all-volunteer chorus is comprised of 100 singers who audition for a position in the ensemble.
“We like to call them diagnostic auditions and it is really an opportunity to get to know the singers, their strengths and weakness and use tools for improvement in certain areas,” said Hynson. “It also gives us a sense as where to place a singer in the chorus. They are all dedicated and extremely skilled amateurs. I also have a ‘pro’ core of singers that help me in the sections and in the teaching of music.”
As one of the oldest autonomous choir organizations in the world, Hynson said he could count on one hand the number of choruses that are older than the Bel Canto.
“There are some astonishing ones in Europe, but anything in the United States that is older than 25 years is very rare,” he said. “And we have 85 to 90 percent of our members active at any time. We draw from a 75 mile radius of musicians from a variety of counties in Wisconsin and Northern Illinois … and they show up for practice every single week!”
In the past, the chorus was comprised of many priests and nuns, but that has changed to include primarily lay singers.
“The Catholic connection to Bel Canto has been a strong one,” Hynson said. “We make great attempts to become deeply involved in events that surround our Catholic diocese. In fact, we are performing a 9/11 United We Stand Concert in front of the cathedral in honor of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York, Washington D.C., and Pennsylvania. We are hoping for some strong participation from the Catholic Church as well as an overall ecumenical presence.”