SF Girls Chorus
Valérie Sainte-Agathe conducts the SFGC Premier Ensemble | Credit: Tim Hamlin

A major project from the San Francisco Girls Chorus is now about to prevail after COVID first postponed and then forced rehearsals to move to Zoom — and then, a year ago, canceled the long-planned world premiere days before its sold-out run.

The difficulties and delays are minor in comparison with the hardship at the center of Tomorrow’s Memories: A Little Manila Diary, an SFGC-commissioned choral-opera about the Filipino American diaspora by Matthew Welch, which has its staged world premiere June 16–18 at the Magic Theatre.

Book cover
The University of Hawaii edition of Angeles Monrayo’s book

The work is based on the University of Hawaii edition of Tomorrow’s Memories, A Diary, 1924–1928 by Filipina immigrant Angeles Monrayo, her biography and reflections on the Filipino diaspora’s impact on America, particularly the San Francisco Bay Area.

Performances will be led by Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe and will feature SFGC’s award-winning Premier Ensemble along with guest artists, including stage director Sean San José, guitarist Florante Aguilar, and percussionist Haruka Fujii. Tickets, from $20 to $65, are available from Eventbrite.

Excerpts of the collaborative project, three years in the making, were presented during the pandemic, including the June 2020 virtual performance of Scene 1 as part of the chorus’s “Songs From the Archipelago” concert and the December 2020 virtual performance of Scene 4 as part of its “Island Holiday” concert.

“The journey of this strong and resilient young woman resonates with our singers who are about the same age,” Sainte-Agathe told SF Classical Voice about the writer of the diary.

“The challenges she faced are also the ones our generation still faces: discrimination and violence simply because they are women or because they are coming from another country. It is powerful to highlight how she overcomes all those challenges and creates a new life for herself and her family.”

Angeles Monrayo (1912–2000) began her diary in 1924, a few months before she and her father and older brother moved from a sugar plantation in Waipahu to Pablo Manlapit’s strike camp in Honolulu.

The family had already moved from Angeles’s native birthplace in Romblon in the Visayas and, after staying in Hawaii, settled in Stockton, California, in a neighborhood known then as Little Manila.

 “Her tale is set as a metaphor for the unique cultural forming of the Philippine American diaspora and also as a mirror held up to our current sociopolitical issues of equality in immigration, labor, gender, and culture,” said Welch, the composer.

The writing reflects a young Filipina girl’s view of life in Hawaii and central California in the first decades of the 20th century — a significant and often turbulent period for immigrant and migrant labor in both settings.

The diary leads into the heart of a Filipino family as its members come to terms with poverty and racism and as they struggle to build new lives in a new world. But even as Angeles recounts the hardships of immigrant life, her diary of “everyday things” never lets the reader forget that she and the people around her “went to school and church, enjoyed music and dancing, told jokes, went to the movies, and fell in love.”

The substantial and illuminating introduction to the book is by Rizaline R. Raymundo, Angeles’s daughter. Granddaughter Patricia An Liston-Abujen has participated in the development of the opera, and she told the singers:

“All I ask, I dearly request, that every young woman performing in this choral-opera incorporate the emotions of innocence and hope they have had in their voices. My grandmother, in her quiet times, had a smile that reflected her hope and innocence to her last breath.”

Matthew Welch
Matthew Welch

Welch told SFCV:

I had been commissioned by SFGC a few years prior with a work for bagpipe soloist (myself) and the Premier Ensemble. Following this, I was heavily involved in research about my own family that had been in American-Colonial Philippines for three generations until internment in WWII Uni Santo Thomas Internment Camp in Manila. I have also been involved in a vast study of Philippine musical communities, forms, and materials on an Asian Cultural Council Grant.

When I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, Valerie wanted to commission me for a new opera that extended both my research in [Philippines-United States] relations and experimental opera.

An opera for a young girls’ chorus seemed quite an inspiring platform that had little repertoire, so my idea for this opera really has no model, whereas previous operas of mine were engaging and disassembling the tropes of the genre.

Personally, for me the diary presents such intimate accounts of personal history, and Angeles Monrayo’s diary is an anomalous artifact very critical to documenting the experience of many other Filipino Americans.

My strategy was to create the libretto from the actual words of the diary — a thread that represents the essence and detail at once and resonates with the experiences of the many. Additionally, Monrayo comes of age in the diary, presenting change and growth to individuation along with a blossoming command of her writing.

The music tries to illustrate both the feelings of a child and the intersections of sound in 1920s Filipino American communities.”

SFGC launched a Community Book Club in December 2021 that included six monthly events, designed to stimulate awareness, education, and conversation about the diary. Each session explored a different theme from the diary and its relationship with the choral-opera and included numerous appearances by partner organizations, speakers, and members of the artistic team.