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Madrigal Dinners recreate a fun medieval festival

Nicole Zook | Tuesday, December 6, 2005

Saint Mary’s kicked off the holiday season last weekend with three days of “merrymaking” during its 33rd annual Madrigal Dinners.

The four madrigal performances that occur each year carry on an age-old tradition in which Saint Mary’s and South Bend community members are invited to partake in a medieval-style holiday feast dinner that revolves around the music of the time.

Students and faculty worked for weeks to transform Regina North Lounge into the Great Hall of an ancient castle, where the “local rabble, peasants, serfs, fieldhands and their families” could feel transported back in time – as master of ceremonies Michael Kramer described the event.

Kramer, a communication and performance studies professor, acted as Master of the House.

On Sunday afternoon during the third performance, the kitchen wench (senior Ashleigh Stochel) and court jester (junior Tori Abram-Copenhaver) engaged in lively play. Two others juggled, and period musicians performed along with a group of 24 madrigal singers.

With so many different types of entertainment packed into two short hours, dinner guests were kept highly entertained throughout.

Notre Dame jugglers Jason Quinn and Sean Rose highlighted the night, tossing fiery pins high in the air and at one point even knocking a pencil out of the mouth of a young volunteer as they passed clubs to one another. A juggling competition during the meal drew excited “oohs,” applause and even laughs from dinner guests.

Stochel and Abram-Copenhaver also received big laughs throughout the show with good-natured hijinks such as donning antlers and darting through choir members as they sang about “the running of the deer” and acted out the lyrics of “Vive la Cookery Maid,” a lighthearted piece about a girl who makes pies as heavy as lead.

But the main focus of the event was the Madrigal Singers, an all-female group who put dinner guests in a festive, holiday mood by singing Christmas classics such as “Here We Come A-Wassailing” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” as various parts of the meal were served to diners. Several guests even hummed along to the more familiar tunes as they feasted.

Some of the group’s best work was heard in period pieces and modern madrigal-style tunes such as the sweet, lilting melodies of “Patapan” and “Le Sommeil de l’Enfant Jesus” and the Polish carol “To a Baby.”

While several songs were accompanied by the Andrews University Early Music Ensemble, one of the standout performances of the night was the a capella “In Dulci Jubilo.” The room fell silent as the well-blended vocal ensemble weaved their melody, with not even the clink of a glass breaking the spell.

Interestingly, the madrigal was an entirely interactive concert. The singers paraded through the hall singing directly to the audience while the actors visited tables during dinner, joking with guests. Diners even interacted with each other, gaining a sense of community as they introduced themselves and chatted with neighbors, passing bowls of food down the long tables. Guests and performers alike also united in singing “Silent Night” to end the evening, and many guests’ eyes glistened with tears as they sang along.

“There were so many beautiful voices in the choir,” diner Sharon Duram said.

Duram attended the Madrigal Dinner as a “fun” Christmas group event with 11 other members of the local Red Hat Society.

“We thought it would be interesting and something different to do,” fellow member Caryll Vicsik said. “It’s only once a year and we thought we’d take advantage of it.”

Vicsik said she “couldn’t pick a favorite” part of the performance but commented on the beautiful medieval costumes designed by Melissa Bialko and the intricate attention to detail that was placed on the hall, which was decked in wreaths and picture-perfect table settings. While the hall itself was a bit too small – especially for the food servers, who had to edge their way between the 12 tables -the music filled the space. The music combined with the décor added to the holiday atmosphere, a fact not lost on guests or even the performers, who seemed to enjoy the dinner as much as the ticketholders.

Senior singer Kate Keating said the event – especially with the snow covering the ground as everyone joined in “Silent Night” – was a special holiday experience.

“I love the way we end it,” Keating said. “Especially at night – you come out and it’s just gorgeous. It really feels like Christmas Eve.”