Hear ye, Hear ye: Chamber Singers Serve Up Holiday Tradition at Madrigal Dinner

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Chamber singers rehearse prior to dinner
The Madrigal Dinner has been a UM-Flint holiday tradition since the 1980s.

Jesters and maidens, a (fake) boar’s head on a platter, and heralding trumpets inviting you to join the king’s feast. The Department of Music’s Madrigal Dinner gives guests the royal treatment each holiday season, right here in Flint.

The “madrigal” is a traditional style of vocal music originating in Renaissance Europe. At a time when much of culture was dictated by the church, madrigals were secular (non-religious) musical pieces, comparatively upbeat in tone with lyrics focused on love and the pleasures of life—making them some of the most popular vocal music of the day.

Madrigal dinners are a modern American recreation of large banquets in the baronial halls of Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries. The Madrigal Dinner has been part of UM-Flint’s culture since the 1980s. It serves as the annual fundraiser for the Chamber Singers, an audition-only vocal group open to students of all majors. The Chamber Singers are the event’s primary entertainment, taking on all the roles of a Renaissance court. Wandering troubadours ask for pennies from the pockets of guests, and maidens lament the fate of the dinner’s fictional centerpiece—a boar’s head, announced by a chorus of king’s men: “The boar’s head / you understand / is the finest dish in all the land!” The Madrigal Dinner is one of five concert performances for the Chamber Singers in the fall semester.

The Chamber Singers entertained guests during the Madrigal Dinner on Dec. 7 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

For senior Biology major Majd Abuaita, being a part of the Chamber Singers and participating in the Madrigal Dinner is a welcome change from his usual coursework.

“My goal is to work in the healthcare field, but I will continue to pursue music as a hobby after graduation. This has added an aspect to my college experience where I can express my musical abilities in a more professional setting,” Abuaita says.

While events like this are a meaningful change of pace for students like Abuaita, for others the Madrigal Dinner is vital preparation for the future. Cynthia Annette Risch is a junior Musical Theatre major with designs on a performance career after graduation. UM-Flint has allowed Risch the flexibility to work on the many skills she will need to compete for roles. Previously describing herself as “just a singer,” this semester Risch is taking coursework in theatre, dance, and music. Branching out has made Risch more comfortable with all of the performing arts; she now has no problem describing herself as an actor as well.

Chamber Singers Cynthia Annette Risch (left) and Amanda Rodman play the part of maidens distressed at the (simulated) boar’s head centerpiece.

While students in the Chamber Singers have their hands full with music and choreography, Associate Professor & Choral Director Gabriela Hristova can’t be focused only on the musical selections. The period costumes are on loan from the Kearsley Park Players, decorations need to be coordinated with St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and food is on the way from the Flint Masonic Temple. This isn’t even her only event of the evening, with the Sounds of Season concert opening just minutes after dinner wraps up.  

It’s a grueling schedule, but Hristova draws energy from working closely with talented students.

“It’s very important for me to create an atmosphere of trust in the ensemble. Singing is a very personal experience, and when students use their voices to express their artistry or communicate a story, they open themselves to the vulnerability of that moment,” Hristova says. “It’s important for us to have a connection with each other and understand that we are together in bringing this art to the audience.”

Logan McGrady is the Communications Specialist for the College of Arts & Sciences. Contact him with questions, comments, and ideas related to the arts & sciences at UM-Flint.