Willow, an a cappella group of female singers, usually performs in small venues — church services, nursing homes and at concerts in support of human rights causes.
But come October, the group’s 20-plus members — who hail from Nassau, Suffolk and Queens counties — will be taking to a much larger stage on Manhattan’s High Line for a series of Mile-Long Opera performances.
“The point of this is to flip the script. We are static, and the audience is moving,” music director Farah Chandu explained as the Willow Interfaith Women’s Choir singers gathered in Manhasset for weekly rehearsal a few nights before heading to the High Line for a practice run-through. “This is interactive theater. It’s a whole new experience for us.”
The group is participating in the event — which involves 1,000 singers performing a choral work recounting what 7 p.m. means to New Yorkers — because its work was known from a 2014 performance in Queens at Flushing Town Hall for Human Rights Week.
“We always say yes,” said Chandu, 51, of Oakland Gardens in Queens. Choir members will sing the same short lyric for each of five nights and perform a reading. The words for both songs and readings are taken from interviews with New Yorkers.
The group is sending 13 singers for each of the production’s five consecutive nights, Oct. 3-7. They’ve discussed how to get into the mental mode for singing for three hours, how to sustain their energy levels and when to engage with the audience, which will pass only a few feet from the performers.
“They told us to look people in the eye as they pass by or stop to listen more closely,” Chandu said.
“Unless it’s Robert De Niro, and then everybody is going to freak out,” member Jana North quipped to laughter.
The bonds of singing
Laughter is a common thread among choir members, who practice each Wednesday at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset. Willow Interfaith Women’s Choir formed in 1998 and performs for the Shelter Rock congregation about four times a year, part of its 10 to 15 annual performances.
North, 65, of Roslyn Harbor, a founding member and treasurer, said Willow grew out of a congregational committee that thought it would be fun to have a place to sing together. That organizing base of eight singers has stayed with the group for 20 years.
“It’s the soft place we all fall when other things are going wrong,” North said. “We know we always have that Wednesday night.”
About half the choir are church members, North said. Willow sings a variety of music, from traditional hymns to “Stand By Me” and Three Dog Night’s version of “Shambala.”
“It has to mean something to us,” Chandu said of the chosen music. “We do a lot of social justice stuff if someone feels strongly about it and we agree. And we sing music from Russia, Bulgaria, Africa. We go for cultural appreciation but not appropriation.”
Members range in age from 26 to 93, with one member’s 17-year-old daughter sometimes joining in.
“It’s wonderful to be with women and sing in a supportive atmosphere,” North said, “and Farah is a terrific leader. She’s been with us through deaths and births and is like our spiritual leader.”
Raising voices for a cause
The group’s concerts support such causes as affordable housing, and charity fundraisers for Darfur, Haiti and Hurricane Katrina victims.
Angela Cesa, 68, of Albertson, now a chaplain at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, has been a member since 1998 — although she took a few breaks while attending seminary, graduating from New York Theological Seminary with a master’s in pastoral studies. “For me it is the service, a ministry to people where music brings a whole other transcendence,” she said.
For those in nursing homes or Alzheimer's centers, Cesa said, “music is a connection people have that goes far beyond words.”
Cesa, a doo-wop fan, also loves that the group sang “Chapel of Love” at her wedding five years ago. “It’s not just singing. We’re very close. These are the people I call on.”
Nance Hinchliffe, 67, who retired in 2011 as a speech and language pathologist for the Port Washington School District, drives to rehearsals from Huntington each week.
“To me it’s been almost therapeutic to have a group of women with similar life experiences — they’ve either been there or they understand. And they sing for social justice,” Hinchliffe said. “We’ve done performances that resonate with me, singing at the Brooklyn Courthouse for new citizens, and singing at a transgender awareness memorial. These kinds of events are right in line with my values.”
Ellen Foster, who joined the group three years after it began when she heard them singing during a service, agrees.
“I love the unspoken mission of speaking truth and peace and for those who can’t speak for themselves, and speaking out on basic human rights issues,” she said.
Foster, 56, of Flushing, Queens, who is a human resources coordinator for a nonprofit, also loves the camaraderie and the friendships she’s made along the way, the physical benefits of singing and the sense of shared values.
“It’s the best thing that I do in my life,” Foster said. “Everybody is like-minded in the sense of being human, kind and caring about the Earth, people and shared values.”
It’s those shared values and Willow’s willingness to always support a cause members believe in, from letter-writing campaigns for Amnesty International to a 2015 ceremony by the Long Island Alliance for Peaceful Alternatives marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, that has brought the singers to the High Line.
A different kind of performance
Willow members will be among the 1,000 singers to raise their voices over the drone of the city. They’re stationed in pairs between 19th and 20th streets, interspersed with solo male singers whose lower voices complement theirs. A cluster of singers is grouped at a wider spot, including a box for one to sit on to rest a bad hip.
Four nights of on-site outdoor rehearsals taught Elizabeth Diller to roll with and accommodate the city’s ambient sounds.
