by Michael Caruso
When Opera Philadelphia opens its Academy of Music season Friday, Sept. 27, with Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco,” two prominent Chestnut Hill musicians will be singing in the chorus. Rebecca and Aaron Hoke will join more than 70 other singers performing one of the most famous choruses in the entire Italian operatic repertoire, “Va Pensiero,” known as both the chorus of the Hebrew slaves and the unofficial Italian national anthem even before there was a Kingdom (now Republic) of Italy for which there would be the need for a national anthem.
Rebecca and Aaron met when they were undergraduate students at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. They’ve been married for 10 years. “We moved to Chestnut Hill five and a half years ago when I began my master’s degree work at Temple University,” Rebecca said. (Aaron is a music teacher with the School District of Philadelphia. In the past, he taught general and vocal music; this year he will be teaching strings in the district. He has both a vocal and string background and also teaches privately.)
“I’m a professional solo and choral singer as well as a voice teacher. I sing with The Crossing (which is based at the Presbyterian Church of Chestnut Hill), the Philadelphia Singers, Choral Arts Philadelphia, and I will also be working this fall with The Laughing Bird Ensemble.” Rebecca also maintains a private voice studio and teaches voice lessons at Cheltenham High School. Both she and Aaron are staff singers in the choir of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.
“This opera, ‘Nabucco,’ will be our second time singing with Opera Philadelphia,” Rebecca said. “Aaron sang in Verdi’s ‘Otello’ (based on Shakespeare’s “Othello”) in 2010, and I was in ‘La Boheme’ in 2012. We really enjoy singing and performing together. It makes the late nights and long hours of rehearsals more fun.
“Being a part of ‘Nabucco’ is very exciting because it features the chorus so much. The famous chorus, ‘Va Pensiero,’ is a really special moment in the opera for us because it’s our opportunity to be featured and really show off all the hard work that we do to prepare with the company’s choral director, Liz Braden. Philadelphia has a close-knit group of singers who enjoy working together and making music, and it’s fun to share this experience with all of our friends and colleagues.”
“Nabucco” received its world premier March 9, 1842, in Milan’s magnificent Teatro all Scala, universally acclaimed as the finest opera house in the world. It was a great success and was revived for La Scala’s regular autumn season, running for a record 57 performances.
“Nabucco” immediately struck a sympathetic chord among Italian audiences during the 1840s because partisans of Italian unification identified with the Hebrew slaves in Babylon, whose story is told in the biblical Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. At the time, there was no unified Italian nation.
“Va Pensiero,” during which the Hebrew slaves sing of their memories of the Holy City of Jerusalem, was especially cherished by Italian partisans, who considered its words to be an expression of their own dream of a united Italy. Even to this day, “Va Pensiero” is preferred by Italians to the official anthem.
Choral director Liz Braden, who grew up in Easton, received her music education degree from West Chester University and her master’s degree in choral conducting from Westminster Choir College. She is currently in her tenth year with Opera Philadelphia. “Italian opera is a favorite of mine,” she said. “The language is so expressive and fun to sing … There are intense, loud choruses contrasted by beautiful and intimate sections.”
Opera Philadelphia will present “Nabucco” in the Academy of Music Sept. 27 & 29 and Oct. 2, 4 & 6. More information at 215-898-1018 or www.operphila.org.