Where We Sing : Then and Now

Ah, the school show! Up at dawn, an hour on the freeway, a quick rehearsal with the little ones, and then back-to-back performances of a 45-minute version of the opera, which may mean almost as much singing as doing the whole thing, but with less time to rest between arias.

In one recent weekday my role was Carmen, the location, a middle school in Fremont, Calif. Despite the brutality of the early call, the shows went well. The girls made excellent cigarette factory workers and the boys were adorable soldiers. After the show, the girls in the audience rushed the stage to meet Carmen and the boys to meet Escamillo. Having sung Carmen for high school shows, I couldn’t help thinking that in a year or two, those longings would be reversed.

All in all, it was a blast. A perfectly fun way to spend a Monday morning. Well, almost perfect . . .

Upon arrival, I went to sign in at the school office. The secretary directed me to something called the “multi-use room.” The multi-use room, for those who managed to avoid the American school system, is a gymnasium-cum-assembly-hall-cum-theater, built with the latest materials and still exuding the chemicals that willed them into existence. The room’s acoustics were not much better than the car I warmed up in on the way down, and the space had all the architectural beauty of a shoe box.

I might not have lamented this small tragedy of modernity had I not decided to make a little pit stop on the way home.

As it turns out, a few short blocks from the newly minted “multi-use room” stands Mission San José. Part of the system of California missions the Franciscan missionaries built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Mission San José is located beneath rolling hills on the banks of the San Joaquin River. (The mission is actually in the town of Fresno, not San José. The Franciscans founded it before the city of Fresno was incorporated.) Mission San José, like the other missions in early California, was a strategic outpost and a center of culture and religion. As a singer in California, I have sung in missions before with great pleasure, but I had never visited Mission San José.

First, I took my time walking through the museum housed in the former padre’s quarters. The exhibits showed artifacts from the lives of the Ohlone people as well as displays of the church and the surrounding Spanish inhabitants. I admired the small adobe rooms, the clothing and tools from the period, including a large stone basin they used to filter water. (Scientists had recently tested the device and found that the water filtered through the stone was healthier than unfiltered water.)

Then I stepped into the chapel itself, a long, narrow adobe structure with an exposed wood ceiling. The first thing I noticed was the quiet. The adobe walls must make for good sound proofing—I didn’t hear the street traffic at all.

In 1806, Father Narcisco Duran came to the mission. Apparently a skilled musician, he created an orchestra of 30 Indian musicians to play for feasts and special occasions. The orchestra included flute, violin, trumpet, and drums, and people came from all around the central valley to hear it. The structure was built in 1809, but the mission was founded in 1797, the year of Schubert’s birth, so I waited around a bit until other visitors departed and then let loose with a few passages of “Ave Maria.” There was something very moving about reflecting on the sense of time manifesting in the sacred beauty of Schubert’s music in Germany and in this beautiful building half a world away in California.

The acoustics were exquisite. The music ricocheted and danced around the adobe walls, adding depth and even a magical quality to the sound. The space felt almost too live for the music as the sound bounced back and forth between the narrow walls, creating unintended harmonies. When experienced back to back with the “multi-use room,” there was simply no comparison. This place would add weight and meaning to any performance, and a sense of respect and reverence in the listener that the new “functional” space could never provide.

When I think of the great singers of the past and the performances they gave, I have to wonder, would Adelina Patti have sung in a “multi-use room”? Would the awe and splendor that surrounded Caruso have existed if he had sung in a “multi-use room”? Would the great operas have been composed if composers knew they would be performed in a box of carpet, linoleum, and laminate?

It’s easy to say, “Well, that’s what’s available these days, so let’s make the best of it.” But in this instance, it wasn’t even an issue of availability. That morning, the mission stood empty. The state of California does not own the mission, so it would have involved some logistics, but how difficult would it have been to march the kids a couple of blocks to the mission to watch the show? The travel time would have made the event even more memorable for them. The extra effort taken to arrange it would have been an example to them of the importance of art and music.

The time and way a space is created leave a mark on what transpires there forever. The War Memorial Opera House was built in 1932 to honor all those who died in World War I. The United Nations held its first conference there, in 1945, and it continues to be a home to world-class opera. Think of the joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Can you imagine anyone asking “How do you get to the ‘multi-use room’?” Or seeing such a place as a goal or inspiration of any kind?

I know we must make do with what we’ve got, but we give so much care and preparation to create beautiful singing, shouldn’t we also give consideration, as individuals and as a community, to the location of our performances?

Get to know the venues in your area. Decide which places inspire you and work toward performing there. And if you’re on the organizational end of things, take care to consider less practical concerns, such as inspiration and beauty of place. I once gave a recital in a beautiful space that had only one public bathroom. The second half started a bit late, but that didn’t do the music any harm. At the time of Father Narcisco Duran’s orchestra performances, there were no bathrooms whatsoever, and people traveled for hours through the central valley heat to gather in a place worthy of the art created there.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.