Havre Daily News
With just three choir practices under their belts, three Havre singers nevertheless felt prepared when they arrived in Rome this fall as members of the Great Falls-Billings diocesan choir for two concerts in Rome and one in Assisi.
All three - alto Joyce Pruys and sopranos Dolores Noffsinger and Sharon Ziegler - credited their choir director, Tony Varas, former liturgical and music director for the diocese, with their preparation.
“We got the music in July, and had three practices in Billings and Great Falls,” Ziegler said.
The choir was composed entirely of nonauditioned volunteer singers from throughout the diocese's 94,000-square-mile area who paid their own way.
Inverness native Marcus Jochim, a tenor, was also a member of the choir.
Varas had planned additional practices, but took a position in Seattle in August and was unable to get together with his choir again before the trip, the women said.
The 25-voice choir's lack of practice was offset by members of the choir practicing their music in their hometowns. The three members of St. Jude Parish said they got together to practice when they could.
The choir arrived in Rome on Oct. 4 and returned to Great Falls on Oct. 11. Its first performance was in the chapel of St. Catherine in the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi on Oct. 7. The second was in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican on Oct. 8.
The women said they had every confidence in Varas' direction. After all, they said, he had been a liturgist for 27 years and had taken other choirs to the Vatican.
The Mass in St. Peter's Basilica was perhaps the most daunting.
“We sang at an altar behind the pope's altar,” Ziegler said. “The guy in charge of the organ doesn't arrive until 10 minutes or so before the Mass and unlocks the organ, so our organist had no opportunity to practice on the (large pipe) organ.”
They sang one song from the repertoire they'd prepared for their second Rome concert, at the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles. The women said Varas also had the choir practice a Gregorian chant a couple of times just in case the precentor asked them to perform it.
“Tony warned us that the precentor has the authority to approve and rearrange our program,” Noffsinger said. “He did. He had us do the Gregorian chant.”
Following the Mass, the precentor, who directs the church's choir or congregation in singing, talked for several minutes in Italian to the congregation.
“We were told later that he was very complimentary about our Gregorian chant,” Ziegler said.
All three found that humorous, since they'd had so little practice.
The diocesan choir was formed for the diocese' 100th anniversary celebration in Great Falls in June 2004. It performed again at a sing in honor of St. Cecilia, patron saint of choirs, in Billings on Nov. 24, 2004.
It was at that concert that Varas asked for volunteers to go to Rome to sing and to attend the diaconate ordination of Daniel Wathen of Billings on Oct. 6 at St. Peter's Basilica.
The group's centerpiece concert was its final night in Rome at the Basilica of the Twelve Apostles on Oct. 9.
For that concert, they had prepared an eclectic repertoire of 12 songs, ranging from traditional liturgical music to contemporary Christian songs to four spirituals.
The women credited Varas with working on their tone and encouraging the sopranos to sing softly so their voices wouldn't become screeching in the huge cathedral.
“The basilica is so large,” Noffsinger said, “there's a six-second delay from the time the words leave your mouth until they return to your ears. He said, ‘Don't listen to the accompaniment. Watch my hands.'”
They received an unsolicited compliment from a member of the audience, which they also found humorous.
“There was a professional opera singer there who said we must have been together for a long time because we blended so well together,” Ziegler said.
Though it only had three performances, the choir's seven-day visit to Italy was anything but a sightseeing trip. It was a pilgrimage tour, the women said, so they visited numerous holy sites in Rome, including the four principle basilicas - St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Maria Maggiore and St. John Lateran. They toured the catacombs and the Sistine chapel, among other stops.
They were roused early on their first morning in Rome by their guide and taken to St. Peter's Basilica to see Pope Benedict XVI.
“We saw the pope when he did his audience on Wednesday morning,” Ziegler said. “They rope off the area in the basilica and put chairs out. It's free, but people have to have a ticket or pass to get in.”
They said security was very tight, with numerous security guards in attendance and metal detectors.
“We had a good tour guide and he got us there very early and very close,” Pruys said.
“We got there at 8:30 and (the pope) got there in the little Popemobile at 10:30,” Noffsinger said. “He gets up and talks in several languages.”
Choir members had very little time to themselves, but they did manage to do some shopping while in Rome.
Ziegler said she had some luck haggling with a girl selling scarves in a marketplace.
“She told me they were five euros apiece,” Ziegler said. “I told her that was too expensive. She said they were three for 10, and I told her that was still too expensive, and she asked me how many, and I said seven for 20 and she said OK.
“The only reason I got seven was I work with seven different girls at work,” Ziegler said. “If I'd been thinking, I would have bought more.”
By the time their pilgrimage was over, all three were bone weary and ready to come home.
“We were very lucky,” Ziegler said. “There were 37 on the tour (including family members). We never lost any luggage coming or going and no one got sick or hurt and we only lost one lady for 20 minutes.”
The journey home was nothing like the flight to Rome, which the women agreed went very quickly.
“Our guide got us up earlier and earlier every morning,” Pruys said. “When we left Rome, we got up at 4:30 a.m. to go.”
“Coming back was forever,” Ziegler said.