It was only natural to turn to Dr. Catherine Roma, a passionate advocate for building community through choral singing and director of four choirs, including MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Choir.
Roma demurred at first. “I already had plans for the summer and a busy spring schedule. But then …,” she recalls, smiling wryly, “I said I would.”
In March, she began recruiting singers from her choirs for SingCinnati, adding diversity to the challenge of finding the right balance of voices.
“It had to be diverse. I wanted males and females, older and younger singers,” she says.
Singers also had to have schedules flexible enough to fit in a demanding rehearsal schedule and nine days in China. By April, 15 women and 10 men, ranging in ages from 14-64, signed on for two-hour rehearsals twice a week running up until July 19; by June, practice sessions ran four hours.
The group’s main assignment was to sing the national anthem and perform in small segments of the closing production. With less than three months before leaving for China, Roma decided to enter SingCinnati in the WCG’s Gospel/Spiritual and Pop categories.
Located in southwestern China, Shaoxing is a sprawling city of 4 million whose history dates back 2,500 years. Although three-hour morning rehearsals and long distances between venues left little time for sightseeing or hearing other choirs, it didn’t take long for the American independent spirit to assert itself.
“We were met at the airport by a driver, a guide and a translator who stayed with us for the entire week,” says soprano Charmaine Moore. “For them, the group is the basis of their culture. They couldn’t understand why we wouldn’t stay together all the time. It drove them crazy.”
Roma and some of the singers visited a Buddhist monastery and sang for the monks, who, she says, “loved ‘We Are’ and ‘Dona Nobis Pacem.’ ” Most of the group abandoned the communal cafeteria for an Indian restaurant across the street from the hotel.
“Best Indian food I’ve ever had,” says Walnut Hills senior David Gordon-Johnson.
The competition itself was not the high point for many of the participants, especially when they were called back to repeat a performance due to technical glitches.
“We were exhausted, physically and mentally,” says alto Lois Shegog, “We convinced the judges to let us sing later in the day and then they only let us sing two songs.”
Other members simply didn’t like the idea of competing and there was concern about how uniquely American music forms were judged.
“You can’t judge Gospel and Spirituals together,” says Shegog. “They are different styles and have different vocal sounds.”
Dr. Roma brought these concerns to the WCG management and, in 2012, Spirituals will be in a separate category — with, one hopes, more American choirs competing.
Everyone agrees that staging the WCG is a staggering challenge and the consensus is that Cincinnati can handle it. Over 20,000 singers from 90 countries are expected, “and we have to be prepared to interface with people from all over the world,” says Roma. Just for starters, translators will be needed for dozens of languages and transporting groups will entail organizing buses, drivers and guides. Hotels may be too expensive for many of the groups, so college dorms may be an option, to say nothing of providing meals and sightseeing options.
Politics aside, so many of the performances showed a respect and love for American culture that is amazing, says Charmaine Moore.
“There were choirs from Asia and the Middle East who know American music better than we do,” she says. “We are so influential on other countries worldwide. We have a responsibility to do it well and do it right, more so than ever now, seeing how much they love what we do.”
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