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There is great joy in the War Memorial Opera House this week — mighty San Francisco Opera has struck a home run in the 26th annual Webby Awards.
“In Song,” the opera company’s five-episode series of free online videos featuring a culturally diverse lineup of singers telling intimate stories, with music, about the origins of their careers and their commitment to their art, has won the 2022 Webby People’s Voice Award. In doing so, the series bested competitors such as National Public Radio and SoundCloud by garnering the most online votes cast between April 5 and 21 for what the New York Times has dubbed “the internet’s highest honor.”
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Hosted by the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, the Webbies have honored the best of what the internet has to offer since 1996. The People’s Voice portion of the awards set a record this year, with some 500,000 users casting more than 2 million votes for their favorite videos, podcasts, websites, games, apps and other categories.
Launched in March 2021 in collaboration with the New York-based arts media company Lumahai Productions, the Opera’s “In Song” series was filmed in locations as diverse as Nashville, Tennessee, and Cairo, Egypt. Though each episode is less than 20 minutes long, as a whole, they offer viewers not only a display of these singers’ immense talents but also some keen insights, through touching anecdotes or snippets of their interactions with other performers, into what motivates them.
It took us first into the life of African American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, raised in Washington state by parents who moved there from Georgia and Maryland specifically in search of a new home where they would find more freedom to raise a family. We see how family and church influenced her, hear her profess that in singing, “what I’m doing is what my soul is feeling,” and are treated to both spirituals and German lieder.
Next up was an eye-opening session with the great Samoan tenor Pene Pati, seen in the joyful company of friends and family in New Zealand, who confessed that as a kid, he found music “so embedded in our culture, I thought everybody sang.” His musical excerpts included both traditional Samoan music and Italian songs.
The third “In Song” artist was mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, who described her upbringing in rural Georgia and her first experiences with classical music as a “rebellious” teenager, but returned to her roots here in collaboration with banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, winner of 15 Grammy Awards. Together they play both music by Henry Purcell and traditional Appalachian folk ballads, in an episode made in partnership with the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
An ebullient Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz was up next, shown in Miami rehearsing the young members of a fledgling mariachi band and declaring that, though singing was an everyday part of his life as a child, “it was never presented as a possibility for a job!” He also talked about the “serenata,” a sentimental, funny and utterly poignant tradition of how a marriage proposal is undertaken in Mexico. Spanish and Italian songs, as well as mariachi music are in the episode, co-sponsored by the Mexican Consulate General in Miami and the Mexican American Council.
We were transported thereafter to Cairo, where Egyptian-born soprano Amina Edris, surrounded by her party-loving extended family and friends, talked about the influence of her oud-playing uncle, who exposed her to both Arabic music and the thrilling singing of opera star Maria Callas. Her musical excerpts included both French art songs and Egyptian popular songs.
All five of the “In Song” videos are still available, for free, on the Opera’s website, https://www.sfopera.com/insong, and on its YouTube and Facebook channels, along with more content and conversations between the artists and director Elena Park of Lumahai Productions.
Later this summer, the Opera will mount a sixth “In Song” episode, featuring young Chinese soprano Meigui Zhang, a former Merola Program singer who will make her main-stage SF Opera debut in the revival of Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s “Dream of the Red Chamber” running June 14-July 3.