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Yale Whiffenpoofs bring their a capella act to St. Patrick's Church

The 2017 Yale Whiffenpoofs. (Photo courtesy of The Yale Whiffenpoofs)

Before Anchorage's Michael Tappel was a Whiffenpoof, he was a Spizzwink.

"The Whiffenpoofs are the oldest a capella group at Yale; the Spizzwinks are the second oldest," explained Tappel, a Holy Rosary Academy graduate who sings bass in the Whiffenpoofs.

Tappel and his 13 fellow "Whiffs," as they are more casually known on campus, will perform at St. Patrick's Church on May 25. It's the group's Alaska debut, as well as the start of a whirlwind international summer tour that will whisk the Whiffenpoofs to Iceland, Israel, Italy and 19 more nations.

The group, comprising male Yale seniors, is the apex of college a capella. Founded in 1909, it is the oldest college a capella group in the country. A Whiffenpoof is a mythical dragonfish, and the name was suggested by one of the group's original founders.

Tradition is the group's calling card. They always appear in tuxes and tails and their repertoire is brimming with American songbook and jazz standards — there are composers including Yale alum Cole Porter, along with classic folk and rock like Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer," The Animals' "The House of The Rising Sun," and The Beatles' "Got to Get You Into My Life."

There also some interesting odds and ends in the repertoire, like "Down by the Salley Gardens," which is Tappel's favorite song to perform.

"It's a really beautiful Irish song. It's fairly obscure. The lyrics are a poem by Yeats," Tappel said. "It's one that's been in the Whiffs repertoire for a number of decades."

The group's nostalgic gentlemanly style makes the Whiffs irresistibly spoofable.

"We're often mocked in pop culture," Tappel said. "The Whiffenpoofs were just on 'The Simpsons' and they were made fun of a little bit."

The episode, "Caper Chase," aired in April and followed Mr. Burns' return to his alma mater Yale.

Over the years, The Whiffenpoofs have also sang for national TV audiences on shows including "The Sing-Off," "The Today Show" and "Saturday Night Live."

Tappel's St. Patrick's gig is a homecoming of sorts. Tappel attended the church from 2002 to 2013.

"I was very involved growing up. I volunteered at vacation Bible school, and was an altar server. It was part of my upbringing," he said. "It's very meaningful to bring this group, which has been a big part of my college experience, to the church. It's not only an opportunity for my friends and family to see what I've been up to in my time on the East Coast, but also for my fellow singers, who are my very good friends, to put me in context."

Prior to his Ivy League singing career, Tappel won or at least placed in numerous singing competitions in Anchorage, and was music director of Holy Rosary Academy's high school choir during his senior year. He has also performed professionally, singing the role of Rolfe in Anchorage Opera's 2012 production of "The Sound of Music."

Holy Rosary Academy graduate and Yale Whiffenpoof Michael Tappel. (Courtesy of The Yale Whiffenpoofs)

Tappel was totally comfortable on the professional stage, said opera singer Kate Egan, who played Elsa The Baroness in the same production. Egan also gave Tappel private singing lessons for several years.

She'll be at St. Patricks to see her former student perform with the prestigious group.

"He definitely deserves to be there," Egan said. "He has perfect pitch. He's an outstanding musician with a gorgeous voice."

Egan and the rest of the audience at St. Patrick's will also get to witness some classic Whiffenpoof high jinks.

Every performance concludes with "The Whiffenpoof Song." The proper Ivy League lads get a chance to cut loose during their signature ditty.

"At the end of  the song, there's a part where we rough each other up a little bit," Tappel said. "We tie each others' shoes together, that kind of thing."

7 p.m. Thursday, St. Patrick's Church, 2111 Muldoon Road. Tickets are $10-$30. See whiffenpoofs.ticketbud.com

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