The Heart of Wheaton’s Choirs

As choir director Mary Hopper prepares to retire, colleagues and students reflect on her leadership and care.

By Calista Kiper | Staff Writer
October 28, 2021
Dr. Hopper directs her first choir in 1979. Credit: Dr. Hopper.

Dozens of awards furnish the left side of Mary Hopper’s office, while posters of Handel and Bach decorate the back wall. Just to the left of the front door, a quote by the composer John Rutter reads, “Choral music is not one of life’s frills. It’s something that goes to the very heart of our humanity, our sense of community, and our souls.” 

 

For Hopper, the quote rings true. “With a choir,” she said, “the sum is larger than the individuals. You can achieve more together than you could separately.”

 

Mary Hopper ‘73, director of performance studies and professor of music, learned to play the violin, piano and organ while growing up in Davenport, Iowa. In her undergraduate studies at Wheaton, she was a music education major with an emphasis in vocal performance, and a member of band, orchestra and choir. Kathleen Kastner ‘71, a percussion professor in the conservatory, was also a Wheaton Conservatory student at the time. “I persuaded her to join band,” said Kastner. “We had so much fun together. One concert we all got a hold of some wigs and wore wigs!” 

 

Hopper started pursuing her dream of choral conducting early on in her college years. “During the summers, I took some graduate-level classes to discern what direction to go,” she said. “I got a lot of positive feedback in [choral conducting] classes. It was very obvious to me: this is the direction I want to go.”

 

After graduating in 1973, Hopper taught music for three years at nearby Lake Park High School and Roselle Middle School, then earned her master’s in choral conducting at the University of Iowa. She was beginning her doctorate degree there when she got a call from her alma mater. Originally, “it wasn’t my dream,” she said, but Wheaton kept increasing their offer until a friend told her she’d be “crazy not to take it.” She took a part-time position as adjunct professor and director of Women’s Chorale in 1979.

 

When Hopper began her service at Wheaton, she said, “it was a time when women were just breaking into the field.” In 1983, Hopper was the only full-time female choir director at the collegiate level in Illinois. 

 

The Women’s Chorale owes its name to Hopper. The choir was called Women’s Glee Club when she took her job, but she changed the title the following year. The women felt like “the little sister of the men’s glee club,” Hopper said. “I wanted the women to have their own identity and their own calling,” she said. 

 

In addition to being choral conducting instructor and performance director of the conservatory, Hopper has directed the Men’s Glee Club since 2001. Sarah Holman, professor of voice and Hopper’s colleague, said, “She’s equally at home in only a male group or only a female group. [Hopper] has the great ability of letting an individual have their own healthy sound yet creating one blended sound.”

 

Hopper’s other accolades include serving as president of the American Choral Directors Association from 2016 to 2018 and directing a conference for around 4,000 national choir directors, working since 2018 as artistic director and conductor for the 30-person community-based Hinsdale Chorale, and serving in the music ministry at Immanuel Presbyterian Church for the past 25 years.

 

All the while, Hopper has prioritized helping her colleagues and students. When Holman was hired 30 years ago, Hopper found her new colleague a room to rent, invited her over for meals at her home or took her out to dinner. “I’ve never forgotten it,” Holman said.

 

When Carolyn Hart was hired in 1999, she moved to the Wheaton area from Canada. “It was a big move,” she said. “[Hopper] went out of her way to make us feel warmly welcomed.” Soon the two became close friends, taking their children to the Shedd aquarium together. 

 

Although Hart now teaches in Ontario, she has Zoom tea times with Hopper to keep in touch. “She is the kind of friend that will make sure it happens,” said Hart. In their work together, Hart said, “what drives Dr. Hopper is her servant’s heart for the Lord.”

 

One year, Glee Club member Michael Vieceli ‘20 didn’t have a date to the Women’s Chorale banquet, so Hopper recommended Women’s Chorale member Kathryn Rische ‘19, who also didn’t have a date. The two hit it off. Hopper attended their wedding this past August.

 

Fourth-year vocal performance major Michael Mendez remembers Hopper asking about what music he listened to. He told her about his love for ‘70s salsa music. Later, Mendez said, Hopper came back to tell him she listened to it and liked it. “Salsa is my heart music, and for someone to say, ‘I’m not from this background, but I see you for who you are and I recognize your culture and context’—that meant so much to me,” Mendez said.

 

“[Hopper] spends a lot of time mentoring her girls and guys,” Hart said. “If she senses anybody is struggling, she reaches out.”

 

Kari Swanson, a senior vocal major and Women’s Chorale member, recalled times when Hopper supported her. “I’m a Type 1 diabetic, and there was a period of time when I was having a lot of technical issues with my insulin pump, and also getting the vaccine,” said Swanson. “[The vaccine] was really important for me as a diabetic, and it was really hard for me to find a place in Illinois. Dr. Hopper told me: ‘I will drive you to Iowa if you need.’ That’s how much she cares.” Swanson eventually got vaccinated at a DuPage County mass clinic, without Hopper’s transportation.

 

During my interview with Hopper, she glanced out the door to comfort a Women’s Chorale member in the hallway. “Are you vaccinated?” she asked before getting up and hugging the girl. “Let me know what I can do, really, okay? I’ll be in touch.”

 

The pandemic has been “absolutely horrible” on choirs, Hopper said. She was on tour with Men’s Glee Club in March 2020 when they received the email that students couldn’t return to campus. “It was very, very emotional. And they sang their hearts out that night.”

 

As more information came out about the virus, Hopper and fellow choir directors across the nation realized it would severely limit their work. “All my colleagues were saying, ‘This can’t be true. What are we going to do?,’” Hopper said. “There were stories of choirs that got infected from each other, and one in Washington where people died.”

 

Hopper had planned to retire after the 2020-2021 school year, but considering COVID-19’s impact on her work, she said that she decided “I don’t want that to be my last year.”

 

This fall, at the Armerding Grand Celebration Concert on September 25, the choirs were able to perform for an audience for the first time since the pandemic started.“It’s a big thing for me, which I didn’t realize until after the fact,” Hopper said. “We recorded [concerts], but missing the audience was really hard on the singers. They didn’t get that feedback.”

 

In Wheaton concert repertoires, Hopper appreciates that “when we sing sacred texts, we actually believe them.” Additionally, she said that “I believe God is God of our whole life, so we don’t just do sacred texts. God is in [secular] things also.”

 

One of Hopper’s favorite choral pieces is “Broken,” a secular text written by Dominic DiOrio and sung by Women’s Chorale in 2018. The last lines read, “Learning the compass is broken… takes decades of wandering in the desert.” “There’s something deeply spiritual about that,” Hopper said.

 

“[Hopper] is a person of deep faith,” Dean Michael Wilder said. He’s worked with Hopper for the past 13 years, inspired during that time by her faith and her “devout prayer for me, my family, and those we serve.”

 

Once she retires, Hopper is excited to read, visit the Art Institute more often and practice knitting. “I knitted this!” She showed me, spinning to reveal the scalloped edges of an intricate red and white patterned scarf.

 

Hopper also looks forward to spending more time with her daughter Betsy, who teaches kindergarten in the Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale, where nonprofit organizations like Lawndale Christian Health Center serve and partner with the predominantly Black community. “I would love to be able to be able to do some volunteer work, not just post a sign but to actually do something.”

 

“She’s a selfless servant,” Swanson said. “I hope this year is all that she can imagine.”

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