Singers in the hall: choir students prepare to belt ‘Carmina Burana’ in Carpenter Theatre


Everything about Carmina Burana is huge and imposing. It takes more than 100 performers to interpret it. Its libretto is written in Latin and Middle High German. And the whole production is based on medieval poetry encompassing life, death, pleasure and fate.

The VCU Commonwealth Singers mastered it in a month. And for three nights in September, they’ll join the Richmond Symphony, Richmond Ballet and Richmond Symphony Chorus to perform it at Richmond’s Carpenter Theatre. They’ll also be accompanied by soloist and music alumna Zarah Brock (BFA ’15).

“The students have just taken it. They own this piece now,” said Erin Freeman, conductor, who is both the director of choral activities at VCUarts Music and the director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus. “It’s so fun to watch.”

Freeman’s students have faced many hurdles in the weeks preceding these public performances, from tongue-tying lyrics to the acoustics of the concert hall. The Commonwealth Singers juggle this one-credit audition-only course with their other classes, jobs and rehearsals. But Freeman proudly said it only took her choir two rehearsals to grasp the multilingual, 25-movement cantata at a professional level.

As the singers are joined by such a large cohort of performers, this production of Carmina Burana splits the chorus into four groups arranged around the audience off-stage. With singers in the halls and on the balconies far from the orchestra pit, both Freeman and the vocalists have to compensate for the slower travel of sound. When Freeman waves her baton, that crucial visual information reaches the singers before the music does.

“Staying with the baton is tricky,” says Lida Bourhill, a music education major and an alto in the choir, “because what you’re hearing is misleading. You’re hearing a delay, so you want to sing with the delay but then you’re extra behind.”

“My eyes are glued to the baton the whole time,” said Kristen Melzer, a fellow alto and music education senior.

Pronunciation proved to be the biggest challenge. Music students take diction classes that familiarize them with the many languages common in classical music; but the medieval Latin and Middle High German used in Carmina Burana deviates from the norm, particularly with the letters W and V.

“It doesn’t follow the normal pronunciation rules of Latin,” said Melzer. “It’s this weird Austro-Germanic Latin.”

Further complicating the language is the loquaciousness of the text. For instance, during one drinking song, the tenors have to sing out a long list of beverages.

For the Commonwealth Singers, Carmina Burana is more than a performance. Freeman’s students also took on leadership roles as student conductors, chorus managers and ticket sale organizers. They took attendance and troubleshooted when singers were missing. One student became the fashion guru, working with the costume department to prepare the monks’ habits they’ll wear.

All of this extraordinary effort coalesces into a thrilling and thunderous night of music. The students say that mastering this iconic piece and working alongside professional musicians and ballet dancers has formed a vivid portrait of what a career in music can be.

“When we watch the dancers, we can see every intricacy that is happening; how strong they have to be, but also relaxed and agile,” said Bourhill. “The precision of their movements is inspiring. It makes you want to apply that precision to your own studies.”

The Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Energy Center hosts Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana Sept. 27 and 28 at 7 pm, and Sept. 29 at 2 pm. For tickets, visit the Richmond Ballet website.