Opera diva’s voice opens hearts and minds

The Verdi Chorus and Music Director Anne Marie Ketchum

La Voix Humaine (The Human Voice) is a one-woman opera about an emotionally delicate lady, named Elle.  She struggles to keep her relationship alive over a telephone conversation, but the call is repeatedly cut-off by the faulty system.

Like the character she once played, Anne Marie Ketchum has struggled and maneuvered through economic, educational and social systems to keep opera alive and bring younger generations into the art world. Even the license plate on her car reads “LAVOIX.” She is also a leading lady of the Los Angeles’ classical music scene and a Pasadena City College (PCC) Instructor.

According to officials, all California Community Colleges are facing budget reductions. Art programs are typically the hardest hit with cuts, Ketchum said. “We know that… We have to get very clever,” she said. “Over the last several years it has been really tough. I go out and solicit donations.”

Draped in a long, flowing skirt comprised of multiple layers of short fringe with an intricate black and white pattern, Ketchum wove with hand gestures as if casting a spell, while discussing the complexities of opera and teaching.

As she intermittently chuckled at her own cleverness, a lingering application of brown-red lipstick framed her instrument and a pair of dangling earrings poked out beyond her shoulder length, reddish dark brown hair. Her entire essence channeled a less demure opera character than Elle, Bizet’s Carmen.

Ketchum’s duality is completely intentional and fruitful. “A full-time professional [music] career is extremely volatile,” she said. “I figured out a way to do a duo-career.” As an academic, she taught part-time at colleges all over Southern California until 1981, when she became an associate professor of music at PCC.

As a musician, her recording of Morten Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones earned a Grammy nomination, and she has premiered numerous works by composers such as Ernst Krenek, Aurelio de la Vega, Schulamit Ran, Lori Laitman and Hans Werner Henze.

Chris Pasles of the Los Angeles Times wrote that in a concert at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, “[Ketchum] sang…with poise and intensity…with deadly seriousness, and [she performed] de la Vega’s “La Fuente Infinita” with controlled lyricism.”

She seems to inspire her young students to see beyond their immediate environment. “Anne Marie [Ketchum] opened my eyes to the world of opera. I was still in high school while attending her Vocal Repertoire class at PCC,” said former student Nicholas Cacarnakis, who later became an opera major at USC. “She exposed me to countless singers and genres, but her passion for opera was contagious and inspiring.”

Ketchum has also inspired older generations to band together and rope her in as their leader. Since 1983, she has been artistic director and conductor of The Verdi Chorus. It is one of her greatest achievements, “she transformed a group of music-loving amateurs into a cohesive, exciting, first rate professional ensemble,” said composer de la Vega. “The second is the creation of [the] PCC Opera Program, [which is] highly unusual [among] community colleges.”

Ketchum founded the program in the mid-nineties after appealing to the administration on behalf of a group of students.

“Students don’t realize this a lot, but if something comes from them it’s got a lot of clout. If they get themselves organized, there’s a lot they can do,” she said.

Classical music holds its value and importance in modern and even economically strenuous times “because it is a spiritual, uplifting human endeavor that pulls humanity out of the gutter,” de la Vega said.

Ketchum agrees. She said there are many people in Los Angeles and the Pasadena community who value the arts; it is just a matter of exposure.

“Anne Marie brings a whole new world to PCC, and her vast network of extremely talented musicians to our local community. She brings style and panache. It is so rare to find this much exposure to opera at the community college level,” former student Cacarnakis said.

Ketchum said that it is her mission at PCC to open some eyes. “People aren’t necessarily closed minded, they just don’t know,” she said. “What we can do is continue to develop young singers and young musicians and young audience members to become more and more a part of the art world in Los Angeles.”

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