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.

Story into Song with Opera Modesto

Designing Curriculum for Opera Modesto’s Story into Song

There is a lifestyle in which one is hired at age 24 or 25 and works there until retirement. I know this life exists, but I do not think it exists for my husband or me. Instead, we began growing our family, and with each addition, a significant shift had to occur within the family dynamic. My husband and I are both self-employed in the arts in one form or another. He is a teacher, an organist, a windchime maker, and a composer. I am a housewife, a home educator, a reporter, a sometime poet, a speaker and now, Curriculum Designer for the Opera Modesto Arts Education Program.

Story into Song

It makes sense, after all, writing so long and so often about the Story Into Song Literacy Initiative. I began volunteering a couple of months back to brainstorm ways to create a supplemental curriculum for the initiative. Through SISLI, Opera Modesto performs an opera based on a work of literature. They provide special student showings called reader performances at a low cost and with scholarships when even that cost cannot be met.

When the position opened up, discussions commenced. General Director Roy Stevens split one job into two hiring me for this position and Camille Iorns, for The Arts Education Program Coordinator. Thus each of us can do the thing we are most passionate about.

Time to start designing

I dove into reading librettos, listening to scores, contacting librettists, researching sources and piecing together ideas that make all that information easy to reach, diverse in the style of instruction and something that could both enrich the student’s experience and enjoyment of watching Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Fallen Giant in January 2024. Librettist E.M. Lewis based the opera on “The Norwood Builder” by Arthur Conan Doyle. Then she mashed it up with Jack and the Beanstalk. It sounds wild, but once seen how deftly she pieces it together, it makes the whole idea rather delightful, and I say this as a literary purist.

While I tinker away with Word documents, Iorns will contact schools and teachers to see if they want to sign up a group of students to come to a Reader Performance. The public performances will be at the State Theater in Modesto on January 13–14, 2024.

Prop 28

With funds from Proposition 28 on the table, Stevens hopes to be able to take this show on the road. Already, some theaters outside Modesto have signed up to host a day of performances.

According to Karen D’Souza, writing for EdSource, “Proposition 28 creates a guaranteed annual funding stream for music and arts education that equals 1% of the state’s general fund. In 2023, that comes out to roughly $941 million.”

Schools are still waiting to discover how this will all play out. The anticipation is excellent as teachers and artists consult to prepare preliminary budgets. Any student group, including private and homeschool, can sign up their group for a Reader Performance by emailing Iorns at

Ask your school what they hope to accomplish through the future funds. Voice the arts you wish to see represented.

It is a great opportunity. As the arts were often among the first areas to be slashed when budgets tightened, it is an opportunity schools have very much needed.

Greg LeBlanc interviewed former Poet Laureate Dana Gioia on Episode 266 of the unSILOed podcast. In that interview, Gioia, who grew up in Los Angeles, explained the valuable role of the school band at his high school. He saw it help underprivileged students who may have been more likely to go to jail than graduate, play together and find a place and connection in their life apart from gangs. Gioia described theater programs as avenues for children who may not fit in with other groups find their place and bring those qualities that make them unique to the general public, to be celebrated for it, and build lifelong friendships. I spend the morning interviewing graduating seniors as part of their exit interview from Hughson High School. Again and again, students said art was one of the most memorable classes—the arts matter.

And meanwhile, I’ll be tinkering away, creating reader guides and ideas through the rabbit trails linked to a creative opera. I hope we’ll see you there.

            Although an employee of Opera Modesto, this column was written separately from that work and was not sponsored by Opera Modesto, nor was I compensated by Opera Modesto for my time writing it. The views expressed here are my own.

Finding the Arts in a Rural Community

I‘m always looking for more opportunities and experiences for the arts, whether for myself or my children. And after so many years of searching, it surprising to sit back and look at just how much there is going on where we live.

Shakespeare 4 All

Photo by Deniz Demirci on Unsplash

This will be a new experience for us. For three weeks out of the year I’ll shuttle my daughter back and forth nightly from Modesto to rehearse for and participate in a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare 4 All creates a community opportunity for people of any experience level to participate in a Shakespearean play. My daughter has thus far only performed in home theatrics but loves to memorize poetry. Her little heart came alive when we held our first family Midsummer Night’s Festival at our house. For years, she’s sustained an interest in the stage, and now she is old enough for me to feed that.

Opera Modesto Reader Performances

The Reader Performances with Opera Modesto’s Story Into Song Literacy Initiative mean I can bring my multiple children to the productions I report on. We are already reading poetry and studying music, now they can see poery and music combined, performed by professionals and pre-professionals, including young women like Darby Schmidt who starred in “Annabel” as the titular character. Schmidt is from Oakdale and grew up operatically through the Summer Opera Institute program with Opera Modesto. She now studies at Eastman School of Music.

Homeschool Co-op Classes

Photo by Isabela Kronemberger on Unsplash

Organized homeschool community activities are very important to a homeschooling community, creating educational extra-curricular opportunities for our students. With aging children, I now have one old enough to participate in ballroom dancing. Learning to dance not only ensures a good time at weddings but can help create some really good awkward moments once self-consciousness sets in. Class will be once a week for six weeks.

