by Lianne Coble-Dispensa
Opera singers don’t accept a job with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus because they’ve heard it’s a walk in the park. People aren’t applying for auditions by the thousands because they believe they’ll have copious amounts of time to put their feet up and eat Chinese takeout while watching Netflix. They sign on to the Met Chorus lifestyle knowing full well that the hours are long, the memorization work is fierce, and the toll on the body (both physically and vocally) can be considerable. Once the Met season opens at the end of September, Met choristers work 6 days a week without fail, with the one sweet promise of Sunday to spend with their family, to tend to mountains of accumulating laundry, and maybe, just maybe, to catch up on the sleep they’ve missed all week.
So it may surprise you that, after singing Monday through Saturday, many members of the Met Chorus wake up early on Sundays to sing again! If you haven’t spent time in a major urban area, or if you never experienced the kaleidoscopic miscellany of a freelance singer’s career, you may not even be aware that the idea of a “church job” exists. But in most major cities, when you mix a strong music scene with high-profile places of worship, you will find that churches and synagogues have the budget to hire talented professional musicians to improve the quality of their music ministry. Whether acting as soloists, members of a professional choir, or both, these Met choristers truly enjoy their Sunday morning church jobs because of how artistically and spiritually fulfilling the experience is for them, and relish the opportunity to share their gifts with a new and different community.
If you happen upon Redeemer Presbyterian Church on a Sunday morning, you may well be treated to a choir filled with Met opera singers, or even a stirring solo from a member of the Met chorus. Soprano Belinda Oswald enjoys joining the church’s professional chorus for holiday services, and sings solos during services many times throughout the liturgical year. “I love to use my gift”, she says, and enjoys singing on Sundays at Redeemer for a number of reasons. Besides her deep commitment to her faith, she also loves singing arrangements written by Redeemer’s music director Tom Jennings, and enjoys the freedom of singing in a setting where there is less scrutiny and one can “produce the sound more freely”. She’s often joined by mezzo-sopranos Patricia Steiner and Catherine Choi Steckmeyer, who have been singing with the choir for years and enjoy soloing from time to time.
Other choristers, such as tenor Jeremy Little, baritone Scott Dispensa, and soprano Lianne Coble-Dispensa (who, if you didn’t catch the byline, wrote this article), are actually on the full-time rosters of their respective churches. Jeremy rounds out the 17 singers of the professional core of the choir at Brick Presbyterian Church (at 91st Street and Park Avenue). For Jeremy, performing sacred music at Brick Church holds a deep personal significance for him. “Sacred choral music is what brought me to music as a vocation in the first place, [and it] speaks to my desire for approaching and encountering something bigger than myself and the mundane. One may argue that non-sacred music offers the same- and I would certainly agree- but for me, sacred choral music resonates in its own special spot.”
Lianne Coble-Dispensa, now in her 4th full-time year at the Met, was a busy freelance singer before she joined the chorus, and has sung with the 16-member professional choir at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for 6 years. Her husband Scott, who has sung full-time with the Met Chorus for 9 years, joined the St. John the Divine roster when a baritone spot opened up for two reasons: to see Lianne more often (Sunday is the chorus’s only day off), and to return to some of his favorite sacred choral repertoire. Scott was a sought-after professional choral freelancer before he joined the Met, and like Jeremy, sacred choral music and early renaissance and Renaissance polyphony are near and dear to his heart. He also made many lifelong friendships as a freelancer (as did Lianne), and their time at St. John’s offers them the opportunity to connect with their friends outside of the Met, as well as enjoy the benefits of sight-reading challenging polyphonic sacred choral repertoire and chant. St. John the Divine has two services on Sundays: a Choral Eucharist at 11:00am, and Choral Evensong at 4:00pm, with a rehearsal before each service. So their Sundays are not necessarily relaxed, but they are filled with rewarding musical experiences and fellowship, as well as the obligatory choir brunch between services.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Met chorus boasts many other talented musicians who commit their time and efforts to performing at church. Twice a month, tenor Stephen Paynter acts as a worship leader for his church, which brings in over 500 congregants. Baritone Yohan Yi and tenor Christian Jeong both conduct their church choirs. And even bass Edward Hanlon, who is the Met Chorus Committee Chair (and rarely has a minute of free time on his hands), often subs in the choirs of various churches around the five boroughs.
So, as the holidays approach, keep your eye out for some joyful Met choristers who are grateful for the opportunity to bring you beautiful vocal music both on and off the opera stage!
Lianne Coble-Dispensa joined the Metropolitan Opera as a member of the extra chorus in 2010, and went full time in 2015. She is the Editor-in-Chief for the Met Artists Newsletter, and is a member of the Met Chorus Artists executive board. When she's not singing opera or furiously copy editing this month's newsletter, she enjoys spending the lion's share of her free time cooking various delights in the kitchen, reading non-fiction, Crossfitting, and running moderately impressive distances. She is married to fellow chorister (and ultramarathoner) Scott Dispensa, and they live in Teaneck, NJ with two ostentatiously named cats (Maximilien de Robespierre and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry).