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The SF Girls Chorus: Grammy-Winners and Teenagers

Laurie Rubin in "Vireo" | Remsen Allard
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Vireo, the groundbreaking made-for-TV opera, is now available for streaming. Watch the 12 full episodes and dive into the world of Vireo through librettos, essays and production notes. Find more bonus content on KCET.org and LinkTV.org.

The footprint for the making of “Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser,” the 12-part opera about a time traveling young girl’s journey of self-discovery, spans the nation, as well as all of California. Filming on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay was perhaps the highest-profile connection between Northern and Southern California.

But here’s another less publicized connection across the Golden State: the San Francisco Girls Chorus, which lent members to perform in “Vireo.” There were supporting roles to fill in various episodes, including ensembles of Forest Women and Milkmaids. Episode eleven, for example, features 100-plus voices from the SF Girls Chorus and Chorus School.

Founded in 1978, the uniquely supportive community-based chorus offers professional-level training and touring for some 300 young women from 160 schools in 46 Bay Area cities. There’s a preparatory program for girls starting as young as age five. As they mature, there’s the option to enroll in the four-level chorus school to further their skills in choral repertoire, vocal technique and music theory. The Chorus has even won five Grammy Awards.

The Queen of Sweden, Vireo - Episode 11 at Oakland Station - by David Soderlund
The SF Girls Chrous with Deborah Voigt, who plays the Queen of Sweden | David Soderlund

For “Vireo” composer Lisa Bielawa, the choice to include the Chorus was somewhat obvious. Since 2013, she has been the Artistic Director for the SF Girls Chorus. But her ties to the choir go back much further. Bielawa, a San Francisco native, is also an alumna of the SFGC. In fact, she was one of the girls in the chorus during the infamously chaotic San Francisco Opera premier of “Othello” in 1983. When the opera’s lead lost his voice, famed tenor Placido Domingo jetted over from New York to take his place. “My opening night was the most famous night in American opera!” Bielawa says with a laugh.

Music was among Bielawa’s first loves, given how performance shaped her life from an early age. Her parents are both professional musicians, and her musical education tracks as such. She started violin at age three, piano at five, and by seven, she was writing music on her own. She even performed in her family band. Compared to some young women who stay with the chorus upwards of a decade, Bielawa’s tenure with the chorus as a teenager was brief. But the impact on her adolescent development and subsequent adult career was considerable. “For me, being in the chorus was really one of first musical contexts that wasn’t familial,” she says. “I felt all this physic space around me, with no one there to tell me how to feel about the experience. A lot of individuation happened there for me. That was very powerful.”

Lola Miller-Henline understands this well. The 15-year-old Lowell High School student also comes from a musical family — her mother is a theater director, her father a choral conductor — and she’s been a member of the Girls Chorus for nine years. Like Bielawa, who says she always knew she wanted to pursue music, Miller-Henline says conversations with her fellow performers, including mezzo-soprano Laurie Rubin, invigorated her desire to keep performing. “So many of us are so anxious with music being an unsteady field,” she explains, noting that getting to talk to someone who has established herself and built a career was a vital connection and way for her to envision a professional path in music. “[Rubin is] such an amazing singer, and an all-around role model for quite a few of us.”

Joining the cast of “Vireo” also helped cement Miller-Henline’s desire to pursue music in the future, especially given the opportunity to work closely with professional musicians and talk to other performers who have paved paths like the one she envisions. “Getting to hear music that was written by SFGC alum and know the path [Lisa Bielawa] took to get to this point, it was really inspiring for those of us who are hoping to someday go into music and composition and see an example of what path someone might take,” Miller-Henline explains.

San Francisco Girls Chorus members | Photo: Sheri Candler
San Francisco Girls Chorus members | Sheri Candler

Fifteen-year-old Nia Caiani, who has been a member of the SFGC for nearly six years, found similar inspiration. Her biggest takeaway from filming “Vireo” on set in Los Angeles was that it’s never too early to build her professional network. “I would love to sing classical music as a career,” she says. “I feel that yes, I’m young, but this is also the perfect time to branch out to make new connections, meet new people, stay in chorus, and build knowledge of the music world and industry,” she adds.

Bielawa, who is used to collaborating with adults, adds that even though she leads the SFGC, she was somewhat surprised by how much she learned from instructing and guiding the Chorus members through filming  “I’ve never had such a fulfilling experience, working that closely with and mentoring young women like that,” she notes solemnly.

Bielawa says she’s often the type of person who will just do something her own way rather than parcel out the task and get everyone on board. With such a large production, though, it’s necessary for every player to buy in and feel like their voice will be heard. On set, it was SFGC conductor Valerie Sainte-Agathe who wisely reminded Bielawa to teach and delegate responsibility to the young women, not just plow ahead and fix everything on her own. “The magic is watching and helping them master this on their own,” Bielawa says. Sainte-Agathe’s direction worked wonders. “This taught me patience,” Bielawa says. “It totally changed me.”

Rowen Sabala in "Vireo." | David Soderlund
The SF Girls Chorus with Rowen Sabala in "Vireo." | David Soderlund

Top Image: Laurie Rubin with the SF Girls Chorus | Remsen Allard

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