I also wouldn't be surprised if Palo Alto's Aurora Singers were the first group to bring a cowboy medley and a Western dance number into the 13th-century cathedral — much to the delight of the audience. We were certainly the first to sing an arrangement of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," not only orchestrated with toy instruments but punctuated by frightening screams.
As we sang the songs of our two nations in a concert with our French compatriots before a sell-out crowd of 850 people, our voices melded into something greater, symbolizing the relationship between two sister-city chorales that has blossomed over six years.
July's 10-day cultural exchange between the Aurora Singers and the Chorale Assou-Lezert from the Albi region culminated in our fourth joint concert, the result of a relationship launched in 2001 through Palo Alto's sister-city program, Neighbors Abroad. It was also the second concert in France for the Aurora delegation, which included 37 singers, plus director Dawn Reyen and accompanist Nancy Lane, and 24 friends and family members.
But it wasn't simply about making music. It was about making friends and immersing ourselves in a very different culture.
On a Sunday morning, along with the daughter of our host family and other would-be bakers, we rolled bread dough into animal shapes. On an overnight to the mountains of the Aubrac region, I was pulled into a folk dance with professionals in colorful native costumes and heavy black boots — giving my husband and others a good laugh and a photo op.
I wasn't the only one pulled into the act. Later we moved into a stone sheep-herding barn, where Americans and French whirled as accordions played, and then we dined on aligot (a regional cheese and potato dish).
That evening, we stopped for dinner in Sauveterre-de-Rouergue, a medieval half-timbered town officially classified among the Most Beautiful Villages of France.
As we visited one spectacular site after another, Dawn Reyen would deliver a deadpan play-by-play: "So. Here are the Aurora Singers on the walls of a gorgeous medieval Bastide (fortified village). ... So. Here are the Aurora Singers on a mountaintop overlooking the Tarn. ... Here are the Aurora Singers in Toulouse-Lautrec's family chateau."
But the visit was more than just singing and sightseeing. It involved the little things that tourists rarely experience. It was sharing an endless lunch in the home of our host's parents, a meal punctuated by five wines, including champagne, and produce from their garden. It was stepping into a small church where a lone tenor who lost his young wife to cancer sang his heart out in prayer.
We also deepened our relationships. A young baritone whom we had hosted in 2005 cut my hair, gratis, and invited us to his home for paella. Later the soprano whom we first hosted in 2001 invited us for a lasagna dinner, where we got to know her husband and hold their month-old daughter.
The concert is always the high point of a choral exchange. But few participants will forget the memorable Toulouse-Lautrec farewell soiree, held in a hall decorated like the Moulin Rouge, complete with professional can-can dancers, a Toulouse-Lautrec impersonator touting the merits of absinthe, and costumed Assou-Lezert chorale members singing 19th-century cabaret songs.
At the conclusion, we Aurorans sang "For Good" from "Wicked," with wistful new French words written by Dawn Reyen and Aurora spouse Francis Courreges, emphasizing how we in California have been nurtured by these exchanges. His wife, Danielle, a soprano who helped translate, was especially moved to be singing with Americans in her native country. Fittingly, our farewell gifts to our hosts were packets of California poppy seeds fastened to bookmarks with the words of the song.
The trip began with a flourish, the day before the Tour de France arrived in town: As our bus from Toulouse airport neared Albi, a motorcyclist bearing French and American flags escorted us to the parking lot where we met our host families. Then too soon it ended 10 days later, as our host families, fighting tears, hugged us as we boarded the buses.
But we carried something away in our hearts. To paraphrase the song from "Wicked," "We have been changed for good."