A comment from an overheard conversation led to a poem which led to a commissioned musical setting, which led to a fundraising concert at Unity Temple this Sunday evening, which is titled, “Music of the Universe,” which was the overheard phrase that started it all.

Charlie Rossiter was the poet who heard the phrase and it triggered a poem by the same name. 

“I started writing and most of it was there,” recalls Rossiter. I usually don’t write long poems.”

The imagery came from his travels: Alberta cottonwoods, hard-packed earth along the lakefront in Milwaukee, the Milky Way in the night sky of “empty states like Idaho and Nebraska.”

Enter Christine Steyer and Paul Geiger, who attended one of Rossiter’s 3rd Saturday Coffeehouse sessions (which will complete its 10th and final year on the Summer Solstice in June). They heard Rossiter recite the poem and were “blown away.” 

Steyer and Geiger, are one of those talented musical couples who have found it hard to make a living doing what they love since the economic turndown. Just as the Great Recession started, they formed Bellisima Opera, which like many arts organizations has struggled to survive in a time of less disposable income. 

When Steyer heard the poem, she thought, “That has to be set to music.” Rossiter agreed to their request and a new work was commissioned. The composer, David Shenton, is one of her favorite musician/composer/arrangers.

Steyer, who was in a creative funk, felt inspired to put on a concert.

“Do we do it without the funding?” she thought. “Yes, for personal reasons,” Steyer said. “The timing was right.
It has been an energizing project. At rehearsals, there has been joy, tears, and an unbelievable level of artistry.”

The poem set to music became the centerpiece (actually the end-piece), but Steyer, who will sing this world premiere, says there’s something for almost everyone in this concert (with the exception perhaps of young children).

Classical music lovers will have plenty to enjoy, including arias from Schubert (Schwanengesang), Bizet (Carmen), Saint-Saens (Samson et Delilah), and Puccini (La Rondine, La Boheme).

“It’s shorter than La Traviata and has a happier ending,” quips Steyer.

The range extends far beyond classical, however. Local violinist Chris Nemeth will play John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List. Franco Martorana and Ryan de Ryke will serenade the audience with Broadway numbers, including “Ol’ Man River” from Showboat, “So in Love” from Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate, and what Steyer says is one of the saddest love songs of all time, “Ne me quitte pas” by Jacques Brel.

But all of that pales compared to the prospect of hearing John Fogerty’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” accompanied by Oak Parker June Tanoue’s hula dancing.

Adding an extra dimension to the music are over 400 slides, many of them original photography by Oak Parker David Robbins. The lyrics for some of the pieces will also be displayed onscreen. 

The setting, testifies Rossiter, is perfect. 

“Unity Temple is just sacred enough and just secular enough,” he observed.

Steyer says those who attend are in for a treat: mature voices.

“You don’t get into your adult voice until you’re in your 40s,” she said. “It’s a baby voice until then. Mature voices come from living through heartache and heartbreak. The human voice is the ultimate form of expression. No instrument can match its full palette and nuance.”

Steyer compares Sunday’s concert to the Voyager spacecraft, which carried samples of human culture out into the universe.

“It tells our human story,” she said. “It’s a homage to the human condition.”

If you go

Belissima Opera’s “Music of the Universe – A concertized homage to humanity in voice, violin, dance and imagery” will take place at 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 1 at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St., Oak Park. Tickets are $30/$25 students and seniors. For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or visit universe2014.brownpapertickets.com. For more information, call 773-531-7927. Estimate running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission. Proceeds benefit the Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist Congregation.

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