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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."
That energy infuses the students who work with Huszti each year—as singers, of course, but also as dancers, knights, jesters, tumblers and servers ferrying platters of boar's head, peas pottage, barley lentil soup, figgy pudding and bottomless tumblers of wassail for the endless toasting to some lord or lady's health or good fortune. They describe the Husztis as "meticulous," "perfectionistic" and "driven," but also "fun," "warm" and "caring."
"He's a fabulous conductor," says Amy Stacy, a UC Irvine alum who has returned to help produce the show. "Once you've worked with him, you're spoiled."
Like other students, Stacy is especially drawn to the Husztis' obsession with what the professor calls simply "getting it right." "They really research this stuff out," Stacy says. Joe Huszti hands out backgrounders each year to the 80-plus performers—photocopied articles on the era's politics and economy, and his wife's tip sheet on the manners and habits of the Tudor court ("In order to keep [Henry's] marriages straight, perhaps you can silently repeat the rhyme about the chronology of Henry's wives: DIVORCED, BEHEADED, DIED/DIVORCED, BEHEADED, SURVIVED"). Melinda Huszti sews all the costumes for the performers, costumes so right in every detail that Stacy was moved when she discovered their exact duplicates—in Hans Holbein portraits hanging in a gallery in Henry VIII's Hampton Court, an hour north of London.
"You've got to make it right in the details in order to make the audience believe," Huszti says.
There are concessions to modern culture: dance numbers that might have been repeated endlessly over the course of a seven-hour party in Henry's time have been trimmed to a single cycle or two, for example. But it's still a longish evening for flabby modern buttocks, though an evening that works through song and dance like a hypnotist's swinging watch.
Last year, I sat at a table with strangers, eating the figgy pudding and yakking it up with the serving women (not, they reminded us, "wenches," but good ladies of good birth) about the king (whom they loved for his "great good wit") and the music ("ever so diverting, don't you agree?") and the court ("Are not the ladies most beautiful?"). The food is prepared by a man whose fame—in real life—extends to regional Renaissance Pleasure Faires and even to England itself. And I was overindulging. And then someone in the court asked us politely to be quiet; the king, he said, had commanded a few among us to come forward. I ate. I thumped my sternum energetically. I drank more wassail. And then my wife poked me in the ribs.
"They're calling you."
And then I heard my name. "Stand and approach His Majesty."
A woman in costume appeared suddenly at my elbow. I stood, alone among the plaid-clad audience—and took a few steps toward the court a hundred feet away.
They sat staring at me like a Mormon Tabernacle choir dressed in Tudor costumes—several rows of men and women of noble birth, at either side of King Henry VIII, a towering, dark-haired Henry of great humor and powerful lungs. I walked, or rather hobbled, toward them, suddenly under something like the real weight that might have settled upon any common man asked to approach a king.
My brain went to war with itself for an instant, the 20th-century part belittling the younger, primitive, imaginative part, before falling away entirely and leaving me speechless before a man about my age with an immense sword, foppish hat, ballooning sleeves and tights.
My escort guided me to my knees, and I was lost to my own century. I looked into the king's face and saw something like the face of God. How had this happened? He touched each shoulder with the sword, commanded me to do good work among his people, told me to stand, and introduced me as a knight.
There's no power in ritual but this: that we believe we are changed by it. And as the audience and King Henry VIII cheered generously—not because they knew me, but because we were constructing this authentic fantasy together—I became a knight, charged with a severe blessing as comfortably vague as any astrological forecast, as binding as law: that I should care for a king's people.