Simply raise your head and look at the posters at the top of street lights in San Francisco to discover an SF Girls Chorus advertisement. On one side there are well-behaved girls and on the other, a woman who directs them.
Knowing that Valérie Sainte Agathe, their Artistic Director was French, we were interested in this exclusively female choir. We discovered a not so “classical” chorus.
The SF Girls Chorus has 400 students on three campuses. This non-profit institution was founded more than 40 years ago now, at the request of the San Francisco Opera which needed talented girls.
They join as early as four and get out at 18 years old. The girls are exposed to music theory, vocal technique and, of course, voice lessons.
So far, nothing too surprising but advancing in the conversation, Sainte Agathe tells us about her artistic vision and exposes her creed in three points:
Diversity – She doesn’t want a choir exclusively composed of young girls who would come straight from the posh neighborhoods of San Francisco. By consequence, the school has now an antenna on East Bay in Emeryville and has just started a project with the Bayview Opera House.
And for that to work, she wants diversity in the programming too… The classics, the Schubert, the Brahms are all good, and the choir works its classics, but it’s important to motivate and reach young talents.
Sainte Agathe makes the choir sing so that it reflects current topics and concerns of 2020 girls. For example, next June, the choir will sing music written by Nilo Alcala (Filipino American composer), Georges Hernandez and famous Filipino composer Lucrecia Roces Kasilag. The choir will perform a piece of an opera that tells the story of a young Filipino immigrant arriving in California after a trip to Hawaii. Beyond the theme of emigration, it will show the contribution of Filipino culture to the culture of the bay.
Innovation – Valérie Sainte Agathe does not just accompany or sing contemporary music, she commissions for SF Girls Chorus. For example to Angelica Negron, a Puerto Rican composer who has just made a play that will bring together 40 singers but also 40 ballet dancers from Berkeley. It the SF Girls Chorus sings, it is not afraid to mix with another discipline.
Women Empowerment – Sainte Agathe does not hide it, the slogan “Girls Power” appeals to her. She has taught in mixed environments before when she was in France but by teaching exclusively to these very young girls, she sees an opportunity to encourage them to go further.
Using singing can be a revealer of personality: “The technique is important but it’s there to reveal the artistic component and the personality of each girl. Singing must help them to find strength, not to be afraid of the scene. It demands that they project the sound of their body, to assert their personality” she explains. Nothing like this to gain self-confidence.
So once Valérie Sainte Agathe has exposed her vision, we understand better why on the 2019-2020 brochure, the keywords are Excellence, Empowerment, and Transformation.
It is also probably thanks to this desire to go beyond boundaries that the SF Girls Chorus makes tours abroad, concerts with Philip Glass, and accompanies Hansel and Gretel, or Manon Lescaut at the San Francisco Opera this winter.
Before moving to San Francisco in 2013, Valérie Sainte Agathe completed her pianist training at the Montpellier Conservatoire and conducted a choir of young people with whom she made eight recordings with the Montpellier National Orchestra and the Radio France Music Festival. Yet nothing predestined her for music; she spent her childhood in Martinique where there was not even a conservatory. And with a military father, her passion for music and the stage was not genetic.
If you live in San Francisco, you may meet her at Zuni Cafe, her favorite canteen, BookShop bookstore in West Portal, or walking on Ocean Beach. Valérie Sainte Agathe was born on an island and does not imagine living far from the sea. She draws some of her beautiful energy from it.
Find the entire SF Girls Chorus program here, and whether you live in San Francisco, Berkeley, or Bayview, you have no excuse for not going to listen to this unconventional and exceptional chorus.
Thank you Valérie Sainte Agathe