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Joe Huszti—music professor and early-modern music zealot—is on a rehearsal stage in UC Irvine's sprawling theater compound, driving his singers nuts over the pronunciation of a single word in a madrigal, a 500-year-old form in which a love poem is put to music with parts for several voices. From the back rows, I can't tell what the word is because Huszti has broken it down to a mere syllable that sounds like "so" but might be "sol." He's been at this for perhaps five minutes now, directing the 20 or so singers over this speck of vocal territory—stop, start, stop, start, stop, start—a dozen times, all to make sure each group of voices (alto, bass, baritone, soprano, tenor) fits against the others like pieces in a stained-glass window. The voices cease to sound individual or even human and begin to sound like elements of premodern life, like light—if light made a sound—or wind through a primeval wood.
Momentarily satisfied, he allows his choristers the luxury of an entire line. "So soft, so fair," the choir sings.
It's beautiful, the sibilants like a soughing wind. Huszti stops them. The students, dressed in 1999 slackerwear—African-American, Asian, Anglo, Latino—stare back at him with open faces. "Ask yourself: Am I singing the same vowel everyone else is singing?" he says. "Think that before you sing 'Soooooooooo.'"
They proceed only an instant before he stops them again. "You're late." They start again. "Now you're early." They start again. And stop. "I'm looking for a nice vowel 'o' here. Sing the same vowel! Go after it!"
The "it" they're after is madrigal perfection, the transformation of this many-throated beast into a single instrument that Huszti can fire like a sonic gun during UC Irvine's annual Madrigal Dinner, eight nights of Christmas as the holiday would have been celebrated in the court of King Henry VIII.
Settling on Henry as the focus for the Madrigal Dinner is no mistake; like Henry V, Henry VIII was a party animal in his youth—a youth that extended well into his time on the throne, when Wife No. 1 of six, Spain's Catherine of Aragon, could write to her father (Ferdinand, as in "Ferdinand and Isabella"), "Our time is spent in continuous festival." The festivals turned red-hot at Christmastime.
This year, Huszti's student group will re-create Christmas 1521. Henry is now 29 and married to Catherine, whom he would ultimately divorce, precipitating a split with the Church of Rome. He would lend his own prodigious girth and England's treasury to the fledgling Protestant revolt that began in far-off Germany in 1517, founding the Church of England.
All of that grand background disappears as Huszti dilates on syllables. He points at the group, and there is a sharp, sudden vocal takeoff that reaches a clear, crisp peak, followed by a Dopplered demise.
It sounds perfect, but Huszti is unimpressed. "No, no, no. 'Sollllllllll . . .' Press your tongue real hard against the roof of your mouth," he says emphatically, and, "Sing with your ear first, your brain second, your voice third."
Huszti speaks in italics throughout an hour of this, the madrigal chopped into phrases, and then into words and further still into syllables that gradually shed meaning; like an REM song, the voices have become instruments, and whatever those words may actually be, the words I hear echoing in the immense rehearsal hall are, "Oh, go to hell!" But jollified. Over and over again.
Along with his wife, Melinda, Huszti has been at this for 22 years, organizing the singers, servers, food, set construction, jugglers, publicity, research, costume design, ticket sales and practice, practice, practice behind the dinner. All the work springs from the hope of producing what Huszti calls "authentic fantasy," a fantasy that "takes a little bit of an imaginative outlook" on the part of an audience sitting on metal folding chairs on a concrete floor in an immense university theater.
Each year the event sells out—400 people per night paying around $40 each, many of the men in Newport Beach plaid pants and red vests, the women in coordinated wool skirts and red sweaters, wearing these things by no other requirement than the unspoken one imposed by class and holiday tradition.
It's hard to say why they're drawn to the event, though it seems safe to guess that it ain't the special effects; aside from lights and a smoke machine, there are none. It's more likely they're drawn to the magnetic intelligence behind the work, the high-gloss finish Huszti applies to the night's courtly singing and dancing. This is no Buena Park tourist event: the Madrigal Dinner is to Medieval Times what the Sistine Chapel is to the Spaghetti Factory—so subtle that it comes back around the other side and pounds you with a 500-year-old experience.
Huszti has pursued the creation of "authentic fantasy" since he was a young music professor at Bakersfield College in 1965. That year, having taught his choral students a few Italian pieces in preparation for a trip to Europe, Huszti found his professional desideratum during a stop at St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. Resonating in the building for which they were written, the Italian songs he'd taught in flyblown Bakersfield seemed suddenly profound. "I was hit by the power of the music," Huszti recalls. "I thought, 'This is how it's supposed to sound.' And I vowed that I would work to capture the context for the music—the politics, the society, the whole thing, everything around the music that gives it that authenticity."