Heavenly Voices from the Barrio and Elsewhere in Los Angeles

This year’s Las Posadas celebration at the Autry, scheduled for December 16, features the Harmonies Girls Choir, whose voices have graced stages as diverse as the Hollywood Bowl and the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City. They will perform classic choral arias as well as traditional and contemporary Mexican songs dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

Antonio Espinal, founding director of Harmonies Girls Choir, leads a practice with soloist Crizia Guadalupe xx (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Antonio Espinal, founding director of Harmonies Girls Choir, leads a practice with soloist Crisia Guadalupe Regalado (Photo by Tessie Borden)

The group of about twenty girls and women, ranging in age from eight to nineteen, is the brainchild of founding director Antonio Espinal, whose musical training has spanned two countries and a cross-​border mix of traditions.

For twelve years, Espinal trained opera singers at Ópera de Mexico, Mexico’s national opera company at the Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City. He later became the founding artistic director of the choir at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels here in Los Angeles before earning a master’s degree in the United States.

He said he hoped for years to found an all-​girls choir. Sure, every choral director’s biggest dream is to work with a mixed choir and an orchestra to accompany them. But a girls’ choir has its own attractions.

“I was attracted to the idea of starting an all-​girls’ choir,” Espinal said. “I like that because when you have children, it’s a different color than having adults. Now, having girls, specifically speaking, creates a different sound. Because when you have boys and girls, boys, when they grow, their voices change. So that doesn’t happen with girls …. The voice changes, obviously. It grows. But it will never change like it does for a boy.”

Espinal has worked with mixed church choirs before. In fact, Harmonies began out of his job as choral director for church and a Catholic school in Los Angeles. But he said that almost from the very beginning, girls from outside the school asked to audition.

“Immediately it attracted girls from other areas, and from the very beginning I had girls coming from Sylmar, from Long Beach,” he said. “Now I have girls coming from West Covina, Pasadena, all around greater L.A., not only L.A.”

Espinal with another of his students who is training as a soloist (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Espinal with another of his students who is training as a soloist (Photo by Tessie Borden)

The group now performs regularly — almost every day during this Christmas season, in fact — and has appeared with Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Phil at the Hollywood Bowl and at the Basilica de Guadalupe, singing Ave Maria during mass. Last year, they also performed with the artist Demi Lovato for the Alma Awards. But Espinal prides himself on giving his personal attention to each singer.

“For me, having a well-​developed voice is not the requirement,” he said. “I basically want to know the girl. I want to see if she really wants to be here. I can tell you, I have had girls who really cannot even match the pitch, what we call tone-​deaf … but I know with my training, and over time, we will fix that. And at that age, it’s not important to do it. As an adult, it’s really, really, really hard. So it’s better at that age, and if that’s really what they want, they will do it.”

Espinal believes training can correct a lack of tone perception, or an unsophisticated singing voice. But it can’t make up for lack of dedication. So he says one of the important things, for him, is to ensure that the girls in the choir truly want to be involved with it.

Crisia Guadalupe Regalado during practice (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Crisia Guadalupe Regalado during practice (Photo by Tessie Borden)

“When I see that it’s the parents, the mom or the dad who want to push, saying the girl really has to be in the choir but the girl really doesn’t want to be there, I tell them, ‘Please, don’t force her to be here.’ Because she will hate this, she will never like it, and anyway she is going to be very unhappy. Better to put her in something that she wants .… I have had girls who were off key at the beginning, and right now I have two opera singers. And one of them had that problem when she was little.”

One member of Harmonies who says she was tone deaf when she first joined is Crisia Guadalupe Regalado, fifteen, a featured performer at Sunday’s Las Posadas celebration at the Autry.

“It’s like a miracle,” Regalado said of her development as a singer. “In the beginning I didn’t really sing that good. I’ve always had the passion for singing and I loved singing since I was very little, but I didn’t know how to sing. So when I came here I started to develop a different voice by listening to the older girls and trying to imitate them.”

Regalado says Espinal from the beginning taught the girls techniques for opera singers.

“All the exercises that he does when we vocalize, they’re more like vocalizations for opera singers,” Regalado said. “It’s difficult, but once we get it, it helps us a lot to develop .… He’s applying everything he learned with the opera singers in Mexico in Bellas Artes. He’s trying to teach us like we are professionals, which is working very good.”

Regalado, who joined the choir when she was ten, sings not just operatic classics like Carmen, but she also belts out mariachi songs like “Cielo Rojo” in her performances with Harmonies. It’s part of Espinal’s philosophy that any one of his singers ought to be able to perform any kind of music.

“To me, singing is one thing,” Espinal said. “But most singers think that they have to specialize only in one type of singing. So opera singers always sound like opera singers. You can see Plácido Domingo, and no matter what he wants, what he sings, he will always sound like Plácido Domingo. He doesn’t change the style to sound like pop, for instance. And that’s fine. He’s Maestro Plácido Domingo. He’s a specialist in opera. Now, ranchero singers only sing ranchera music. For them, it’s impossible to sing high notes the way opera singers do. So what I discovered is that it’s possible to train the voice to do different styles of music, because that’s what it’s all about, is new styles of music.”

In any case, Espinal can’t afford to have Harmonies specialize.

“That is another one of the beauties of this choir,” he said. “It’s not that I could keep them always singing in churches or classical music in concert halls. The kind of events that we are hired (for) require us to sing even pop music, mariachi music.”

Espinal says that kind of versatility allowed the choir to grab the opportunity last year to back Lovato in concert.

“Last year the pop singer Demi Lovato was looking for a choir and they called me (to say) that they needed twenty girls onstage performing for the Alma Awards,” he said. “So last year we were, in September, singing, with Demi Lovato, a pop song. And they know how to do that, how to change their voice to sound pop.”

Below is a clip of the NBC network broadcast of that performance.

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Autry Events · Behind-the-Scenes · Conversations

About the author

Tessie Borden is a former newspaper journalist. She writes about the arts in light of the cultural and political history of the Americas, the American West and California.