My favorite part of this crazy career is the people. I get to meet so many interesting people with fascinating stories. I’m introduced to new singers, instrumentalists, directors, composers, and conductors I will be working with in the various projects I’m brought into. They all come from such different backgrounds, and have garnered vastly different experiences in their various life paths. When I give concerts, I get to meet audience members who tell me their own amazing stories, and that’s why things never get old or monotonous. Sometimes the work I do takes me back a hundred or more years, and it’s the people I meet who are no longer living whose stories are very much alive.
In a blog post a few weeks back, I mentioned my excitement to be involved in projects with fantastic women in music. After reading several shocking accounts of women in my very own field who had been sexually harassed by men in positions of power, I reached out to a few of my colleagues to see if they would be interested in embarking on a musical project as a way of being proactive. This past December, my good friend and composer Lisa Bielawa got back to my email almost immediately. I had the honor of working on Lisa’s amazing episodic opera, “Vireo, The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser” which was in the making for two really fun years. Lisa has expressed how important it is to think about what the world is like today for young women, so I was so excited when she expressed enthusiasm about writing a piece which would bring awareness and a new voice to women whose life circumstances rendered them historically invisible. After a rapid fire dialogue, Lisa mentioned that she wanted to write a piece for conductor-less chamber orchestra and soprano with my voice and expertise in non-visual communication in mind, much of the material for which she would be researching during her fellowship at the American Antiquarian Society this past June and July.
After Lisa had surfaced from her month of research, she called me to tell me about her discoveries. I could hear the awe in her voice as she told me about missionaries who were once slaves, maids, authors, wealthy women, poor women, mothers, women who had never married from around the country, all who had confided their most intimate feelings and experiences in countless diaries. After reading almost a hundred of them, Lisa compiled a document which she sent to me with some of the short listed entries she was considering for the piece. I opened her almost 20 page document, and couldn’t fathom how it would be possible to sift through so many amazing stories to find the perfect entries that would make a cohesive 17 minute piece. As Lisa started writing, she found that the most interesting entries were not those that simply noted down the events of the day, but rather those in which the voices, personalities, and personal consciousness could be heard loud and clear. It was those women who were able to successfully recount history and keep it living and breathing for those who were reading it in the present. If I were to highlight the amount of entries that struck me during my perusal of Lisa’s document, this blog post would be more like a tome. There were bored over dramatic teenagers, authors who spun their secrets into beautiful poetry, a woman who wrote an entry on the day President Lincoln was shot, jolting me into memories of my parents’ accounts of where they were when Kennedy was shot, and so many others. All the while, I was taken with each individual voice, and how in spite of the slightly antiquated English, I could hear myself or a friend in each entry I was reading. After traveling around the country with many different diarists, I found myself back home.
Angeles Monrayo, is a Filipina girl who moves from a sugar plantation in Waipahu to Pablo Manlapit’s Strike Camp in Honolulu, and then to San Ramon California, all between the ages of 12-16. Her diary, “Tomorrow’s Memories,” published by University of Hawaii Press, shows us through the eyes of a very young woman, what life was like for a Filipino family navigating a difficult time for immigrant workers through Racism and poverty. In spite of her family’s challenges, Angeles remains positive and exuberant in many of her entries. One such entry shows so distinctly how unique Hawaii’s history is, making it a microcosm of Polynesian and Asian cultures. On October 2, 1925, Angeles writes,
"We're all given homework, oh, the other fourth grade teachers gave us homework too. And I must tell you, I like all this going to school, this learning about writing and reading. I learned something new today about other countries and people and this is geography. I did not know that we live in such a big world, so many different nationalities and countries, they live in far away places. I read in my geography book that there are four season in a year, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. It is truly wonderful to know these things, and I also thought there are only Japanese, Chinese, Porto Ricans, Portuguese, and Filipinos. Oh, there are so many other things in the geography book that I must learn and from the history book and about hygiene, oh really, so much to learn and remember.”
Another fascinating woman I got to know in Lisa’s document was Betsey Stockton, a missionary who was once a slave, making the journey from Connecticut to Hawaii. This entry on March 26, 1823 sheds light on the bittersweetness of making her home in a new place, as well as her constant had work:
“Nothing worth noticing occurred during the day. Painting, and tarring, and writing, were carried on, as they had been for some time past. Towards evening, the dark cloud was removed from my mind, and I felt as peaceful as the ocean with which I was surrounded…the full moon shone brightly on us, without one intervening cloud, while our vessel was wafted gently on the surface of the deep. It will be long before the impression of this evening will be erased from my mind.” Over the many years I’ve been a classical singer, I have heard the people around me talk about music from previous centuries as “archaic,” “obsolete,” and “not relatable.” In fact a composer I knew in college criticized my decision to become a voice major because he asked, “Why sing music that was written in the time of chamber pots?” What we often fail to recognize is that anything from any century can be made relevant, and it is our job as artists to breathe new life into old works, to preserve history as best we can, to prevent cautionary tails from recurring, and to keep the past from being erased. It’s a funny time we live in now in which the very people who haven’t seen a Puccini opera or read a Jane Austen novel are giving their kids names which haven’t surfaced in a century such as Oliver, Florence, Willa, Charlotte, and Hazel. This definitely shows that we will always find new relevance and beauty in what the past has to offer. Lisa is in the midst of working on the piece, entitled, “Centuries in the Hours,” quoting the turn-of-the-century proto-feminist visionary teenage writer Mary MacLane. The piece has been co-commissioned by River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) and The ASCAP Charles Kingsford Art Song Commission. I am so honored that I will be premiering the piece with ROCO in September 2019. In fact, one of the amazing women I have had the pleasure of getting to know during this process is artistic director, founder, and principal oboist of ROCO Alecia Lawyer. She is a mover and shaker, and in the conversations Lisa, Alecia, and I have had, we definitely have bonded in the common goal of reintroducing the voices of these incredible women in history. It is our hope that we will be able to travel with this piece for performances with orchestras all around the country in the same places where many of these remarkable women have put pen to paper, showing that their stories remain fresh and relevant to our current time. Connecting people is one of my favorite pastimes. I love introducing people who it seems obvious should meet each other because they will either get along famously, or will be a force of nature in the work they do together. I am very excited to introduce audiences to these amazing women through Lisa’s piece, and am sure it will make a difference in people’s lives knowing who they are.
What about you? Who are the coolest people you’ve met or discovered in your work over the years? Please share your stories in the comments below.