Diller, of Diller Scofidio + Renfro design studio, along with Lynsey Peisinger, is co-directing “The Mile-Long Opera: A Biography of 7 O’clock” in its five nights along the High Line park. The piece was conceived by Diller and composer David Lang. The text was written by poets Anne Carson and Claudia Rankine based on stories taken from interviews with city residents who were asked what 7 p.m. means to them.
“The piece is set in a mile and a half of urban space. Everything that happens around it is part of the space,” Diller said. “We want to create a cloud of sound, but it’s a different experience than doing that in a space where you can control the sound.”
Endurance is key with a 21/2- to 3-hour performance each evening. Performers are working on controlling their voices since they must sing the whole time — there is no backstage area.
“That’s a lot of singing,” Diller said, something avocational singers have less experience with than the professional singers joining the ranks. Then there’s the relationship between the performers and the audience, which will be passing just a few feet from the performers. “It’s very intimate. It can be a little scary for the performers.”
The sound will also be affected by the High Line’s varied environments, she noted, places where seating is sunken, narrow and wide sections, and quiet areas with little street traffic noise. “Some [singers] are in open air and some are in tunnels, where the resonance is great — it feels different, and they don’t have to project as much to get a beautiful sound. In wide-open areas, the audience gets closer to performers to hear better.”
Singers are distributed the length of the High Line, anywhere from a few feet to about 20 feet apart at the area around Hudson Yards, and then 80 feet between singers near the end.
“We’re trying to use that [background noise] as a positive addition to the space — as the city comes into the space more and more, the audience will hear the drift of the previous singer and then leave on those extended notes and head off into the city.” In several places, voices will be amplified to carry better, Diller said.
For Donald Nally, music director, the performances are also about the community of singers. He likes the variations in sound, with different levels of loud and soft, calling it a reflection of the city’s diversity and nuanced textures.
“You can recognize yourself in these stories, and people that you know,” Nally said. “And you can experience them personally because there’s 1,000 people delivering them, one by one.”
Nally, 57, is a professor at Northwestern University and is director of The Crossing chamber choir in Philadelphia. He’s been working on this piece for a year, staging workshops and rehearsals in smaller spaces.
Organizing the event has been a big task, Diller notes. “If I had known then what I know now,” she said with a laugh. “It’s unwieldy and crazy to organize this many singers from this many choirs, but the community outreach has been phenomenal. One of the most exciting things was to see how the [various] practices all came together in this gigantic choir over six months and how they’re sharing the experience.”
Seven nonprofit partners have helped recruit singers and pull this together. Among the 36 participating musical groups are The Astoria Choir, Coro Hispano de Nueva York, Edison Chinese Chorus, Opera On Tap and The Park Slope Singers.
“It’s a big experiment,” Diller said. “I think people are getting it and getting into the experience.” Diller hopes the opera encourages the audience to hear New York in a different way, similar to how they saw New York differently when the High Line first opened. “We’re heightening that experience,” Diller said. “It could be like pearls on a string, each distinct, but it also will weave together and carry the sound.” Organizers expect 3,000 to attend on each of the five evenings.
Those attending should be prepared for a promenade event. “It’s a new way of seeing a piece,” Diller noted. “They should be open to the intimacy of the sound and experience and to the performers. I hope they have a great experience. And comfortable shoes.”
If the rehearsals are an indication, Willow's performances will be more uplifting than tiring, although a bit unnerving. “Having your audience just a foot in front of you …,” Ellen Foster said. “But I think it will evolve. It’s going to be a really interesting exercise to do this for three days, to blend in and have the sound work.”
Key for the singers will be, well, staying on key as they sing, North said.
“This is the first time we’ve done something durational like this,” Chandu said. “It’s a challenge to get into the meditative groove and make it a performance, but once the audience is there it’s very energizing, with give and take as you’re reacting with people.”
To see the Mile-Long Opera
The Mile-Long Opera takes place on the High Line, Oct. 3-7, with timed admission tickets starting at 7 p.m. Performances are free but require advance tickets, available starting Sept. 5. On the day of each performance, the High Line will close early for general audiences. For ticket information, visit milelongopera.com.
The performance starts at 820 Washington St. (at Gansevoort Street) and ends at West 34th Street and 11th Avenue. Ticket holders should arrive 20 to 40 minutes before their reservation time; ticket holders who have not arrived at the security checkpoint at the entry to The Mile-Long Opera’s outdoor lobby space 15 minutes before their reservation time may not be guaranteed entry.
The performance is recommended for ages 10 and up; individuals need to be able to quietly cross the full 11/2 miles of the High Line in about 90 minutes so as not to disrupt the performance and flow for other patrons.
Interested in singing with Willow?
Willow Interfaith Women’s Choir’s Facebook page has current information about the group. New members must be able to read music. Anyone interested in joining the a cappella group may contact director Farah Chandu at email@example.com to arrange to attend a rehearsal and for an audition.