Finding new audiences has become the Holy Grail quest of today’s performing arts organizations. When Opera America execs came to advise San Diego Opera loyalists last month, they rattled off a long list of innovations—such as simulcasting opera performances in a sports stadium—to win new audiences for opera. The San Diego Synphony’s recently devised “Classical Edge” Thursday format shortens and re-packages the weekend’s upcoming classical subscription concert for young urban professionals. A recent Thursday program, for example, featured the guest pianist Kirill Gerstein performing both jazz selections and portions of a Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto, and a sleek jazz quintet played at the after-party in the Jacobs Music Center lobby.
Angel Mannion is convinced his newly-formed choral group Folklore will entice the young generation of video game addicts into the orbit of traditional choral music. The idea for this approach came to the 26-year-old San Diegan as a chorister singing with the San Diego Symphony’s annual Summer Pops’ Comic-Con programs, another new audience outreach by the Symphony.
“I’ve always loved film and video game scores,” he noted. “I think they were the perfect introduction to instrumental music for me, and after singing Comic-Con the past few years, it’s been hard not to take notice to how many people I related to in the audience. They, like me, were excited to hear the music I heard over and over on a 16-bit sound card via Super Nintendo performed live by a professional orchestra.”[php snippet=1]
For Folklore, Mannion has assembled 40 singers, a mix of younger professional vocalists, university music majors and some auditioned high school singers, to perform a combination of choral arrangements of themes from popular video games such as Super Mario, the Legend of Zelda, and Bowser, along with Renaissance motets and contemporary choral settings. “I am trying to reach people who don’t listen to classical music but who will recognize the themes from the games they play and then integrate them with the audience that will come for the traditional choral gems.”
Having grown up in Southeast San Diego with no exposure to classical music and the classical choral tradition, Mannion identifies with young gamers who are not seeking out the music he now loves. “In high school I sang in a ‘show choir,’ but it lacked the emotional depth I didn’t realize I was craving, and it didn’t expose me to the great wealth of choral music,” he explained.
He started college to become an engineer, but encountered Ken Anderson, the respected conductor of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Choir of San Diego, in a voice class at Grossmont College. Anderson saw his potential as a singer and gave him vocal training. But it wasn’t until Mannion came into a large CD collection of traditional choral music—an unexpected stroke of luck or fate—that put him on his current course.
“The first music I listened to was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘Turtle Dove,’ and that completely blew me away. I had no idea this music could be so powerful.”
Mannion finished his music degree at San Diego State University on a vocal scholarship and has continued to sing in the San Diego Opera Chorus, SACRA/PROFANA, and the recently formed San Diego Pro Arte Voices. He directs the volunteer choir in a Roman Catholic parish in East County, but directing his own professional choir will allow him to chart the unique musical trajectory he has imagined.
Visually, Folklore will not be confused with any other local ensemble. The usual garb of traditional choral groups—black
formal wear—is a non-starter for Mannion, because he thinks gamers would be put off by such old-fashioned formality. “We are going for monks’ robes because they link us to Gregorian chant, where western choral music began, and they fit into the nerdy scheme of Renaissance faires,” a more welcoming association for his potential audience than tuxes and long black gowns.
Folklore’s inaugural concert will be given on August 2, 2014, at St. Andrew’s-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Pacific Beach as part of the San Diego Summer Choral Festival. Mannion’s program will include traditional works by Thomas Tallis, Edward Bairstow, and Edward Elgar. He has also arranged a pop tune from the local indie band The Midnight Pine, whose lead singer Shelbi Bennet Mannion has recruited to sing in Folklore, and for the gamers he has a choral arrangement based on the themes of Bowser’s Castle from Super Mario World.