Rita Cantos Cartwright knows better than to come to a rehearsal without warming up, as a 22-year veteran of the San Diego Opera Chorus, the choir that sings alongside the soloists in opera productions. So here she is on a sunny afternoon, practicing vocal exercises at the piano in her San Carlos home. Just as an athlete stretches before a game, Cartwright is prepping her pipes for an evening two-hour choral rehearsal of “Turandot,” the classic that opens San Diego Opera’s 2011 season.

“Oh-ah-ah, oh-ah-ah,” she sings, blending vowels and pitches in a way that gives her vocal cords a workout. Because she’s an alto, she has a lower range than a soprano and easily dips down as far as an octave below middle C, creating a dark-hued, lustrous sound.

Suddenly she hears something in her voice that most people wouldn’t even notice and stops singing.

“If my voice has a small break in it, like it just did, it means I’m not supporting it properly,” Cartwright says. She tries the exercise again, this time paying more attention to her breathing and completes it without a glitch.

Her regimen also includes humming exercises after breakfast and practicing in the car as she drives to rehearsals and performances. (Never mind the astonished looks she receives from other motorists.)

Singing is a way of life for this robust, life-embracing woman of Greek heritage. Her singing debut was at age five at a local department store. She follows an unconventional recipe for baklava (skip the honey). She expounds on the vocal perils of menopause (it can weaken the vocal muscles and make a singer’s voice sound wobbly). For 10 years, she regularly performed the national anthem at Chargers games. She currently sings in local churches (as many other chorus members do) and musical theater productions, and she has a one-woman show in the works.

Her calendar resembles the collage that professional singers must compile to make a living in San Diego. San Diego Opera is especially close to her heart, says the San Diego-born mother of two grown daughters. She is married to musician and recording engineer Robert Cartwright.

At 62, she is the oldest chorus member and has so far appeared in 71 operas in San Diego. This season she will appear in all four productions, with four performances each, at the San Diego Civic Theatre.

But audience members aren’t likely to recognize her. How could they? She’s usually part of crowd scenes, wearing wigs, makeup and costumes that make her hard to pick out. In “Turandot,” she’ll be a Chinese peasant and a member of the royal court. Last season, she portrayed characters ranging from a Hebrew slave in “Nabucco” to a party-hearty member of the Capulet family in “Romeo and Juliet.”

The size of the chorus varies from opera to opera. “Turandot” has the season’s largest choral ensemble: 112 singers (42 men, 36 women and 34 children).

Most of the operatic glory goes to stars, such as soprano Lise Lindstrom, who takes the title role of the imperious Chinese princess, and tenor Carlo Ventre, who plays the prince who must correctly answer her riddles to win her love and avoid death.

By comparison, an opera chorus is often under-appreciated. Yet what it provides is essential. Through singing and acting, the chorus can incite, explain and enhance the action while adding harmonic underpinning to the lead singers and orchestra. It’s part of the soul of opera, resonating from its very core. And the sound of a large chorus that’s packed into a rehearsal room is overwhelming.

“You take for granted how much singing is done by the chorus,” Cartwright says.

While some operas have lighter roles for the chorus, “Turandot” is particularly demanding.

Chorus master Charles Prestinari, who coaches the singers, says the opera’s composer, Giacomo Puccini, imbued the chorus’s parts “with a vast palette of colors, moods and personalities. … The chorus is a central, dynamic force in the opera.”

Cartwright will earn approximately $10,000 for rehearsals and performances in the 2011 season. The going rate for a singer who belongs to her union is $36.47 per hour. Some chorus members commute from as far away as Los Angeles, and everyone must re-audition each year to prove they are fit for the job.

Weekly rehearsals began in December, with opera productions slated between January and May. Cartwright sleeps until 9 or 10 a.m. during the opera season.

“People may laugh at that, thinking singers have it so easy,” she says. “But you know when I need the most energy? I need it at night, when we have rehearsals or performances.”

Cartwright calls the alto section “the mamas” and likens them to a support group. One of the challenges for the older singers is dealing with menopause, including hot flashes: “A lot of times we’re in hot costumes. You see that panicked look on a singer’s face and she’ll say, ‘I’m going crazy here.’ We all help each other.”

Cartwright hosts an end-of-season opera party at her parents’ home in Kensington, complete with a Greek cooking class that she teaches. Earl and Irene Cantos — long-ago performers at Starlight Musical Theatre, a San Diego mainstay — passed on their love of music to Cartwright and her three siblings. Her father, a retired municipal court judge, also instilled a strong sense of justice that led her to some work over the years as a writer and educator in the field of international rights.

These days, however, opera is what she calls her “most important thing.” She leaves her home an hour before the 7 p.m. rehearsal. She packs a protein bar and water bottle for rehearsal along with her 384-page copy of the music for “Turandot.” She knows her part well; this is the third time she will appear in San Diego Opera’s spectacularly colorful production.

This particular rehearsal is for adult chorus members. Cartwright and 77 other singers show up wearing everyday clothes, including jeans, shorts, track shoes and T-shirts. They sit in six long rows of chairs, with an accompanist positioned at the piano.

When Prestinari cues the chorus in fortissimo passages, the singers respond with gusto. The voices roll over you like a surging wave of sound — big, bold and tightly blended. As the rehearsal progresses through page after page of music, the chorus doesn’t seem like a collection of individual voices but instead a living, breathing entity, a powerful force unto itself.

Prestinari offers encouraging words while making sure the singers know exactly what’s expected of them. He tells them when to be louder, softer, gentler or more aggressive. At one point, he prompts laughter by telling them to convey the words and music so emphatically that they spit on the singers sitting next to them.

After the rehearsal ends, at 9:05 p.m., some of the chorus members head for bargain-priced tacos at a restaurant a few blocks away. Cartwright has other plans. She stops at an all-night pharmacy to buy more vitamins. Then she goes home to have a snack and join her husband in watching reruns of Frasier, their favorite comedy show.

Yet to her, it cannot rival the show that matters most: The opera.

Please contact Valerie Scher directly at valerie.scher@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @vscher.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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