Originally published Nov. 5 @10:25 a.m. / Last updated Nov. 5 @1:18 p.m.
By May S. Ruiz
Tenor Todd Wilander grew up in Arcadia, attended Arcadia High School in the late 1980s, then went to California State University in Los Angeles (Cal State). Little did he know then that he would be traveling the globe, performing the works of venerated opera composers in world-famous concert halls.
Wilander is one of four featured guest soloists in the Verdi Chorus 35th anniversary season which culminates with its Fall 2018 concert ‘Passione! Opera!’ for two performances only at the First United Methodist Church in Santa Monica on November 10 and 11 at 7:30 pm. He has been praised by the New York Times for his ‘brave, vocally assured portrayals,’ and he has returned for eight seasons, thus far, with The Metropolitan Opera.
Tracing his extraordinary path that led to opera, Wilander recalls, “At Arcadia High, I was a member of ‘Chanteurs,’ which was like a ‘Glee’ group; we wore sequined vests and we sang show tunes and rock n’ roll. I also sang in the Arcadia Presbyterian Church choir with my mom and grandma – I was a back-up singer with a bunch of adults, not really knowing what I was doing but I had a big voice and a natural talent.
“Dr. Thomas Miyake, who was the choir conductor and head of church music at the Arcadia Presbyterian Church, was also a professor in Music Studies and the Choir Director at Cal State. When I was looking at colleges for my undergrad work, he mentioned that he could get me a scholarship if I was interested in attending Cal State.
“At Cal State I was encouraged by Professor Pollyanne Baxter and the school pianist, Twyla Meyer, who I still see often. Both became my biggest academic supporters.
“I also became active in student politics – I was the president of the student body made up of 20,000 students. Political science had also been an interest and that gave me the opportunity to meet Bill Clinton and Pete Wilson. However, I decided to pursue singing and went to Northwestern University in Chicago to earn my Master’s degree.”
“From Chicago, I moved to Kansas City,” continues Wilander. “It was while I was there that I tried out for The Metropolitan Opera competition which it holds ever year. I made the first round then I went to New York with 25 other competing singers. The next round whittled it down to ten competitors, until five winners were chosen and I was one of them.
“Winning a competition by The Metropolitan Opera in 2000 was a big deal as it opened many doors. The next year I won a foundation competition and moved to Berlin where I lived and worked for three years; I was in my 20s. That led to performances in Italy and elsewhere in the world.”
In the years hence, Wilander has performed in 20 countries. And if this year’s engagements were any indication, he could be looking forward to seeing many more places.
“I was in San Francisco in January, San Luis Obispo in February, Alaska in March, Mississippi in April, then in Barbados for a week, and Germany for two months,” Wilander details. “I came back here and did a concert for my stepmom Marilynne held at the First Methodist Church in Pasadena, where she has been a member of for 50 years. I just finished an opera in New Hampshire.”
Wilander’s association with Verdi Chorus began almost two decades ago. He relates, “I knew Anne Marie Ketchum, Verdi Chorus’s conductor and founding artistic director, when I was a Cal State undergrad. She was in charge of the Pasadena City College (PCC) opera theater program at that time. Someone told me they were doing a Bernstein/Gershwin revue and they needed some male tenors so I called her up. To this day, I think fondly of that concert because those two composers are such geniuses.
“Anne Marie and I became friends and we would get in touch from time to time. Around 2013, we met for lunch and she told me about Verdi Chorus. She said they hold two big concerts a year and invited me to be a tenor soloist; I think this will be my fourth time with the group.”
The Verdi Chorus was founded in 1983 at the Verdi Restaurant in Santa Monica. When the restaurant closed in 1991, the Verdi Chorus continued. It is the only choral group in Southern California that focuses primarily on the dramatic and diverse music of the opera chorus. Every Monday night, over 50 singers from every walk of life, ranging in age from 18 to 80, gather together to become the Verdi Chorus.
“This concert is a great opportunity for people to hear a wide variety of the Top Ten Opera,” Wilander describes. “It’s not a full stage A to Z production – we’ll do selections from Verdi’s ‘Aida’ and Boito’s ‘Mephistopheles.’ We’ll do a big chunk of ‘The Tales of Hoffman’ by Offenbach and ‘Samson and Delilah’ by Saint-Saens. So it’s French, German, and Italian.”
