Bringing Rennaisance romance to life
For the largest crowd in the history of the event, it is a night of classical holiday music, traditional old-world food and colorful costumes that transform college students into king, queen, knights, jesters, lords and ladies.
Behind the scenes, the Buena Vista University Madrigal Dinner is the crusade of music educator Paula Keeler, who gets as deeply into the Renaissance role as any of her students.
Starting the Madrigal tradition was one of Keeler's first efforts when she arrived at BVU, and it has grown each year to the point where participating in the show is a coveted honor, and the crowd - 180 strong Sunday night - overflows the courtly grand ballroom.
"When I came to BVU, I wanted to offer more variety. So we do a madrigal show the first semester, and we've also added a jazz choir the second semester, so students aren't just doing classical concert singing," Keeler said.
After five years of putting on the show in true old-world style, many of Keeler's former students have gone on to teach music themselves, in some cases directing madrigal shown in high schools where they have started their careers.
"During Sunday's Madrigal, we had a group of high school students from Ida Grove with us who got up to sing. Those were the students of Rebecca Elemond, who was one of my first students at BVU to play the Madrigal queen," Keeler smiled.
In fact, the Queen is an honored role that seems to lead to teaching success. Several members of that royal sorority are now leading educators, including Gayle Sykes, now music and drama educator for St. Mary's elementary and middle school.
The role of king and queen in the Madrigal is nearly as prestigious as the real titles were in the ancient courts of Europe.
"Usually we consider that the older students, who have brought leadership and effort to help develop the music department over time, are the ones who are eligible. From there, the students chosen to perform in the show vote for their monarchs."
This year's queen was Kelsey Meacham, a veteran of high school level madrigal groups at Sioux City North. Andrew Dewein, Algona, as the son of a choral director, made for a regal king.
"The king and queen always take more responsibility, and they have a major solo. The kids do think about that, and they always tend to make good choices," Keeler said.
BVU's show is quite true to period, from the bugle fanfare to the a cappella style singing, often in old world language, to the cartwheeling jester and the "boar's head" feast.
"The singing is much the way it would have been in the Rennaisance period. The costumes, the food, even the accents and mannerisms of each of the performers is done very carefully to fit into that period of history," Keener said.
Many of the students are so enthused that they start traveling to Renaissance Fairs months before the show to gather knowledge on the period and how to play the roles. "We have a group of students who go together to Shakopee, Minnesota each year, and it's kind of neat how much they get out of immersing themselves into history in this way," she said.
Keeler believes the Rennaisance will always hold imagination and a bit of magic. "It is truly amazing how much happened during that period in time - the music, the art, the drama, the dance - it all evolved remarkably."
In preparing for the Madrigal, students not only learn more about music, but get a taste of history, and a big dose of teamwork. "I'm going to sound more like a sports coach here, but one of the most difficult concepts as an educator is to get students to work as a team instead of as individuals. This program takes that teamwork like no other. And since most of these young people are going to go on to work in some kind of organization one day, teamwork is a very important thing for them to learn," Keeler said.
"I find that they are very supportive of one another. The older ones just naturally take on the role of a teacher, helping and demonstrating to the younger ones, who will do the same for new students in future years."
It helps to have an excellent drama program at the university, Keeler said. Many of the Madrigal performers have taken a turn on the BVU stage as well.
"For example, Kyle Miller directed and cast the large skit that takes place in the show, the first time we have had a student write a production on campus. And Michael Pedol, showed some real talent in comedic acting to pull it off beautifully," Keller said. At one point, he even ended up in the lap of BVU President Fred Moore, as the crowd roared its approval.
It takes more time and work to perform for the show than most a music student will ever tackle. Songs must not only be learned, but often learned in a language the student is unfamiliar with. There are no music sheets, just singing at the dais as in the courts of old, so every student must memorize completely about 20 complex pieces of music.
Then there are the scurrying teams behind the lights, sound systems - and don't forget the food staff. "These people had just done a big football banquet, and they did an amazing job serving through every number and skit.
For the first time, BVU committed its entire ballroom facility to the show, and has already agreed to do so again next year.
Keeler said she will be there again, too.
"I'll keep doing it until I get all worn out, I guess," she laughs. "My goal is for the Madrigal to become a tradition that improves every single year."
She may never be a queen, but she is the true monarch behind the madrigal. "I've done theme more times for more years and at more schools of all sizes than I'm going to tell you," she said. "In some cases, I started them as traditions and they have continued at those schools in a big way all these years later."
The shows provide a great form of entertainment to celebrate the holiday in unusual style, and also help to build goodwill between the campus and the community, she feels.
"But for me, the real joy is seeing the young people making so much progress. The kids really astonish themselves and each other with what they can do and how far they have come in the end. As an educator, that's excitement to me that makes it more than worth all the work."