After 16 years supervising performing arts teachers in Cobb County schools, Melissa Arasi was starting to miss being in the classroom, making music, so much so she’d fancied starting her own chorus.
As fate would have it one day in 2012, she discovered a former Walton High School student singing with the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus. She sensed, looking at his Facebook posts, that he’d landed in a good place, still doing what he loved, and naturally it warmed her heart.
Arasi clicked on a link to view more photos, and right then and there, she had stumbled upon an ad for a conductor on the AGMC website.
“I turned to my husband and said I think this might be my chorus,” she said recently, her eyes dancing like a crystal ball in a darkened room.
At that moment, the Atlanta Women’s Chorus was just an idea, born by the gay men’s chorus. While it wasn’t exactly a novel idea, it was certainly in line with the wishes of the Atlanta Feminist Chorus when it disbanded in 2009 and passed its library of music to the men.
Anyway, Arasi interviewed and auditioned for the job in October 2012. She was handed the job in November.
In no time, she was rifling through her contacts, reaching out to former students and music teachers, members of the feminist chorus and encouraging them to audition. She whittled the prospects down from 50 to about 38 and in January 2013 began rehearsals.
In March, they were ready to go, performing for the first time at the men’s concert before an audience that was used to, well, men singing.
They were young, but there was nothing in the three-song performance that said immaturity. Post-concert surveys indicated the women not only looked the part, but they sounded good, too
“I think they thought we weren’t going to be very good, but
we did a very fine presentation for our first performance,” Arasi remembered recently.
They had essentially sewn up their place on the Atlanta choral scene.
That was five years ago. Next month, the Atlanta Women’s Chorus will mark its anniversary with two performances of “Rewind: The First Five Years” at Druid Hills Presbyterian Church, in Atlanta, the site of its debut concert.
For as long as she can remember, music has been a part of Arasi’s life.
“My parents bought a piano before they bought a TV,” she said. “They and all three girls sang at church. I was 5 or 6 when I sang my first solo at church. That was just what you did.”
A self-described “little country girl,” she was born and raised in Cherokee County. Performing extended from Bascomb United Methodist Church to Etowah High School, where she was a member of the band, first as a flag girl and then as a bassoon player.
But singing was her passion and it showed. In the summer of her junior year, Arasi’s voice earned her a place in the Governor’s Honors Program. And when she auditioned for a spot at Shorter College, then considered a music school mecca, she earned a scholarship.
In 1987, Arasi earned a bachelor of arts degree in music and a job with the Cobb County schools, teaching music part time at Lewis Elementary and Walton High in Cobb. After one semester, she was hired full time at Walton to build its choral program.
Within two years, chorus was booming. Arasi loved connecting with her students. She joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and enrolled at Georgia State to pursue a master’s degree and then a Ph.D.
In 2001, Arasi left Walton to become the supervisor of performing arts in the district’s central office. By then, the program had grown from 50 students to more than 250.
She retired from Cobb last year after nearly 30 years only to return to the classroom and music last summer at Reinhardt University as coordinator of music education.
Now as she looks back on the past five years with the Atlanta Women’s Chorus, it’s hard not to pinch herself.
“It’s a special place,” Arasi said. “Women can really be rough on each other, but this is such a warm, welcoming, accepting group of women.”
Members range in age from 23 to 65. Some are stay-at-home moms, but the vast majority work. One is a Methodist minister. Some are teachers. Some are attorneys or corporate recruiters. All of them enjoy singing.
But, according to Arasi, their performances have never been just about singing to audiences. It’s about providing an experience.
“That’s been the greatest joy of this group,” she said. “We want to share what we feel and pull our audience in. The days of standing and singing are pretty much over. It still happens, but because of the world we live in, if we were to never move and only do classical music, I don’t think we’d have much of an audience.
“For us, our mission is changing hearts and minds. If you’re not doing things to engage them, you’re missing the mark now. Audiences want to feel a part of something. It’s much more of a collaborative and inclusive process.”
Sometimes that has meant inviting audience members to the stage to dance to Celtic music. And other times, adding videos to illustrate the seasons of the year as the choir sang “Follow the Sun.”
“It’s really kind of cool if I say so myself,” Arasi said, her eyes twinkling again.
“Rewind” promises to give us a little bit of all of that, drawing favorite songs from the past five years’ concerts.
But don’t forget “Rewind” is no more just about singing than are Arasi and her 70-voice choir.
It’s about making connections. You’ll have to see it to believe it.
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“Rewind: The First Five Years”
2 and 8 p.m. Feb. 17. $30 from Jan. 20 through Feb. 16 for adults; $35 at the door: $15 for children. Druid Hills Presbyterian Church, 1026 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta. www.voicesofnote.org/awc/.