Raising Their Voices for Charity

March 11, 2014

On March 30, SingforAmerica, the Bay Area’s most unique, community oriented arts fund-raiser, stages its third annual concert in San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Singing will be front and center at the event: A chorus of 100 that unites volunteer choristers from as far away as Dixon with professional members of the San Francisco Opera chorus will join with the voices of 60 children from three area schools, orchestral support, and star turns by Broadway’s Marcus Lovett, soprano Marie Plette, and local favorites Nicolle Foland, Shawnette Sulker, Michelle Jasso, Rachelle Perry, Pedro Rodelas, and Buffy Baggott.

Lovett will perform his own set; the other headliners will solo with the choristers in music by Bernstein, Copland, and David Conte. The evening is expected to raise part of the $100,000 that SingforAmerica distributes annually to 70 regional arts organizations and nonprofits.

SingforAmericaSingforAmerica founder, director, and president Erich Wolf Stratmann, a 22-year extra member of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, conceived of the organization after serving as finance director of the San Francisco Boys Chorus. Experiencing first-hand the financial challenges faced by Bay Area non-profit arts organizations, he envisioned a foundation that would raise significant funds for the groups he loves while enriching the lives of its fund-raising participants. Members of the foundation’s advisory board include veteran San Francisco Opera Chorus Director Ian Robertson and former San Francisco Chronicle music critic and SFCV Founder Robert Commanday.

“I developed the idea for the SingforAmerica project several years ago,” Stratmann explains. “Its genesis came from a CBS Sunday Morning story about the 30 million adult Americans who sing in choruses. There are well over 100 choruses in the Bay Area, full of folks who have no idea how to fund their singing interest.”

SingforAmerica invites choristers to join the project for 10 weeks of rehearsals, culminating in the gala fundraising concert. Each chorister is encouraged to develop a SingforAmerica fund-raising page where they solicit pledges to meet whatever fundraising goal they set for themselves. Choristers also sell tickets for the performance. In both cases, at least 50% of what choristers raise goes to the organization of their choice, be it an arts organization or another nonprofit such as Students Rising Above, College of Adaptive Arts, or Hope Counseling Petaluma (to name a few recent beneficiaries).

“The concert is really a version of sporty fundraising events, wherein participants train for the event and, while training, raise dollars for charity,” says Stratmann. “In our case, however, our ‘exercise’ delivers the well-documented health benefits of singing in a group. As for raising dollars, the level of support is determined by the enthusiasm of our participants, and the support they receive from their beneficiary organizations. In other words (sort of), ‘We helps them what helps themselves.’”

Unlike any number of other Bay Area arts benefits, SingforAmerica actually pays an honorarium to its professional artists. That includes the San Francisco Opera choristers who sing alongside chorus volunteers, provide feedback, and help them hone their skills during rehearsals.

When proceeds from both the annual public concert and the private fundraising concerts held at Stratmann’s home are put together, the organization probably grosses $200-$220,000 each fiscal year, dispensing $100,000 to organizations and $50,000 to participating artists. The rest of the money is reserved for insurance, taxes, accounting costs, and operating expenses. SingforAmerica’s low overhead “office” is Stratmann’s cell phone.

“There are well over 100 choruses in the Bay Area, full of folks who have no idea how to fund their singing interest.” — Erich Wolf Stratmann, founder SingforAmerica

Mezzo-soprano Michelle Jasso, one of the concert’s Bay Area headliners, is singing for her beloved Goat Hall Productions. Goat Hall, aka San Francisco Cabaret Opera, is a Bay Area company committed to producing new operas, re-envisioned classics, and honoring classic cabaret composers, such as Kurt Weill. On April 24-27, Jasso will sing the role of “trophy wife” Sophia Dante in Goat Hall’s fully staged production of Seven Deadly Pleasures, a new cabaret rock opera by Bay Area pianist/composer Allison Lovejoy.

“When I moved to the Bay Area in 2008,” Jasso recalled, “Goat Hall’s was the first opera audition I took. Harriet March Page, who is the artistic director, was the first person I auditioned for. Goat Hall has been really wonderful to me. They’re the company with whom I’ve done the most work. I stage directed a concept piece for them last April that they allowed me to completely design. I’ve also sung a bunch of roles with them, and they’ve been incredibly supportive. I so love what they do that I joined their Board of Directors in November 2011.”

Michelle JassoThe company was founded in 1997, when Harriet March Page and a few other musical friends from Potrero Hill’s St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church formed the company to perform Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Medium and Barber’s A Hand of Bridge in a rather funky, renovated church on Potrero Hill named Goat Hill Music Hall. Over the next few years, the company performed two other operas by Menotti. Weill’s Threepenny Opera, Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, and several operas by Mozart.

Unfortunately, in April 2003, Goat Hall’s days as a performing venue came to an unceremonious end after a woman fainted during a performance. When the fire department arrived, they discovered an overflow crowd at cabaret tables in a building that lacked proper exits and restrooms. Bye-bye, Goat Hall.

Since then, Goat Hall Productions has been a nomad company, playing in small venues, with 100 seats max, and keeping production costs extremely low. Whenever the venue allows, patrons can sit at cabaret tables and enjoy refreshments. Since 2000, the company has also mounted an annual Fresh Voices Festival of New Music, producing fully staged and costumed works of mostly local composers in one-act or excerpted form. This year’s festival takes place July 11-12, location TBD.

One indication of Goat Hall’s success is the location of their next production. ACT has converted their old costume shop into a black box theatre. While they often rent the space to local companies, the also award “residencies” and give use of the space free of charge to projects that particularly interest them. Goat Hall has been awarded such a residency for Seven Deadly Pleasures.

Jasso has set a personal fund-raising goal of $2000 on her individual SingforAmerica donation page. By soliciting support well in advance of SingforAmerica’s March 30 performance, Jasso has done just what Stratmann hopes most of his choristers will do. “The best way for singers to support their organizations is for participating singers to send out fund-raising emails, post on Facebook, etc.,” he says. “Most singing groups and arts groups have no idea how to raise funds. If they come to us and spread the word, they’ll be able to help themselves.”

“SingforAmerica combines the forces of all these local arts organizations to support each other,” says Jasso. “In so doing, we build a stronger community of the arts and classical music in San Francisco and the Bay Area, which is what we have to do to survive.”

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.