‘Too Hot to Handel’ makes ‘Messiah’ sizzle

Greg Tasker
The Detroit News
Tenor Rodrick Dixon performs in the soul-stirring ‘Too Hot To Handel.’

Fifteen years ago, just before a modern, jazzed-up version of Handel’s “Messiah” made its local debut at the Detroit Opera House, a cast of musicians and choir members performed the soul-stirring piece before an audience at the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit.

“People were hanging from the rafters,” recalled Suzanne Acton, artistic director for the Rackham Choir, whose members are among the cast of musicians and singers in the perennial holiday favorite at the opera house. “People were on their feet clapping and hooting. It was high energy show.”

Fortunately, David DiChiera, who was then general director of the Michigan Opera Theatre, had been invited to see the show at the Woodward Avenue church and, afterward, told Acton, “Let’s bring it to the Opera House.”

Since then, “Too Hot to Handel,” a jazz-gospel adaptation of the classic “Messiah,” has become a tradition at the Detroit Opera House, with Acton continuing her role as the conductor and tenor Rodrick Dixon returning each year as part of the ensemble of musical talent on stage.

“We’re so honored that after 15 years the community continues to embrace this important work,” said Acton, who is also the chorus master for the Michigan Opera Theatre. “ ‘Too Hot to Handel’ brings together Detroit’s greatest classical and jazz musicians and powerhouse singers to inspire new audiences every year. It’s truly a community celebration, and it remains one of the most uplifting holiday events in Detroit.”

The modern adaptation of the 18th-century oratio resonates with Detroit audiences because the production features musical genres with historical ties to the Motor City, including jazz and gospel. Other genres, including the blues, swing and classical, are weaved into the score; the production also includes a lot of musical improv, something popular with audiences, as well.

More than 120 musicians will take the stage for a one-night performance Saturday. Most of them are local. Performers include soprano Alfreda Burke, alto Karen Marie Richardson, and the Too Hot Trio, Marion Hayden, Alvin Waddles and Dave Taylor. Members of the Michigan Opera Theatre Orchestra are among the musicians.

“Too Hot to Handel,” created by composers Bob Christianson and Gary Anderson at the request of a frequent “Messiah” conductor, made its way to Detroit a short time after its New York debut, thanks to the passions of Acton and Dixon, who had worked together in performance of the original “Messiah.” Christianson will be at the opera house on Saturday for a pre-show talk, set to begin at 6:30 p.m.

“It’s really the ‘Messiah’ with a twist,” Acton explained. “It takes the core of the original and gives it a beat ... It’s a lot of fun. The purpose is to attract people who don’t normally come to the Opera House.”

Both she and Dixon said the modern version of the classic invites the audience to become more actively involved in the show and not have to wait deep into the original to join in the “Hallelujah” chorus, an oft-heard complaint that inspired the contemporary adaption.

Dixon, who is from Chicago, said “Too Hot to Handel” has enabled audiences to appreciate what American music has brought to the world. The work, he said, is as an amalgamation of different genres of American music — jazz, gospel, blues, popular music, and country music.

“It really does bring an amount of color and ethnic culture nuances to music and how America contributed to music is evident in this particular work,” said Dixon, who, along with Acton, is part of a performance in Chicago; something they’ve been doing for 12 years.

The upbeat music, musical improv and audience participation creates a palpable energy on the stage and floor.

“You can really feel the synergy from the stage to the audience, and from the audience to the stage,” Acton said. “The more excited they get and the more we are improvising, the more synergy is created. People really look forward to this lift during the holidays.”

Greg Tasker is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.

The cast of “Too Hot to Handel.”

‘Too Hot to Handel’

7:30 p.m. Sat.

Detroit Opera House

1526 Broadway, Detroit

Tickets $33 and up

(313) 961-3500