The story behind the choirs onstage in A Christmas Carol
by Artistic Associate for Community Rebecca Noon
Six months, I began an epic journey to find choirs to sing at each of the 56 public performances of A Christmas Carol. An idea from director Mark Valdez‘ imagination (encouraged by Trinity rep staff) became a personal odyssey that not only changed the outcome of this production, but my own relationship to our homestate.
Initially, I reached out to 85 choirs, found through the Choral Arts New England website, the RI Music Education Association listserv, Google searches, recommendations from choral directors, and conversations with anyone who mentioned they sing in a choir. All choirs are from Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts, and are a mix of community, school, church, and college choruses. While some are doing two performances, in many cases these are actually 20-person segments of larger choirs. While the director and the name of the choir may be the same, the actual singers are usually different. This means that the choir you are seeing perform today has probably never performed the show before (though they rehearsed the music for months).
Music director Esther Zabinski worked with Mark to select the choirs’ four songs, but only provided three arrangements. The fourth song the choir sings is their own arrangement of a Christmas standard assigned by Esther – an opportunity for each chorus to showcase who they are, which ranges from gospel to a capella to Scandinavian women. In this case of Kol Pacem: Voices of Peace, they are singing a different song altogether.
My favorite story from my search concerns how Kol Pacem: Voices of Peace, an interfaith choir in Cranston led by Dr. Joel Gluck, a Jewish choir director, came to perform in A Christmas Carol. Last spring, I reached out to Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser at Temple Sinai in Cranston to see if he might want to partner with us on our production of Ragtime. Though we had a wonderful meeting, Rabbi Goldwasser didn’t think it was an ideal match, as I was looking for a place to bring on of Trinity Rep’s Context and Conversation events and he felt his Temple would be a hard place for people to find. His honesty impressed me, and so months later, when I got a hot tip that Temple Sinai has an incredible choir, Shireinu – The Jewish Community Chorus of Temple Sinai – I didn’t feel weird about reaching out to a Temple to see if they would like to perform in A Christmas Carol (and okay, I’m also Jewish). On July 25, I wrote to the Rabbi:
…I am currently working on a director’s vision for A Christmas Carol… Word on the street is that Temple Sinai has an incredible community of singers, and so I am now reaching out to see if Shireinu would be interested in performing in A Christmas Carol.
I’ll also mention that we have performances on Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas that many choirs are uninterested in. As a Jewish person who also makes winter holiday plans, I am not assuming that this would be at all interesting to you in ANY WAY, but I am also hoping that it might? Or you might have a brilliant idea? I don’t even know how Shireinu feels about singing Christmas or Christmas-y songs, though you’ll see the song list and perhaps fantasize about the Klezmer take on ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’?
All the best, Rebecca
Much to my delight, the Rabbi responded:
No offense, Rebecca, but this gave me a good laugh. I have a hard time imagining our choir singing, “Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day” with a straight face. Nonetheless, I am going to give you the contact information for Shireinu’s director, Joel Gluck.
I immediately contacted Dr. Gluck who replied:
I am interested. This sounds fascinating. However, Shireinu is the Jewish community Chorus of RI and being such it may not be “appropriate.” However, I am also the director of Kol Pacem: Voices of Peace; the Cranston Community Chorus. I would love to have them participate in this fashion.
Dr. Joel Gluck
I called Dr. Gluck to talk out details, concluding that yes, since we were giving all choirs the opportunity to arrange the final song to best showcase their specific perspective, Kol Pacem: Voices of Peace could choose a different song. Gluck, who was ordained as a cantor in June, has been co-directing Kol Pacem with Rev. Bob Nolan, Minister of Music at Woodbridge Church in Cranston. Having both Jewish and Christian clergy leading this choir has brought a true sense of unity to the entire faith community of Cranston. They have hosted concerts, participated in joint Martin Luther King celebrations, and sung in Interfaith Thanksgiving services. Including them in our show felt essential.
Emboldened by the conversation, I reached out to a Baha’i listserv to see if they would be interested. I received the following email:
Thank you for reaching out to the Rhode Island Baha’i Community and for your kind invitation… Your vision of A Christmas Carol as a vehicle for creating unity and harmony through the blending of the diverse voices of the community is in complete alignment with the purpose of the Baha’i Faith, which teaches that “the diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord” (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks).
We regret that the Rhode Island Baha’i community, which is relatively small, has no choir that would be able to respond to this beautiful opportunity. We are grateful for your service and Trinity Rep’s commitment to creating a community that embraces all people. We will pray that your efforts produce wonderful fruits.
We offer this quote from the Baha’i Writings, which speaks of God’s purpose for humanity, as encouragement to the choirs from Rhode Island’s various faith communities that will lend their voices to this season’s A Christmas Carol:
“The Blessed Perfection hath appeared for the sole purpose of the unification and solidarity of the people of the world, so that all of them may enter under the shade of one tree, sing one melody in one rose-garden and adorn the universe with love and oneness.”
With kind regards, Lauren Baer
Mark Valdez asked if we could invite some of the Baha’i members to sing with Kol Pacem: Voices of Peace, as it is an interfaith choir. All parties agreed and at least one member that I know of is singing with Kol Pacem: Voices of Peace in A Christmas Carol – which also means they have been singing regularly together leading up to their performance (and maybe beyond).
Other groups have equally moving stories. The Newport Navy Choristers figured out how to make it work despite the uncertainty of deployment; Esther reworked the music for the middle school a capella group from Gordon School to fit adolescent voices; Beneficent Choir is in the midst of a leadership change, and so teamed up with the choir from Park Place Congregational Church UCC; and and and…
These stories are only one window into the show. As Michael McGarty, our set designer, said to me last summer, “It’s not a show about choirs,” which of course is true, only from where I’m standing, it couldn’t be about anything else.