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Chelsea Hollow Uses Her Voice for Singing and Activism

Soprano Chelsea Hollow is known for her exquisite coloratura arias, but the opera singer and activist actually was born to be a rock star.

Alameda Post - Chelsea Hollow in a red gown
Photo courtesy Chelsea Hollow.

“My mom always says that my first concert was Pink Floyd because she was pregnant with me when she went to see them,” Hollow said. “When she entered the concert, they thought she was smuggling in a six-pack.”

Not surprisingly, Hollow was always interested in rock music. “I played drums and wrote songs with my guitar,” she said. “I still do all that, but not professionally.”



As a teen, she lived in Southern California and performed in places like BB King’s Blues Club, where she belted out tunes with the Kyle Culkin Band. “I mostly sang backup but during the show Kyle would play guitar solos and I would improvise vocal parts in response,” she recalled.

Alameda Post - Chelsea Hollow as a 17 year old singing onstage into a microphone on a stand
Chelsea performing at BB King’s Blues Club in Los Angeles at 17 years old. Photo courtesy Chelsea Hollow.

She also was a bit of a science nerd. “I was planning on going to school for science. I was really into physics,” she said. She went to Moorpark, a community college in Ventura County, where she got pleasantly sidetracked.

“I had taken French in high school and saw that there was a French class, so I took that and learned about Moorpark’s study abroad program,” Hollow explained. She immediately signed up and traveled around Europe with fellow students, studying the classical arts and going to shows and museums and concerts.

“I brought my guitar with me, and when we got back one of the instructors invited me to audition for the music program,” Hollow recalled. “I just thought, yeah, ok, that sounds fun. I had never heard classical music other than on commercials and soundtracks—and I fell in love with it.”

Thus the rocker became a classical music aficionado.

“I think there’s a deep love in my soul for different languages and communication and humanity and history,” she said. “All of those things kind of came together, and then as I started studying, it became very scientific. That was a deep passion of mine. So to get to put all those together, it totally made sense, and that’s how I found classical music.”

She also found her own amazing classical voice.

Alameda Post - Chelsea wearing beautiful gowns and posing for photos
Photos courtesy Chelsea Hollow.

Hollow continued her studies at San Francisco State, graduating with a degree in vocal performance in 2010. She then went on to the prestigious San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where she earned a master’s degree, also in vocal performance. In 2016, she and her husband, a software engineer and accomplished baritone, moved to Alameda’s West End, where they continue to live happily with their seven-year-old daughter.

Hollow has performed dozens of opera roles all over the Bay Area and across the country, including some of the most challenging and complex arias in the entire operatic repertoire. She sings in at least eight different languages.

Upcoming Performances featuring Chelsea Hollow

August 13, 3 p.m. and 5:25 p.m: Dolores preview, West Edge Opera, The Taube Atrium Theater, 401 Van Ness Ave., 4th Floor, San Francisco ¡Viva la Causa! Dolores Huerta is a legend in the fight for farm workers’ rights. In June 1968, the movement lost a major ally and Dolores lost a friend when Senator Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. The opera focuses on Dolores’ struggles, triumphs, and tragedies during some of the most iconic and charged weeks of American history. Chelsea will be singing the roles of Helen Chavez and Ethel Kennedy. Purchase tickets online.

Sept. 8, 8 p.m., Sept. 10, 2 p.m.: The Three Feathers, Solo Opera, Lesher Center for the Arts, Hofmann Theatre, 1601 Civic Dr., Walnut Creek  A magical chamber opera for families and children with music by award-winning composer Lori Laitman and libretto by local poet laureate Dana Gioia. Based on a fairytale by the Brothers Grimm, the opera follows Princess Dora, not as a damsel in distress, but as a heroine. A magic feather leads the shy, self-doubting princess to an enchanted underworld ruled by a giant Frog King. Here, she summons her courage and compassion to face a series of mysterious and comic adventures that change her life. Purchase tickets online.

 

That combination of natural talent and meticulous skill is impressive, to say the least. But it’s not her whole story. Chelsea Hollow isn’t just a singer. She is an activist. In a 2021 interview with Ensemble for These Times, she explained how that change of focus occurred.
“After the 2016 election, I was really lost and I was trying to figure out how being an opera singer made sense in a world that I wanted to support,” Hollow said. “I felt like my craft was disconnected from society, and I wanted to be a more active member. I started to develop this idea of activism in music—of course it’s been around forever but it hadn’t occurred to me. …So I started to put together a program called Voice for the Voiceless.”

Voice for the Voiceless is a curated recital of 16 pieces that celebrate women in different stages of life, from divergent backgrounds and varying social status. The program features music in five different languages and aims to spark conversations that inspire progress and growth.

It’s art music, a sub-genre within classical music, in which a composer uses an existing poem as lyrics. Hollow took that further, using texts from activist speeches as lyrics. The music is definitely classical and could be considered operatic, but it’s not staged as a big production.

“It’s more intimate,” she explained. “It’s meant to be performed in smaller settings. You don’t wear a costume. It’s kind of like a poetry reading, except you’re singing it.”

Alameda Post - a photo of Chelsea Hollow and her album cover for "Cycles of Resistance"
Photos courtesy Chelsea Hollow.

Her debut album, Cycles of Resistance, released on April 21, is an art music journey through international resistance movements over the last 120 years, from Chinese feminist poetry of the early 1900s to inspirational speeches by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

If this sounds too serious for your taste, don’t worry. One of Hollow’s unspoken talents is her sense of humor. In her video, “Non Monsieur Mon Mari,” she combines serious feminist themes with some retro costuming and sarcastic facial expressions worthy of daytime TV. The video is based on Francis Poulenc’s 1947 opera, Les mamelles de Tirésias, in which the lead character, Tirésias, feels she can best embody her feminism by becoming a man. “I decided to embody the feminism I’m free to explore on the shoulders of the feminist movements that gave me my right to vote and use my voice,” Hollow said. See for yourself:

Ultimately, Hollow says, she wants people to see how inviting classical music can be. “There is such an opportunity for patient exploration of difficult concepts, which I think we need these days. News moves so fast—we have information about everything all the time—and I don’t feel like we get to fully sit with any of it and digest it. Classical music, and music in general, gives you a moment to deeply process these difficult ideas and to just sit with it.”

Which leads to a great little story. While she was being interviewed—we were sitting at a table on the patio at Signal on Webster Street—a bird landed nearby and joined us for a few moments. It reminded her of when she was in school in San Francisco.

“We had a little apartment in the Castro,” she said. “If I sang with the windows open at sunset, all the birds around would come into the backyard. It was like Snow White.”

If you’ve ever heard Chelsea Hollow sing, you can easily picture that.

Liz Barrett is the Copy Editor of the Alameda Post and writes about our community. Contact her via [email protected]. Her writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Liz-Barrett.

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