Artist, Be Generous

In which I receive some very good advice: be generous

Linda Bunney-Sarhad is an octogenarian poet who began songwriting after saying yes to Deborah Kavasch when Kavasch walked down the CSU Stanislaus English department hallway looking for an artistic partner for a song of a Medieval French romance. Bunney-Sarhad, who taught English and French, said yes. Forty years later, the two still collaborate today. Their tides have turned from a strictly musical partnership to the multifaceted world of opera as the two agreed to create The Race, an opera that premiered not as the stage performance expected but as a pandemic-era film in 2021. Bunney-Sarhad was 77 at the time.

When asked her advice to aspiring poets, Bunney-Sarhad said,

“Be generous.”

After decades in the business, Bunney-Sarhad is clear that the poet will never grow rich from his poetry. This straightforward advice may take a mental shift for my generation as the internet has created many ways to profit from one’s craft. There are many more publications for the poet and writer, and submitting to them is easier than ever. Writers, musicians, filmmakers, and visual artists can focus on growing their audience in the hopes of landing a book deal, record label, or independent film award.

Be open

Turning away from that path, Bunney-Sarhad recommends a more in-person approach. “You just have to put yourself out there and link what you love to do with the things in your life,” she said. That might mean contributing poems that commemorate community events or anniversaries. It might mean writing poetry to celebrate a special religious feast. Then present the work to the organizers involved.

Bunney-Sarhad did this for the City of Turlock. Exploring the idea of writing a religious poem, she said someone might like it and put it in the church bulletin or newsletter, or a choir director may choose to set it to music. You just never know what direction it could take.

Be patient

Waiting to see what comes of it takes patience. “It’s patience and waiting, and you don’t know what you’re waiting for; you can’t define it. I never would have come up with the idea of waiting for an opera. I just had a passion to write. You cast your fate to the wind quite a bit when you’re in the arts. So much can come out of something if you don’t get discouraged and give up,” Bunney-Sarhad said.

In all that waiting, be open. “It’s really important to be open. If you define what you’re waiting for, you might not be open to the really wonderful thing that’s coming in your path,” she said.

Be open. Put yourself out there. Be generous.

At the end of April, I attended two events focused on their founding. At the Hughson Fruit and Nut Festival, the Chamber of Commerce chooses an honoree each year to celebrate during the opening ceremonies. This year they honored Marie Assali, co-founder of the festival, which began in 1988. Pastor Ernie Spears and then-Mayor Dave Spears volunteered Assali to help them raise $50,000 to build a community center. She did not initially want to do it, but for the sake of the relationship, she consented. The event raised $53,000 and was so successful that the team, at the City’s request, brought the festival back as an annual tradition in 1990. Assali believes much of its success comes from the way it supports local non-profit organizations and brings the community together.

The next day, Opera Modesto held its 40th Anniversary Gala and celebrated the vibrancy of the program in Modesto. “Opera is alive in Modesto!” Artistic directors Roy Stevens and Analisa Winberg said. The program gave a detailed and loving perspective of its founding in 1983 as Townsend Opera Players by Erik “Buck” Townsend (1936-2008). Townsend wanted to build a professional opera company in Modesto and educate youth along the way. Stevens and Winberg, along with the many speakers of the evening, reminisced about Townsend’s impossible dream. Townsend’s wife, Erika, explained he was a Don Quixote of sorts, and you could not tell him “no” or “can’t.”

Photo Credit: David Schroeder

Five years ago, the struggling Townsend Opera Players rebranded as Opera Modesto, signaling a shift in its path. Since then, the program has stabilized, grown and diversified, attracting students for the Summer Opera Institute from all over California and international performers for their main stage and Story into Song operas.

Be open. Put yourself out there. Be generous.

What would have happened if these players were focused only on building an audience for one?

What would have happened if they had required professional-level compensation instead of volunteering from the beginning?

What would have happened if they were focused on “out there” and the big, official world of national or international recognition instead of looking in their backyard for their project?

Bunney-Sarhad taught at CSU Stanislaus for decades.

Marie Assali worked with her husband, owning and operating Assali Hulling and Shelling in Hughson.

Townsend was an international opera performer and gave vocal lessons.

But they also did this.

Be open. Put yourself out there. Be generous. You have no idea the world you can build and just how far it will go.