by Nick Gurovic

Their name suggests concerts at iconic world venues, glamorous outfits and glitzy receptions. But while these may not be the norm for the Bayside Divas, a community choir based in the Brisbane seaside suburb of Sandgate, the outfits can still be super glam and outrageous!!

For more than 18 years, this lively choral group has offered nearly 300 women from all walks of life opportunities to sing and share the love of music and friendship.

The choir began in 2003 as a mixed group called Musical Chairs. “It soon became obvious that the women were more committed members, so the project evolved into a women’s choir, and in 2004 it was rebranded as the Bayside Divas,” Divas co-ordinator Suzan Pekol says.

Despite small numbers in the early years, the incredible enthusiasm of the initial members who rehearsed at St Margaret’s Anglican Church, Sandgate, meant the choir had a very promising future. There was some movement of conductors to start, but the choir really blossomed when renowned musician and composer, Sandra Milliken, became Musical Director in early 2007.

Suzan joined the choir in 2005. She recalls the dramatic surge in singing standard and enjoyment once Sandra was directing the group. “The path wasn’t easy, but we can say that from 2007, when Sandra became our Musical Director, things really took off,” she notes.

Christine Reed, the choir’s Concert Coordinator and member since 2013, points out that Sandra’s in-depth knowledge and experience in choral music composition, arrangement and conducting has really helped the choir go from strength to strength.

The Divas’ motto is “In voice, we rejoice” – and the group strives for excellence in performance with a repertoire that includes a wide variety of musical styles – from classics, musical theatre, folk, jazz, world music and pop.

Making beautiful music is a process and while members have different tastes in music, they have presented many wonderful concerts under Sandra’s baton. Unlike other choirs with a long history and traditional repertoire, the Divas are open to a broad range of musical genres – for example, songs related to award-winning movies. At their May concert, the Divas even added “Bollywood” music to their style-sheet with their rendition of the up-beat Jai Ho from the celebrated movie Slumdog Millionaire.

A visit to the choir’s YouTube site, will showcase many video recordings of the group. There is, among others, Shallow, one of the hits from the recent remake of the A Star is Born movie. I believe Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga would greatly enjoy the interpretation of the ladies from a once sleepy Brisbane seaside suburb.

The past few COVID years have been incredibly difficult for arts organisations all over the world. During the long weeks of quarantine, music lovers and performers have been depending more than usual on digital technology.

Covid was quite dramatic for the Divas, as it was for many choirs. “In 2020 we didn’t get together for six months. However, we tried to stay connected via Facebook. By the end of that year, we restarted rehearsals while maintaining all the social distancing rules,” Christine explains.

According to Suzan, the 2021 year was easier. “It was a bit of a stop and start approach, but we kept going, and at the start of 2022, we introduced Zoom rehearsals for those who couldn’t attend due to illness or other reasons, and we sometimes had up to 20 Divas online, and 20 in the actual hall where we practise. But now we are getting back to full swing with physical rehearsals, which we love because we’re a very social group,” Suzan adds.

The choir practises on Wednesday nights at the Sandgate Senior Citizens Hall and often performs at the heritage Sandgate Town Hall, which has superb acoustics.

Members – both soprano and alto – are supported to learn their parts via the use of recorded tracks uploaded to DropBox – a very handy learning tool if they can’t make a rehearsal.

“All this demonstrates our willingness to keep working,” says Christine. “Our concerts though are often community events, supporting festivals and cultural events and we enjoy performing concerts at retirement villages.”

The Divas are now liaising with 4MBS to explore how they can contribute to the Silver Memories program, with a concert at the 4MBS studio on 23 October this year. Talking about the future, Suzan and Christine are quietly cautious, as plans can be postponed if there are Covid outbreaks and consequent restrictions.

“Next year we are hoping to do a bit of travelling, to get involved with choral festivals in Melbourne and Hobart,” says Suzan. “And for 2024, when we celebrate our 20th anniversary, we will come up with fresh ideas to mark that special milestone.”

While preparing to leave 4MBS Performance Studio Christine adds, ”Meanwhile we continue to work to keep the Divas connected, to allow them to share the joy of singing, to cherish our community and to support the longstanding friendships the choir fosters.”

This article originally published in 4MBS Classic FM Program Guide August 2022.

The Divas will be performing at a number of local community Christmas events in December 2022 – check back soon and follow us on Facebook for further details!