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July 6, 2006
RICHARD J. ROSENDALL
Singing loud and proud for 25 years
On June 25, I stand in the Grand Foyer of the Kennedy Center before the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s silver anniversary concert featuring Broadway legend Barbara Cook. Mingling in the crowd are many others who remember June 18, 1981, when the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus stopped here on its historic national tour, just two weeks after the first news reports of a mysterious disease that was killing gay men.
Here we are, survivors, thinking back on a remarkable quarter century. In 1981, an appearance by an openly gay group at a premier concert hall was unprecedented. Now the D.C. chorus, whose birth was inspired by the visitors from San Francisco, has sung for presidents and even (on tour in Stockholm) received roses sent by the Queen. I haven’t sung with the chorus in several years, but I still feel the thrill of creation and the musical fellowship from a long stream of tours and festivals that introduced me to a dozen cities and to countless friends throughout the network of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses.
These reunions always bring a rush of memories: The programming battles between “good time girls” and “serious music queens.” Singing “Sometimes When We Touch” in the show Heart Strings, with the stage curtain made of panels from the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. The scar on the back of my thumb from an AIDS vigil at the Lincoln Memorial, when the paper cup holding my candle burst into flame as Liza Minnelli chattered on about herself. The Amsterdam chorus soloist who surprised us with an onstage striptease. Our careful diction in Norman Scribner’s “Ode to St. Cecilia” (the patron saint of music), in which “her sacred organ’s praise” can sound like “her sacred organ sprays.” Our 1995 Pride concert featuring three women’s choruses and a lesbian comic, which ran so late that concertgoers raced up the aisles at the end to get to the subway before it closed.
The memory tour continues to New York City in 1984, when, encountering anti-gay demonstrators across from St. Patrick’s Cathedral during the Gay Pride parade, we started singing “Family” from Dreamgirls.
To Minneapolis in 1986, at a late-night small-ensemble concert in a hotel ballroom, when Seattle’s Emerald City Volunteers sent a large beach ball into the crowd during their “Christmas in Hawaii” number and crystal went flying as the ball crashed into the chandelier.
To Seattle in 1989, when one chorus sang “Salve Regina” from Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, in which the nuns’ voices go silent one by one as they march off to the guillotine. Each time the synthesizer played the sound of the blade falling, a few more singers left the stage. It was a brutal but powerful metaphor for AIDS.
To Tampa in 1996, when one group introduced itself as specializing in “serious men’s choral music,” and then performed an atonal atrocity called “Epitaphium Holocausti Victimorum.” You should have seen the people run for the exits after that painfully dissonant piece, which apparently was intended to recreate the Holocaust aurally. During the middle of it, a friend whispered to me, “I would love it if they suddenly stopped, turned their folders upside down, and sang ‘Embraceable You.’” I had to struggle so hard to suppress screams of laughter that I thought snot would come out of my ears.
The first member of my chorus to die of AIDS was Gary Johnson, a few days before our 1984 Pride concert. Years later, chorus veteran Bob “Wanda” Wonneberger told of then-chorus president Craig Bowen’s visit to Gary in the hospital. He went over to his bed and kissed him, and Gary started crying. His previous visitors had all been too frightened to kiss him. Wanda recounted this story at Craig’s memorial service in 1993. Now Wanda is gone too. Thinking back on all my fallen friends, their causes of death hardly matter any more.
For me, the best summary of why we sing was offered by then-director Jim Holloway in accepting the Mayor’s Arts Award for the chorus in 1989: “Many musical groups share our love of the art, but few groups make such a powerful statement by the very fact of their existence. I remember an occasion a couple of years ago when we were invited to perform at a special remembrance of Martin Luther King, Jr., at the National Theatre. I remember the boos and hisses from the audience as we entered the stage. I don’t remember what we sang, but I do remember what it felt like to offer my best even in the face of rejection. And then an amazing thing happened. That same audience was applauding, cheering, and were on their feet in an ovation. What was proven then is so today: Washington has a heart big enough for all its people. We all have the right to sing.”
More than twenty years after that breakthrough moment, we are holding an after-concert party in the Watergate Hotel across from the Kennedy Center. A shy-looking young man is sitting alone by the wall, so I introduce myself and learn that he is 19 years old and an aspiring photographer. He shares none of my memories, yet in his eyes I see many vanished friends. He has just heard a concert glowing with affirmation and artistic excellence, as I did six years before he was born. Another journey begins.