Chorister's View, Episode 5 of "Vireo"

Dear SF Girls Chorus Family, When I started singing in the San Francisco Girls Chorus at the age of eight, I could never have dreamed of the opportunities I would have here. This past weekend is a perfect example. Early Friday morning (at 4 AM!), I squeezed into a cab to drive to the airport, ready for a day-long adventure filming the fifth episode of Lisa Bielawa’s opera Vireo. Four fellow choristers, Valerie, and I touched down in Los Angeles just as the sun was rising, and got ready for a day of filming. vireoatairport

Upon arriving at the Villa where we would be filming, we were greeted with the neighs of horses nearby and the sounds of the tech crew setting up lights on the set. We began rehearsing right away with Lisa and the wind ensemble. After practicing in San Francisco with a recording of automated instruments, it was awesome to hear the live musicians. We worked with Lisa to express the feelings of a cow through the music, with a sense of weight and laziness. Without giving too much about the episode away, it centers on a cow (sung by contralto Kirsten Sollek) that has fallen ill and died, perhaps because of a witch in the town.

Lisa Bielawa and the Vireo Wind Octet. Photograhy by Zach Pulse.

After rehearsal, we started staging with director Charlie Otte, who’s worked with us before on projects including our collaboration with Tenet and our Holiday Sing-Along at Davies. During filming, it was exhilarating to be followed by a large camera and hear Charlie yell “action!” before each take. The garden at the estate was beautiful, as was the Plexiglass cow we sang to, and the rustic barn. It felt like we’d been transported back to Vireo’s time, with a bit of the future mixed in as well.

As the story of Vireo is based loosely on the witch trials that have occurred throughout history, it’s amazing to be part of an opera that explores women’s roles through time, especially with a strong leading woman like Vireo. We filmed the entire episode three times, all the way through, with Vireo and her mother changing their clothing between two of the takes, from period pieces to present day.

Picture left to right: Emma Mackenzie, Emma Powell, Sarah Ancheta, Nia Spaulding, Lola Miller-Henline. Photograph by Tippi MacKenzie.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi greets SFGC conductor Valerie Sainte-Agathe and the San Francisco Girls Chorus prior to singing at the former Speaker's annual event. Photograph by Alain McLaughlin Photography Inc.

Fast forward 36 hours later: The five singing milkmaids were back in San Francisco, going from pouring fake milk on a movie set to participating in present-day history unfolding at the Presidio’s Golden Gate Club, singing in a performance honoring Nancy Pelosi. Congresswoman Pelosi is an icon of female power, as she was the first and only woman Speaker of the House and a huge advocate for women’s rights. She’s the highest-ranking female politician in America's history to date. It was an honor to sing for her, and it made me proud to be a young woman living in America. We first sang Ma Navu, a beautiful traditional piece in Yiddish, arranged by Shira Cion. Our next piece was America the Beautiful, arranged by Samuel Yard. In rehearsal, Valerie had talked with us about the meaning of being American, something I truly felt when we were singing for the audience. I saw pride on their faces and felt exhilaration in the air. The audience sang along with us, and I could sense the delight we all felt to be singing about the beauty of America.

As I write this on January 11, 2016, the Monday following this exhilarating weekend, it is the 131st birthday of Dr. Alice Paul, a feminist, suffragist, and women’s rights activist. What better way to celebrate Dr. Paul's birthday than a weekend filled with expressions and celebrations of female power? It is amazing to think that without the work of Alice Paul, we probably would not be celebrating with Congresswoman Pelosi. It’s working with amazing women like Valerie and Lisa, meeting people like Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, and singing stories like Vireo that shape us into the confident girls and young women we are today, and the strong women we’ll be in future.

Sarah Ancheta

My little eight year-old self, auditioning for the chorus the first time, had no idea what the future would hold. But I'm certain that if I could talk to her today, she would thank me for taking this journey, and more importantly, thank the San Francisco Girls Chorus for believing in girls and giving us amazing opportunities to become strong women. For although none of us can predict the future, I'm certain the Chorus is helping us be better prepared for it.


Best, Sarah Ancheta Second Soprano, San Francisco Girls Chorus