“There will be no orchestra, only a piano. While it’s not the same thing as an opera in the sense that the performers will be in tuxedos and gowns, I will still be able to do a limited amount of acting a role. So it’s really about making music with the voice and connecting with the pianist and the audience.”
Opera takes Wilander all over the world and he lives full-time in Manhattan, where he’s had an apartment in Washington Heights for the past ten years. But when he isn’t touring, he returns to Arcadia and picks up where he left off.
“I’m an only child and my parents have always been very supportive of me and my career,” Wilander discloses. “My mom was a huge influence in my life as a musician and as a human being. She always encouraged me to follow my passions and to do my best to make the world a better place. A few days before she passed away in 2010, she told me that every time I perform on stage and feel the spotlight following me, ‘Just know that it is me, beaming down on you from the heavens with grandma. Our hearts are full of pride that you’re sharing with everyone your God-given gifts.’ I still think of her words daily and am continually grateful.
“Her service was held at Lake Avenue (Congregational) Church in Pasadena. About 80 choir members sang and it was absolutely beautiful. Every Christmas I come back to sing with the Lake Avenue choir led by Worship Music Director Duane Funderburk.
“To this day, I stay with my dad when I’m in town. And with my mom gone, he makes sure I know that he is behind me emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Having that unconditional support is a blessing in this kind of work with such highs and lows. You could be performing in front of 2,000 people only to go back to a hotel and be by yourself. There are no groupies for opera singers.”
“There are gratifying moments, however,” Wilander quickly adds. “Like when someone says to me ‘Your passion made me feel something,’ or ‘That song was what my father listened to,’ or ‘Even if you were singing in French, I followed your character so well I understood his heartache.’”
Asked if he has a favorite opera, Wilander quips, “My funny answer is ‘the next job I’ll be doing.’ Clever remarks aside, I’ve had the most success with Italian composers like Donizetti, who wrote ‘L’elisir d’amore’ (The Elixir of Love). He composed operas about English Royals – ‘Elisabetta,’ ‘Anna Bolena’ ‘Maria Stuarda.’ I love historical operas. While he embellished here and there, his operas were pretty accurate.
“Now that I’m older and my voice has settled more, I can sing a lot of Donizetti’s works. In the same way that now I can do Wagner … which is great because his works are harder to cast. Twenty-year olds can’t possibly sing Wagner or they’ll ruin their vocal chords. Singers have to move on to the operas as they gain age and wisdom and emotional connectedness with the character.
“I can execute more Verdi and Puccini and I can project against a 60-piece orchestra, that’s very lush and big. Opera singers don’t wear microphones so shows are usually not held on consecutive evenings to give us time to rest our voice.”
Wilander has sung in so many operas but every new role still induces the same thrill as when he first started out. He happily divulges, “My next big engagement will be with Opera New Jersey in March when I get to be Radames in Verdi’s ‘Aida.’ Then in April, I will be with the Tampa Bay Opera in Florida to sing in Puccini’s ‘La Boheme’ as Rodolfo. Other opportunities coming up include a concert in Germany and other New York concerts in the spring. I don’t have a dream role but there are some roles I would like to perform again; and I’d love to do ‘Tosca’ one day.”
What the future holds can sometimes be a complete surprise as in Wilander’s case. “I didn’t grow up with opera; my parents didn’t either. They took me to The Ahmanson in downtown L.A. and we watched musical theater. I’d only sung Latin in Church when I was young. My love for opera started in college, but even then Cal State didn’t have an opera program.
“But opera has been a part of who I am as a person and I can’t imagine life without it. After all these years, I am still amazed at how each live performance is different because anything can happen. There was one concert when I slipped and slid across the entire length of the stage, but I didn’t skip a beat singing. There are nights when someone would be in remarkable form, or a singer would be struggling, or someone had a fight with his girlfriend so his head would be in a bad place. But all those emotions could be transferred to the words you’re singing.
“Opera is such a wonderful art form that imbues all kinds of sensations and experiences. It isn’t just a bunch of people in costume, singing in a foreign language. It transports audiences to places – fighting wars, falling in love, being rejected – to make the characters and stories a part of them.”
“There’s a reason that opera has lasted over 400 years – because it tells a story of love, passion, betrayal, anger, of human emotions every one of us goes through each day. And, in the world we live in today, it’s good to be reminded that there’s more than what we see on CNN and Fox News. There’s more humanity and love to go around.”