Singing for the Pope in DC

Diana Saez on teaching pronunciation when the Pope is listening

On the first leg of Pope Francis' historic visit to the United States, an elite choir of 90 singers assembled from across the region will lift their voices to celebrate Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.

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Being chosen to participate is a great honor - singers were selected from a pool of 330 applicants at 15 auditions, and choristers cannot miss a single rehearsal, or they will be replaced by someone on the waiting list. Among them are elementary school music teachers, local choir directors, members of the clergy, and singers in parish choirs.​ They have never sung together as a group, and many have never met. The Archdiocesan Papal Mass Choir - as it has been named - is expected to perform for an estimated 25,000 worshippers.

Diana Saez, founder and artistic director of the DC-based Latino chorus Cantigas, was called upon to teach pronunciation for the service's choral music, much of which will be sung in Spanish, Pope Francis' native language. Diana shared a few reflections on preparing the chorus for this monumental event.

Q: Are you singing with the group as well, or are you just teaching pronunciation?

A: The Mass will be spoken and sung mostly in Spanish and I was invited to coach the Papal Mass Choir with Spanish pronunciation.

Q: What’s it like to teach a group that has never sung together before, and collaborate with a new conductor?

A: I felt very honored and happy when Tom Stehle, Director of Music Ministries for the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle in Washington, DC and Music Director of the Archdiocesan Papal Mass Choir, invited me to coach the choir with their Spanish pronunciation.  The singers worked very hard and they were 100 % engaged. I tried to give them ‘tricks’ to make their pronunciation sound as if it was their first language. For example, vowels are never pronounced with a diphthong. A Spanish speaker would never pronounce Jesus as Hey-soos, but rather Heh-soos. Or if you want the letter ‘d’ to sound like a native Spanish speaker, you should pronounce it like a ‘th’ in English.

Q: What personal and/or spiritual significance does this event hold for you?

A: I feel great respect and admiration for Pope Francis, as a man and world religious leader. The fact that he is the first Latin American Pope makes it especially meaningful for me as a Latina.  I relate with his message of compassion, acceptance and social justice, and having helped the choir prepare for this historical event fills me with pride.

Q: Is there anything else unique that you want to share about your experience?

A: When I started working with the singers I told them that my goal was to make their Spanish pronunciation so good that the Pope would think that the choir was a group of Argentinean singers.

Mike Rowan is communications manager at Chorus America.