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Drake celebrates holidays with annual Madrigal Dinner

Photo by Joey Gale

“Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer…We won’t go until we get some; We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here.”

Most everyone knows the lines from the renowned “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” carol. That figgy pudding? The carolers seem to find it quite desirable. And at the annual Drake Madrigal Dinner, the figgy pudding isn’t just part of the song — it’s served, along with countless other traditional Elizabethan era foods. It is a night complete with singing, dancing, acting and a six-course meal.

The event is a re-creation of the Elizabethan Yuletide feast, and it is hosted by the Drake Chamber Choir. Minstrels, jugglers and dancers will keep guests entertained and serenaded the whole night.

Traditionally, for an Elizabethan feast, nobility gathered in castles and manors of friends to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas while enjoying a massive feast. At Drake, it took place on Dec. 3 and 4 at 7 p.m. in Olmsted. Tickets sold for $50 each from Nov. 7 through Nov. 22, and was open to the community.

Aimee Beckmann-Collier, conductor of the Chamber Choir and director of choral studies, introduced the annual Madrigal Dinner tradition to Drake in 1989.

“It’s been a great success every year,” she said. “I started it with two goals in mind. One, to provide a sort of immersion learning experience concerning the music and culture of the Renaissance, and two, to connect with the Greater Des Moines community by means of an unusual cultural event.”

Beckmann-Collier usually starts preparing for the up-to-$20,000 event as early as June, and the students begin in October. Planning for costumes, food, music, the theatrical cast and marketing are just a few realms that must be heavily considered. Also, there is not a budget.

“It’s a high-wire act without a net,” Beckmann-Collier said. “We must sell all the tickets in order to pay the bills.”

Performers will include the Drake Chamber Choir — the most select of the four choirs, brass players and dancers — and the Music Antiqua, a group of musicians who play Renaissance instruments. For the acting portion, the primary roles are the king and queen, the Lord of Misrule, who, said Beckmann-Collier, is the night’s “comical emcee,” and various minor lords and ladies roles. The costumes were designed by professional costume designer Gwynne Burke.

“She (Burke) creates new ones as the need arises and alters and repairs our inventory each year,” Beckmann-Collier said.

As for the traditional Elizabethan food, Beckmann-Collier helped choose the menu in consultation with Sodexo chefs. The meal features choices such as cornish game hen, garlic mashed potatoes, spinach salad, wine, baked apples, scones, wassail bowl, boar’s head and — of course — the flaming figgy pudding procession.

The event is entirely formal — so formal that each guest has an individual place card at his or her seat that has been designed by a calligrapher.

“When I ask our students why they love madrigal dinners, they say, ‘They’re magical,’” Beckmann-Collier said.  “We are excited to share our music and the spirit of the season with our audiences this weekend.”

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