A Standing Ovation for Maestra Marya Basaraba!
For those of you who have experienced the dazzling 190 voice California Philharmonic Chorale, you may wonder how such vocal magic happens. Behind this great choir is a brilliant and tireless woman, Mary Lou Basaraba, known to the California Philharmonic community as Marya, Resident Chorus Maestra. As Ms. Basaraba's career as an operatic soloist skyrocketed, a friend and conductor suggested that "Mary Lou" sounded too much like a country singer. Thus, being of Ukranian heritage, the opera Impresaria chose "Marya", the Slavic version of Mary, as her stage name.
Born in a northern mining town in Canada, Mary Lou relocated several times during childhood. Her father, a depression era farm kid was the first in his family to attend university eventually working his way towards upper level management as a chemical engineer at the head office of his company in Montreal.
Mary Lou did not grow up in a musical environment, but upon noticing the neighbors receiving piano lessons, begged her mother for lessons as well. When she was 9 years old, the family moved to Montreal, her parents acquired a piano and Mary Lou started her piano lessons at the local convent with a very strict nun, who embraced the stereotypical old school disciplinary tradition of slapping a ruler on a student's hands. After two years of enduring such rigid instruction, Mary Lou began lessons with a new teacher, Rita Barg, who taught in the basement of the family church. By the time Mary Lou was 12 years old she was already assigned by Ms. Barg to teach other students, as well as being given the rare responsibility of directing the children's church choir.
This exceptional opportunity set a pattern of doors opening to favorable experiences in Mary Lou Basaraba's life. As her family had high standards it was just expected of her to walk through the doors presented. Her father's main interest was sports, so Mary Lou followed suit, pursuing downhill skiing and, becoming a top level swimmer and coach at the nearby and, only indoor Olympic Aquatics facility in Canada where she was on the first women's water polo team in the country, made up of the female lifeguards and trained by the coach of the men's Olympic team.
Graduating from high school at age 16, she debated whether to major in Physical Education or Music, but her piano teacher persuaded her to attend McGill University to study music education, keyboard and choral conducting. Though Mary Lou was somewhat of a jock, in her army fatigues and combat boots, she nevertheless found herself in the music world full time which introduced her to the Bohemian life-style, living with friends, earning her keep by teaching swimming lessons, life-guarding, playing piano for ballet classes and musical theater, and even cutting hair. She had a knack for knowing how to trim the wild tresses of campus jazz cats and alternative musicians in a hip fashion, and so was sought after as a stylist as well.
It was her choral conducting professor, Wayne Riddell, who hired her at age 16, as a paid chorister at the Church of St Andrew and St Paul, starting her career as a singer. Within two years, she joined the opera studio at McGill. At age 18, the trailblazing young Ms. Basaraba sought out student government becoming the first female Student Senator in the history of the century old university.
This wasn't the only glass ceiling she was to break. After finishing her university studies in Music Education and backpacking through Europe, she found herself becoming one of the first female broadcasters in Canada. She also continued working as an actor and singer in Montreal, eventually moving to Los Angeles, with her then husband, conductor Clyde Mitchell, who to this day remains a trusted colleague and friend.
After only 2 weeks in Hollywood, a town most people spend a life time trying get a break in, Mary Lou landed the continuing role of Judy Mercier on the T.V. series "Lance et Compte", also known as "He Shoots, He Scores". Filming in Canada and Switzerland in both English and French, her character was developed as "the Diva from Geneva" and, Mary Lou had the pleasure of singing on the stage of the Grand Theatre de Geneve during one episode.
While working as an actress, commuting between LA, Montreal, Toronto and Europe she continued her music studies, singing as a guest artist at the Cal State Long Beach and U.S.C. opera studios and training under renowned soprano and vocal teacher Shigemi Matsumoto. Mary Lou accredits Shigemi, "the epitome of the beautiful, glamorous opera diva", for helping her reach the "full potential" of her voice, launching Marya's career as an acclaimed opera, oratorio and symphony orchestra soloist. She has performed with the San Diego, Victoria, Texas, Vancouver, Newfoundland, West Coast, Montreal , Torrance, Marina del Rey/Culver City, Rio Hondo, Bellflower, Los Angeles Doctors, San Bernardino, Pacific Palisades, Inland Empire and Channel Island Symphonies; the Strauss Symphony of America and the the San Fernando Valley, Antelope Valley and Riverside Master Chorales, the Tudor Singers and Le Studio Ancienne de Montreal, the Toronto Operetta Theater, L'Opera de Montreal, L'Opera du Chambre de Quebec, Bel Canto Opera, Mukungwha Opera, Arizona Opera, Nevada State Opera, Opera East (Nova Scotia), Santa Clarita Light Opera, Redlands Bowl Festival Opera and the Long Beach Opera.
All the while, working as a television star, section leader in church choirs and operatic singer, Ms. Basaraba never forgot her roots as a choral conductor, nor did her colleagues.
In 2008, opera star Suzanna Guzman, who was engaged to sing a Beethoven Ninth Ode to Joy with the Cal Phil, phoned Marya, explaining that the organization was in sudden need of a choral conductor. "You are the only person in LA who can put a good chorus behind me on such short notice," Ms. Guzman stated. Thus began Maestra Basaraba's tenure with the Cal Phil, creating, nurturing and delivering a spectacular 190 voice choir for yet another Beethoven Ode to Joy in August 2018 from a roster of 400 singers, some of whom come from as far as Reno, Nevada to perform with the chorale, scheduling their entire summer plans around Cal Phil concerts.
"Victor's programming is radically different and unexpected," she professes, describing how performing The Little Mermaid Suite and Beethoven's 9th in one program really gives the choral singers an opportunity to stretch and sink their teeth into varied repertoire. She also appreciates that Maestro Victor Vener consults her not only regarding repertoire, but soloists as well, allowing her to contract many of the guest artists.
Now that she has turned her focus towards conducting and vocal coaching she finds herself in the role of mentor and facilitator. And, just as doors had been opened for her throughout her career she is in a position to open doors for hundreds of singers in Southern California from students to professionals, to those who just want to sing. She also serves as the Director of Music Minstries at Grace Lutheran Church, Chorus Master at Temple Akiba and, Resident Chorus Maestra of the Golden State Pops Orchestra.
"Singing is the voice of the soul speaking," she proclaims, "and to each of my choir members," (she knows each one of them personally) “I say 'it is meaningful to me that you come to sing for me....I see you.'" And because of Maestra Marya Basaraba, audiences and fans of the Cal Phil not only get to see the spectacular Cal Phil Chorale but to experience their glorious sound.