Staff Arts president and choir director Anne Bolger conducts the group’s version of “O Holy Night” at the Dec. 2 Christmas concert. Soloist Gilda De Marco Melo is at the right foreground. Photo by Mike Mastromatteo

Staff Arts brings out Toronto Catholic school board's artistic flair

By  Mike Mastromatteo, Catholic Register Special
  • December 14, 2016

TORONTO – September isn’t just the start of another school year.

It’s also the start of Christmas season, at least for one group of Toronto Catholic school board teachers and employees.

For more than 40 years, this ever-changing, diverse collection of people in the Staff Arts program has turned out singing and acting ensembles, with the added bonus of relieving a few of life’s stresses.

On Dec. 2, about 90 voices were part of the choir that put on its annual Christmas concert at St. Anselm’s Church in Toronto. It’s just one element of the three-part Staff Arts program. In addition to the Christmas concert, Staff Arts organizes musicals and comedies every year to give voice and venue to the artistic talents of the board’s teachers and staff.

Staff Arts also puts on a comedy in late February or early March, and a Broadway musical in late June. Some popular standards, such as Guys and Dolls, Anne of Green Gables, The Sound of Music, Hello Dolly and The Odd Couple have been brought to life over the years.

As well as providing members with a stage on which to strut, Staff Arts was created to help promote arts and education to the board’s students.

“Most of the time spent preparing for the Christmas concert is not actually during the Christmas season,” said Anne Bolger, president and choir director of Staff Arts. “We start at the end of September. For many people, our concert at the beginning of December is the start of the Christmas season. There is a wealth of beautiful Christmas music out there, so it’s wonderful that this is the season when we do our annual concert.”

The concerts, and in fact the entire slate of productions for the Staff Arts ensemble, have the added benefit of providing a morale boost for many teachers and board employees.

Bolger related that Staff Arts founder, the late Barry Diemert, was always keen to find the right balance between providing a stress-free, enjoyable environment with the “serious work” of producing good performance.

“People who participate in the choir and other Staff Arts productions form lasting friendships with others involved,” Bolger added. “It’s also great for networking with others — sharing ideas about teaching, and learning more about the arts through participation in the arts.”

The choir, which first performed in 1972, maintains a strict open-door policy, with no auditions and no experience necessary. Their members, Bolger said, include those who have never sung in a choir before to those who read music for a living. They are teachers, administrators, librarians and even a chaplain. Some are young, some retired, and one tenor has been in the choir for 41 years.

Current choir members are quick to agree about the side benefits of performing. Christine Kilching is a retired educational assistant and one of the first sopranos in the choir, as well as assisting with the stage shows, from set building to make-up.

She described the Staff Arts work as the “best therapy program” in the world. “It’s a great group of people and they have pulled me up from some lean personal times,” Kilching said.

Peter Zuech, one of the “back row” bass voices, is a veteran primary grade teacher and another member who finds benefits well beyond the opportunity to perform.

“After a strenuous day of teaching, and believe me, the little ones demand a great deal of energy, it is sometimes difficult to work up enough energy to battle the traffic and get to the weekly rehearsals,” Zuech says, “but I’m always glad to be there. I sing bass and the boys in the back are always a pleasure to be with.”

Les Borbas, a teacher at Father John Redmond Catholic Secondary in Etobicoke, gets a special kick out of the Christmas concert.

“While I would never claim to be an expert singer, there certainly are moments during our practices when I am moved deeply by some of our pieces,” Borbas said. “It’s been a musical and a spiritual journey to be part of this choir, and singing Christmas music has heightened and enriched the meaning of this season for me.”

The TCDSB’s Staff Arts team is now working on a Canada 150 (Sesquicentennial) Concert for May 5 and the Stephen Sondheim musical production of Into the Woods, scheduled for June 9-17.

(Mastromatteo is a Toronto writer.)

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