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Singing for our lives: 25 years of GALA choruses
2008-08-27

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We are a gentle, angry people. And we are singing, singing for our lives.'—Holly Near

By Joan Lipkin

Miami—Imagine a place where you are encouraged to be your best, boldest GLBT or allied self. It's a place where strangers smile and ask where you are from, and where every level of musical talent and performance group is greeted with applause and frequent standing ovations because they represent commitment to music and the courage that it takes to be out and on stage.

Members of the Windy City Gay Chorus at the GALA festival. Chicago Gay Men's chorus during a rehearsal. Photos courtesy of Joan Lipkin/

There is such a place. And while the location varies, it took place this year at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts July 12-19 as gay, lesbian and mixed choruses including transgendered singers met for a festival called GALA. Sponsored by GALA Choruses, an advocacy organization for GLBT choruses, its membership includes more than 7,500 individuals from every major metropolitan area in the US as well as cities in Canada, Australia and Europe. The organization's 150 plus member choruses reach over a million people annually through concerts, community appearances, internet, radio and recorded music.

Ken Haller, a singer with St. Louis's Gateway Men's Chorus, describes GALA as Brigadoon. 'It appears every four years and then disappears into the mist. What I love is that everyone strives to do their very best and yet it doesn't feel competitive. It is one of the places I feel most alive.'

Sign-language interpreter Glenace Humphrey retired last year and moved to Kansas but returned to GALA to volunteer her talents all week.

According to General Manager Arnie Cuarenta, the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus thought it was so important to perform at GALA that a group broke off from the original Windy City Gay Chorus so that they could perform under a new name at the first national gay choral festival at Lincoln Center in 1983. This year, the chorus brought 45 members to perform in Miami.

'The fact that each year new choruses are added to GALA's roster tells me that our voices are being heard. When I used to be a singer, I would sing a concert because I enjoyed being on stage and enjoyed singing. Singing at GALA brings the singing to another level beyond entertainment,' said Cuarenta.

Such dedication doesn't surprise Timothy Seelig, artistic director in residence for GALA choruses and director emeritus of the Turtle Creek Chorale in Dallas. 'You will cry and you will laugh. Most importantly, you will come home a changed person,' he promised the estimated 5,000 delegates.

William Marsland, assistant conductor of the Windy City Gay Chorus, was one of those delegates. Windy City brought 17 singers, musical director Alan Wellman, and an accompanist Madelyn Tan.

'As this was my first GALA experience, I arrived in Miami without any expectations, but left with a renewed sense of inspiration as well as an admiration for what LGBT choruses stand for in this country. I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of acceptance and belonging as I sat in the audience watching choruses of all different sizes, membership, and levels of ability, always unable to resist joining the rousing standing ovations given to each chorus as they finished their program, Marsland said.

'The GALA festivals are an important reminder that what we do as chorus members goes beyond weekly rehearsals and concerts; we are activists as much as we are entertainers, and we are proud to represent the LGBT community in song.'

As documented in Shawn Northcutt's outstanding documentary, 'A Song of Courage,' the GLBT choral movement has been gaining momentum for more than 30 years. Anna Crusis, founded in 1975 by Catherine Roma in Philadelphia, is the oldest feminist choir in the country. In 1978, the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus first performed on the steps of City Hall at a vigil the night Mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated.

According to Roma, now director of MUSE, Cincinnati's Women's Choir who also directs UMOJA Men's Chorus at Warren Correctional Institution, 'Every movement for social change has been accompanied by song and we have now been around long enough to look back on our efforts.'

Over the past 25 years, GALA choruses have been responsible for commissioning hundreds of pieces of music by composers, arrangers and songwriters such as Ned Rorem, John Corigliano, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Holly Near, Robert Seeley, David Maddux, Eric Lane Barnes, Steve Milloy and more to tell the stories of GLBT lives.

GLBT choruses continue to offer something special to their communities. Consider Out Loud: The Colorado Springs Men's Chorus. Just two years old, they have staked out a gay space in the home of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, Amendment 2, military bases and an Air Force academy. Scary and impressive stuff.

And then there are the youth. While Seattle's Diverse Harmony was the only youth chorus at Montreal's previous GALA festival, this year's festival presented several including Mosaic Youth Chorus ( Denver ) , Dreams of Hope ( Pittsburgh ) , GLASS Youth Chorus ( Vancouver ) and Youth Pride Chorus ( New York ) . Under the leadership of Sonelius Kendrick-Smith, a member of the New York City Gay Men's Chorus and president of GALA's board of directors and GALA General Manager Robin Godfrey, the festival generously underwrote the expenses for 75 young participants and their chaperones.

Carol Sirianni, the founder of GLASS, shook with emotion as she thanked the festival. 'Some of these young people are here because they really love music and some because they also really, really need to be here,' she said.

In addition to performances by 134 groups from 28 states and four countries, GALA featured skills workshops and appearances by comedian Alec Mapa, singer songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway and artist activists Bernice Johnson Reagon and Toshi Reagon. And who but a gay choral festival would feature a No Talent Show, sing along with women's music pioneer Chris Williamson or morning disco cardio class.

The festival was also an opportunity to showcase new work including 'Through a Glass, Darkly' a piece by Michael Shaieb about crystal meth addiction commissioned by Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus and 'BraveSouls & Dreamers', a dramatic cantata about the consequences of war by Robert Espindola and Robert Seeley, commissioned by the Portland Men's Chorus.

A time to look back is also a time to look forward. As aspects of GLBT identity become more integrated in many communities, the question arises how today's choruses can remain relevant, continue to develop audiences and attract funding in an increasingly competitive landscape. Continued pursuit of musical excellence is paramount, including exploring a wider range of styles. Racial and ethnic diversity remains a challenge for many choruses as elsewhere in the culture. And reflecting cultural issues of sexism, female composers and songwriters still receive a disproportionately lower number of commissions than their male counterparts.

While remaining steadfast in their GLBT identities, the time is ripe for choruses to also address broader political issues. Mixed choruses—those that welcome singers of all orientations like Jane Ramseyer Miller's excellent One Voice in Minnesota—will hold increasing appeal and youth choruses are key to the future.

There is much to celebrate and still much to done. Let's roll up our sleeves and sing.

Joan Lipkin is the artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company. She is the lyricist for 'The Sage Cycle' with music by Eric Lane Barnes, commissioned by the New York City Gay Men's Chorus. She may be reached at JoanLipkin@att.net .


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