S.F. Girls Chorus pays homage to 1920s Filipina diarist

By Gina Gotsill

By Gina Gotsill

Bay City News

In 1924, 11-year-old Filipina Angeles Monrayo started a diary because “I would like to read about me — what everyday things happen to me — when I am an old woman.”

Nearly 100 years later, the San Francisco Girls Chorus is sharing Monrayo’s memories of her life as an immigrant through music and song. It starts with the Tomorrow’s Memories Community Book Club, a series of monthly virtual and outdoor events that will get audiences talking about SFGC’s upcoming commissioned choral opera about Monrayo’s life. The virtual book club launch took place Dec. 11, and the first book club session, “Stories of Family, Food, & Heritage,” happens Jan. 23.

The SFGC commissioned Matthew Welch to create the choral opera, “Tomorrow’s Memories: A Little Manila Diary,” which premieres June 22-25 at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. Magic’s artistic director Sean San José will stage the show and 40 singers and soloists ages 14 to 18 will tell and sing Monrayo’s story. The singers will be accompanied by guitarist Florante Aguilar, violinist Patti Kilroy and percussionist Levy Lorenzo. Joan Osato will create video projections for the show.

An immigrant’s story

Monrayo’s story, edited by her daughter Rizaline Raymundo and published by the University of Hawai’i Press in 2003, chronicles Monrayo’s life in a Hawaiian strike camp and her move to California, where she lived in Stockton and San Ramon.

The diary pages are filled with the joys and sorrows of a youngster growing up in a migrant family in the 1920s — friends made and lost, money earned doing odd jobs and moments of happiness and longing. But Monrayo’s story also illuminates the poverty and racism that immigrants endured as they worked to establish themselves in the United States.

A diary that is nearly 100 years old can still reflect relatable stories, and as a dramatic work can be an agent of awareness and change, Welch says. Through “Tomorrow’s Memories,” people are reminded of the impact that Filipino Americans have made in the United States, particularly in the west and in California.

Bringing Monrayo to life

Creating the “Tomorrow’s Memories” opera has been a collaborative process from the beginning. Singers, instrumentalists, designers, dancers, composers and dramaturg all worked together to bring the work to life, Welch says. The spark for the choral opera started with a conversation Welch had with SFGC Artistic Director Valerie Sainte-Agathe. Both were looking for a Bay Area story about the Filipino American experience and struggle that would be relevant to young women today, he said.

Before Welch set the libretto, he collaborated with playwright Philip K. Gotanda on a potential narrative that flowed through the diary entries. He also involved director San José in conversations about the narrative. The musical content reflects Welch’s discussions with the three guest Filipino American instrumentalists — Aguilar, Kilroy and Lorenzo — as well as his own musical research in the Philippines as an Asian Arts Council Fellow.

Book club experience

The Tomorrow’s Memories Community Book Club will give audiences a taste of all the choral opera has to offer.

During the book club events, the San Francisco Girls Chorus will share excerpts of the opera that 45 singers recorded separately on their cell phones during the pandemic, as well as excerpts from their previous video concert “Songs From the Archipelago,” Sainte-Agathe says. The ensemble of soloists will also perform Filipino songs known as “kundiman” and other traditional styles in the Tagalog language, she says. Aguilar will accompany them during book club performances.

By now, the chorus has had months of experience with making art across digital lines. At a time when gathering to make art was a challenge, the pandemic led to collaborations that would not have been possible otherwise, Sainte-Agathe says. In March, the group performed live during their virtual gala.

“Forty singers, each of them at home, were able to sing together live and share music with the world,” Sainte-Agathe recalls.

Also in March, the King’s Singers, a British a cappella group, posted a video of its choral rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” with San Francisco Girls Chorus, created while the group was in London and the girls chorus was in San Francisco.

“Of course being together in a room is definitely what we want to do, but this virtual era opened the doors to so many opportunities,” Sainte-Agathe says.

The first session of the Tomorrow’s Memories Community Book Club will be presented at 11 a.m. Jan. 23 at Kapwa Gardens, 967 Mission St., San Francisco. Book club events are free but require registration. To learn more and register, visit www.sfgirlschorus.org/tomorrows-memories-community-book-club.

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