The members of Chicago's lesbian feminist chorus, Artemis Singers, are preparing for their first concert in nearly three years. The show, "Leaping Lesbians! A Celebration of Lesbian Life," features music created by women that expresses themes of queer joy and resilience but also acknowledges the pain brought on by loss, social injustices and the pandemic.
The performance will take place outdoors at the Forest Glen Forest Preserve on Saturday, June 4, at 4 p.m.
"We want to kick off pride month really celebrating our community and remembering that we have a lot to be grateful for, and at the same time, holding the pain we've all experienced," said Katy Clusen, co-artistic director of the show who's been a member of the chorus for about 30 years.
Artemis Singers is a self-directing group founded in 1980 and intended to be a safe space for lesbians to connect with each other through music. The group usually performs at least twice a year but hasn't hosted a show since they were forced to move operations online at the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
"Just being together and singing, even when we don't have an audience, is a feminist act," Clusen said. "There's something about singing in harmony with others that's profound."
The chorus, which typically includes about 25 members, makes almost all of its decisions democratically and only sings music written or arranged by women to uplift traditionally underrepresented voices.
"When we first started, it was empowering to see anyone to get on a stage and say, 'I'm a lesbian,'" said Loraine Edwalds, co-artistic director of the show who's been a part of the group for about thirty years. " As time has gone by, and that's become much more common, more people are seeing the chorus as an opportunity to raise up issues that are important."
Leadership roles are decided on a show-by-show basis and can go to anyone in the chorus, with members of the group managing every aspect of a show's production.
"Everyone has a voice at the table and an opportunity to shape who the chorus is," said Diana Clegg, the president of Artemis Singers who joined the chorus in 1993. "People contribute more than in a traditional choir because we don't have a choir director to give us all the instructions. It's an adjustment and it's not the kind of chorus everyone appreciates, but for those of us who've been here a while, we wouldn't want it any other way."
At monthly business meetings, chorus members decided on the show's themes and then voted on an extensive list of songs to narrow down the group's favorites.
The artistic directors chosen for this particular project, Clusen and Edwalds, then chose from the list to curate a cohesive set list, taking into account which songs best fit the show's narrative. Edwalds said they tried to choose songs that speak to current events and express the feminist, anti-racist values of the chorus.
"We'll tend to bring in music that will teach us something and that gives us an opportunity to share something with the audience they haven't heard of either," Edwalds said.
This year's performance will include the premiere of two original songs, "We Are the New Dawn" by chorus members Hilary Marsh and Karen Mooney and "Sing Lesbian Love" by chorus member Allison Downing as well as a song the chorus has performed for more than 40 years, "Leaping," by Sue Fink and Joellyn Grippo.
The group will also present "Say Her Name," by Alysia Lee, which addresses the police brutality Black women experience, among other songs by BIPOC artists that express themes of self-love and solidarity.
Midge Stocker, the production manager for the show, said she values the community created by the choir as much as she cares about the music they make together.
"We have a different kind of commitment to each other and to the music," said Stocker who joined Artemis Singers about thirty years ago. "We support each other through the good times and bad."
For those like Stocker who've been involved in the chorus for most of their adult lives, the group has become an invaluable support system.
"There's something indescribable about singing with these women, I mean, they've been in my life for thirty years," Clusen said. "It's a group of women who have been incredibly supportive of me and changed the trajectory of where I landed in life. This community is everything to me, from births to deaths, they've always been there for me."
Clegg said she knows these kinds of spaces are desperately needed because new members were joining the chorus even during the two years it was meeting entirely onlinewhen Zoom meetings mainly involved singers getting to know each other and singing with muted microphones due to video lag.
"I feel like chorus practice is the only part of my week where I'm around people whose lives are similar to mine in a very core way," said De-Mekah Victorian, who joined the chorus about six months ago. "I'm able to have conversations that I just don't have with other people because they don't get it."
Anyone is welcome to join the chorus by signing up on its website. New members don't have to audition and are instead invited to attend a few rehearsals as a trial run before becoming permanent members.
"Part of our mission as a group involves educating people of all skill levels, so it's really fun to watch people learn more about music and singing and to see them grow," Stocker said.
For more information about Artemis Singers and the June 4 show, visit artemissingers.org/ .