Sunday, April 26, 2009

Verdi: ristorante di musica

The first time I heard someone singing opera in live performance was not in a theater as you might expect. In the 1980s I was living with my parents in Los Angeles, but they did not take me to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion for opera. No, the first time I heard the passion of, specifically, Italian opera was while eating a plate of pasta at a restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica called Verdi: ristorante di musica. Verdi opened twenty-six years ago, in 1983, and it quickly became one of my family's favorite places. We were regulars and got to know the manager, a man probably close to seven feet tall, who was a singer himself, I believe, or had been—I remember thinking it interesting that his first and last names were really both first names: Chuck Frank. (How do I remember that?) The food was fabulous. I ordered classic Italian standbys such as angel hair pasta pomodoro (the pasta was fresh and deliciously eggy, the tomatoes pleasantly acidic and sweet), sometimes veal scaloppini with its lemon-buttery goodness. I don't remember what my parents ordered, but I know they always raved about their food as well. Dessert was always the same, at least for me: a chocolate mousse cake of just-right intensity that had perfectly crisp and airy toasted meringue fingers around the outside edge. I loved the way the two textures, smooth creamy mousse and crunchy sugar meringue, melted together in my mouth. But a sweeter moment came when the lights in the restaurant were dimmed and the small stage in the center of the dining room gleamed in the spotlight. We always sat at the same table when we ate there: one that was to the center right of the stage, raised a level higher to see perfectly over the heads in front. Actually, I'm pretty sure that there were no bad seats in the intimate restaurant. Onto the stage would step one of the regular singers hired by restaurant owners Sheila and Bernie Segal, or perhaps by Chuck Frank. The singers were generally young, perhaps at the beginnings of their careers, but all operatic professionals. I remember one soprano who was fairly slim, with long blonde hair, and who also sang on Sundays in our church's choir. That surprised me. I had no idea until then that anyone in our church was professional, paid to supplement the voices of volunteer hymn-singers. Often, she would be joined by two men, a tenor and a baritone; all the voices were incredible, impressed me beyond an ability to express it. I know that if I am interested in opera now (I don't attend often, but I do enjoy the music), it is probably a direct result of the exposure to various arias and other pieces at the restaurant. Sadly, the restaurant closed in 1991. I don't know why. But, in fact, a fascinating offshoot of the restaurant still survives: the Verdi Chorus. Initially, the chorus was established for restaurant patrons who'd always wanted to sing opera—they were given the chance in this amateur group to realize their dreams. They'd rehearse and perform at the restaurant from time to time under the directorship of Anne Marie Ketchum, a professional soprano who performed at Verdi. When the restaurant closed, Ms. Ketchum continued on as Music Director of the Verdi Chorus, and the group evolved into a more ambitious venture. Membership became restricted, auditions were held, and a nonprofit organization formed with fifty semi-professional singers performing a repertoire that now consists of about two hundred choruses. They are the only Southern California ensemble devoted exclusively to choruses from opera. On February 27, 2009, the American Chronicle published an article by Jenine Baines about the Verdi Chorus; you can read the article here. The Web site for the Verdi Chorus is at:

1 comment:

  1. I was the BarManager at Verdi for nearly the entire time it was open. It was a true family, the owners, the singers, the wait staff and the kitchen team. More than a few marriages occurred between employees. I have set up a website of memories at:

    for those that are interested. This posting by A.C. Parker was spot on in memories...It was a great restaurant!!! And it lives on for now in the Verdi chorus.