Community crooners

LAKE BENTON – It’s not unusual to see people gathering to sing at the Lake Benton Opera House. It’s been the venue for both community musicals and musical revues like “Broadway Meets Lake Benton.” Still, there was something a little different about the group of people rehearsing show tunes last Sunday night.

There were no parts to try out for. Anyone could join in, regardless of their singing experience. It was all about having fun.

“A lot of people say they can’t sing because they haven’t been in an environment where they can learn,” said Graham Wrightson, director of a newly-formed community choir that meets in Lake Benton. The choir group is a place where less experienced singers can learn alongside more confident ones, he said.

After just two meetings of the new singing group, organizers said the response has been better than they expected.

“We had no idea what was going to happen,” said Mark Wilmes, a member of the Opera House board of directors. The group drew about 30 people to its first rehearsal session.

Last Sunday, about the same number of people, ranging from kids to teens and adults, were gathered on folding chairs in the Kimball building, next door to the Opera House in Lake Benton. An upright piano was wheeled into the room. Some of the waiting singers held folders with sheet music, and Wrightson handed out music to the new faces present that night.

The group sang an eclectic variety of songs, from Gilbert and Sullivan tunes to “Hakuna Matata” from “The Lion King.”

That number got a whispered “Yes!” out of the younger members of the group, as they got ready to sing. The kids got into the performance a bit, too, swaying along to the song’s swing beat.

Wrightson said even some of the more complicated songs the group is learning were chosen for being more beginner-friendly. For example, while there is some harmonizing in “Hail Poetry,” a selection taken from “The Pirates of Penzance,” the group sings in unison for most of the song.

“And even if the music is difficult, it’s fun to learn it,” Wrightson said.

Group members definitely looked like they were having a good time. The atmosphere was informal, and there was even some friendly ribbing going on between the bass and tenor singers.

Wrightson, a Brookings resident who teaches at South Dakota State University, brought the idea for the community choir group to Wilmes.

“My wife and I were looking for a choir to join when we came to Brookings,” Wrightson said, but there weren’t any that did a lot of popular or Broadway-style music. After Graham and his wife Dorie participated in shows at the Lake Benton Opera House, they thought it might be a good place to try to start a choir group. Graham had been part of a similar community choir in Calgary, before moving to Brookings.

Some of the participants at Sunday’s meeting said they had taken part in other shows at the Opera House and heard about the choir group that way. Others simply wanted to try it out.

Nathaniel Gates said he doesn’t do a lot of singing, “But it’s something I’d like to do more of.”

It’s what brought him to the group’s practice.

“It’s going pretty good. I think we’re picking up on it,” said Lake Benton resident R.J. Fleet, of his experiences with the choir group so far. Fleet said it’s been fun working with Wrightson. “He’s really encouraging.”

“We’re hoping (the singing group) will help draw some new people in” to the Opera House, said Kim Fleet. In addition to singing with the group on Sunday, Fleet also serves on the Opera House board.

Wrightson said the choir group’s goal is to have a show ready to perform for the public on Father’s Day weekend. He also hopes to maybe organize future community-choir shows for the fall and winter.

“We’ll see what the members want to do,” he said.

The community choir meets at 7 p.m. Sundays at the Kimball building. Membership is open to the public.