Art Classes at Carnegie Arts Center

I have three children signed up for classes this spring with the Carnegie Arts Center in Turlock. Those classes include painting, stop-motion animation and print-making. One child reports she would like to be an artist. Another draws dynamic figures at war. We visit exhibits often, primarily their opening nights which offer free admission and often have the artists present and available to answer questions. I relish opportunities for my children to meet working artists to hear what is like and to be encouraged.

Aileen Jaffa Poetry Contest

Contests are important. The thrill of competition comes with the idea that, if I apply myself, maybe I could win. It’s an exciting proposition. Last year my eldest wrote a riddle-poem about our chicken egg basket, my first-born son rhymed his way through a goblin attack, and my middle child played with words sounds in a poem about spring. Contests help us draw up what we’ve learned and apply it in a concerted effort, often with very surprising and entertaining results.

A Cèilidh

A few years ago, gentleman came and washed our windows. While filling his bucket, he overhead my husband’s soundtrack of Celtic music. They got to talking and Mr. Derek Sturke of “I Can See Clearly Now” Window Cleaning invited my husband to participate with a group of musicians in a monthly meet up to play those good ol’ Irish tunes called a “cèilidh.” This last month I came along with the children for the first hour. Nothing quite beats hearing our 7-year-old belt out the chorus from “Wild Rover”.

Whatever my children choose for a career, I hope that the love of beauty and the practice of making the world a more beautiful place will be a part of their lives, however it may look. I hope will be for you, too.

If any of these things appeal to you, check them out.

There are more out there include ballet thorough the Juline School or Central West Ballet, theater at Prospect Theater and Gaslight Theater, Gallo Center performances, plays by the performing arts departments in the high schools and colleges. There is so much to enjoy in our neck of the woods, we just have to dig a little.

And if you find a little something you love, please considering supporting these groups that work so hard.

Many of the educational opportunities are made possible to a large family through the generous scholarship programs offered by local non-profits and teachers. If you have been supporting these programs with your donations, thank you. On behalf of a family for whom it might not otherwise be possible, thank you.

When the world feels dark

The world is a dark place

but as I was reminded today in a Facebook meme, “look to the east.” The sun rises in the east. A new day begins are dawn. When our nights are filled with weeping, upon waking, hope often finds itself restored. The morning looks not so dark.

Life is hard.

Even with things “opening up” and returning to whatever normal is, life will still be hard, only now more people realize it. No legislation, no tax break, no job growth will change this fact. Even if herd immunity is achieved, even if unemployment levels return to pre-pandemic levels, even if the time machine in my neighbor’s garage manages to return us all to a different, better, purer age, life will still be hard.

Only now more people know it.

That sounds bleak.

What do we do with this information?

We can self-medicate, isolate, escape into virtual reality until it passes. But it won’t pass. It will wax and wane, but the world we live in will still exist even after a night of heavy drinking.

We can volunteer, advocate, and work to change the brokenness of the world. While we have a significant impact on our community and the individuals we encounter, the world will still be a complicated, messy place. It cannot be controlled. The seeds of weeds will still scatter, some intentionally, some unintentionally, but we will never have to stop weeding unless we burn it all down.

There are those who want to burn it all down. But then, nothing will be left. No humans to tend the earth, no climate to make life worth living for the humans. It is an ecosystem and one thing depends on another.

What do we do?

We find a new way, a new path, something different than suffering and not suffering, but learning to find meaning in suffering and live even amid the pain. That is a life worth living. It does not have to be perfect or physically complete. It may not even be financially stable. But it can still be good.

Would you believe an operatic telling of Aesop’s Fables inspired these thoughts?

Opera Modesto presented “The Race” on April 9 as part of its Festival @ Home.

It will be available from Opera Modesto until May 9. I wrote about it as news, but now I want to write about the spirit of it.

It is joyful.

It is light.

It is playful.

It is beautiful, both in its naturalistic settings and the unique ability of humans to sing.

The singing is impressive.

The performers are representative of the diversity of the real world, in age and color, harmonizing together.

It has a vision beyond the brokenness and pain of 2020 and the tensions of the present moment.

Because Aesop’s Fables come from an age when we were better equipped to take the world as it is. And because the world was recognized as a sometimes dark place, with wolves in sheep’s clothing or consequences to laziness (those grapes did look good) it was actually possible to learn lessons that could make life better despite hardship, pain, or injustice.

The narrative turns a little darker as the Wolf played by Roy Mendiola peers over at the seemingly helpless lamb played by Lance Mendiola. Photo by David Schroeder.

We could learn:

I have control over my actions.

I can make a decision.

I can work or not work.

I can complain or not complain.

I can boast, becoming consumed by overconfidence in my perspective, no longer allowing for even reasonableness to intrude on my thoughts (should you really take that many naps during a race?), or humbly recognize my skills for what they are. They may be very good indeed, but it is still possible to lose. Not everything is within my control. But some important things are.

One more moral of the story. Overconfidence can spoil a good sport, we learn this and more from the Hare, played by Katie Overton. Photo by David Schroeder.

I believe we need to teach these lessons to our children, and revisit them ourselves.  A lot of things come easier in this day and age than they did in the past, and that is a good thing. But it does mean we have to work a little harder to be reminded that we need to learn these lessons.

“The Race” is a great movie.

It really is what we need in this world. I heartily recommend it as one more antidote against both the doldrums and storms of this age.

Photo by Rosan Harmens on Unsplash

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.