Bel Canto Chorus

Click the image to learn more. Members of the Bel Canto Chorus take part in a sing-along performance of Handel's "Messiah" with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in 1983.

Milwaukee’s Bel Canto Chorus originated in the city’s numerous German singing clubs of the 1930s, a tradition brought to the area by nineteenth-century immigrants.[1] One group, the “Festival Singers of Milwaukee,” founded in 1931 as a small a capella chorus, featured eight volunteers who performed sacred music. The organization evolved into the Bel Canto Chorus, a Milwaukee institution with an international reputation.[2]

The original Festival Singers performed for Holy Name societies and at various civic and religious dedications, memorials, and rallies, as well as on the radio.[3] In 1947, the group re-organized and re-named itself Bel Canto Choir (“Choir” became “Chorus” in 1964), which is Italian for “good singing.”[4] Under the direction of James A. Keeley, who was conductor from 1956 until 1988, Bel Canto became Milwaukee’s most popular oratorio group, performing two major concerts and a number of smaller performances each year throughout the 1960s.[5] Funding came from robust ticket sales along with support from the United Performing Arts Fund (UPAF), which provided forty percent of the group’s operating budget.[6] In 1976, the group took its first trip abroad, performing for Pope Paul VI in St. Peter’s Square and in other Italian venues. Bel Canto also performed in Mexico in 1978.[7]

Richard Hynson took over as Bel Canto’s director in 1988, at a time when the group faced declining ticket sales, budgetary troubles,[8] and negative reviews.[9] Membership also waned, although the group toured every other summer, performing in Spain, the Czech Republic, France, and elsewhere in Europe.[10] The group’s financial situation stabilized around 2000, through improved administration along with the help of grants from the Bradley Foundation, UPAF, and local government agencies.[11]

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ Priscilla Pardini, 75 and Still Singing: Bel Canto Chorus (Milwaukee: Bel Canto Chorus, 2006), 2-4.
  2. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 3.; “Ambitious Program by Festival Singers,” The Milwaukee Journal, October 20, 1940, accessed March 30, 2015,,2235363&hl=en; “Festival Singers Will Join Symphony on Air Today,” The Milwaukee Journal, October 13, 1940, accessed March 29, 2015,,5552563&hl=en.
  3. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 4. The group was not officially affiliated with any particular church or denomination.
  4. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 4.
  5. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 5-10; Keeley, Bel Canto’s Artistic Star, Dies,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 21, 1998, accessed, March 20, 2015,,59641; Eldon Knoche, “Keeley Made Bel Canto Something Special,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 21, 1998, accessed, March 12, 2015,,832053&hl=en.
  6. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 10.
  7. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 12; “Bel Canto Chorus Gains Fans in Spoleto,” The Milwaukee Sentinel,” July 12, 1976, accessed March 10, 2015,,2018916&hl=en.
  8. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 15-23; Bel Canto Chorus Hits Hard Times,” The Milwaukee Journal, March 15, 1993, accessed March 13, 2015,,7174302&hl=en; Lawrence B. Johnson, “Ohio Man to Lead Bel Canto Chorus,” The Milwaukee Sentinel, December 31, 1987, accessed March 2, 2015,,6745831&hl=en.
  9. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 16.
  10. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 22-23.
  11. ^ Pardini, 75 and Still Singing, 25-26.

For Further Reading

Pardini, Priscilla. 75 and Still Singing: Bel Canto Chorus. Milwaukee: Bel Canto Chorus, 2006.


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