Have you ever attended events in Yuba College’s Theatre? If so, then you’ve probably seen the nine foot Steinway piano used in concerts, plays, and recitals, or the 88 Key plaque in the lobby. Both are remnants of a legacy left by former Vocal instructor of Yuba College, Joaquina Calvo Johnson. Johnson retired in 2002 after twenty-five years at Yuba College, but remained loyal to friends and students she left behind. The news of her death on August 11, 2012, after a year long battle with pancreatic cancer, still has many people at the college and in the arts community stunned.
“The community lost a warrior for the arts and many of us at the college lost a dear friend and valued colleague. Joaquina’s classroom work ethic was fierce; she demanded, as well as received, the best from her students. Her love of music and passion for art was not a nine-to-five job – it was a lifestyle,” says Rick Murai, Yuba College’s Photography instructor.
Teresa Aronson, Event Coordinator at Yuba College and close friend of Johnson’s states, “I’ve never met anyone as dedicated or who loved the music, the institution, and especially the students, as much. If she called asking for something, people would just do it because they knew how passionate she was and how important it was to her, and you just wanted be a part of that.”
Aronson also says, “Joaquina influenced so many people in so many ways by touching lives and making a difference. It won’t be the same without her. Like so many others, I am a better person for having known her.” The emotion displayed on her face and in her voice as she told me stories of Joaquina was so powerful; it made me wish I could have been lucky enough to know Mrs. Johnson.
As an instructor, Johnson led the Yuba College Chamber Singers and the Yuba College Symphony Chorus. She began in the late 70’s with a symphony of merely seven people and tenderly, or not so tenderly depending on who you ask, nurtured it into almost a hundred people by the time she retired. She took them to several statewide contests, often working alongside her husband Howard Johnson, also a Yuba College professor of Music who retired a few years before she did. She even took the symphony as far as England to perform. In 1995 she received a National Award For Excellence in teaching and contributions to music education.
Johnson’s reputation preceded her upon her arrival to Yuba College. She held a B.A. degree in Music from California State University Sacramento, an MM degree in Vocal Performance from the University of Indiana School of Music, and a Diploma in Operatic Performance from the London Opera Center in England.
She’s performed in countless concerts and recitals, with several symphonies close to home such as the Yuba-Sutter Symphony, the Stockton Symphony, the Sacramento Symphony, and the Auburn Symphony. She’s performed in Italy for the Opera Barga Festival, in several places in London, England including the Sadler Wells Theatre, Collegiate Theatre, Mermaid Theatre, and Saint John’s Smith Square. She sang with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in Whales, and also in Germany.
Johnson’s passion for music didn’t stop when she retired; she remained very active in the local arts scene. She was a founding member and former president of the Board of Directors for the Yuba-Sutter Regional Arts Council (YSRAC) in Marysville. She was the founder, Artistic Director, and conductor of the Borgamaria Lyric Opera Company, a program of YSRAC that performed several concerts including the “Got Opera? You Betcha” event series in the Lee Burrows Center for the Arts. She founded, conducted, and was the Artistic Director for the Yuba-Sutter Master Chorale. She received the prestigious “Don” award in 2009. The list goes on and on.
Sara Sealander, Art instructor from Yuba College, loyal member of the YSRAC, and friend of Johnson’s says, “Joaquina was a powerhouse on campus, and instrumental in building the Arts Council. She was tough, but well loved. She stressed self discipline and discipline for the arts. She wasn’t elitist; you didn’t have to be a diva to get her attention – just work hard and take the music seriously. She got amazing sounds from singers because she had high standards and demanded a lot. Many went on to become professionals. She really bonded with people; she had no children but was very family oriented and was more like a second mother to many students. She always had a great sense of humor, as well as a lot of love to give. I think that Joaquina is the definition of a life well lived. She did so much for the community, and had a lot of fun doing it.”
Theatre Technician, Joseph Stottman, who worked with Johnson for several years on campus as well as in the Borgamaria Lyric Opera, mentioned that Johnson ran the Yuba- Sutter Youth Chorus, and also coordinated several choral festivals, drawing in students from other schools all over the state. She brought her students to tour other schools. “Sadly, I think the festivals just kind of died out after Joaquina left. Or they are held at other schools but we haven’t been a part of them.” His wistful smile said more than his sparse words; the affection held for Johnson was evident.
Lily Noonan, former Yuba College student and current President of the Board for the YSRAC states, “I met Joaquina about five years ago when I got involved with the Arts Council. She arrived in the office, impeccably dressed, and told me that I would love being part of the Arts Council here because we had an opera and the opera was extraordinary. A performance was scheduled for a few weeks later and I went. Joaquina was absolutely right (as she always was) and the opera company was magnificent to hear. Her insistence on quality in the arts will remain as a legacy in our community. The Borgamaria Lyric Opera will continue under the artistic directions of her former student, KJ Pereira, and will maintain the highest standard of musical excellence for our community to enjoy.”
In an interview with The Appeal Democrat in June, Johnson was quoted in regards to the Borgamaria Lyric Opera saying, “We are going to be presenting some of the most beloved of all music from some of the most outstanding operas — I think that the community is in for a very special treat. This is a wonderful palette of operatic literature that I know anyone would love, even if they haven’t been to an opera before. This is a very good way to start to listen to opera.”
Johnson’s love of music knew no bounds, and everyone around her felt that. She seemed relentless when it came to the pursuit of what she expected from those around her, and everyone was happily willing to give it to her. Marika Garcia, Executive Director of the board for YSRAC explained that, even in regards to her own memorial service, Johnson would accept no less than the absolute best. She says, “Joaquina was a devout catholic. Former students and colleagues were invited to come sing at her memorial and she ended up with a choir of over eighty singers at the event. Joaquina chose many of the songs that were to be sung, and even went as far as telling Father Loreto Rojas, of St. Isodore Catholic Church, which passages she wanted read. The priest had told her, ‘I’ve done this before, I think I have it under control.’ Joaquina refused to settle for that, and continued voicing her wishes.”
Johnson leaves behind many friends and loved ones who will not let her be forgotten. We now have the “Joaquina and Howard Johnson Music Scholarship” that was recently established in Yuba College. Next time you’re in the theatre or at the Lee Burrows Center for the Arts for an opera event, be sure to whisper your thanks to Joaquina Calvo Johnson, a woman who, even after death, commands and deserves our respect.