The New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus is returning to Santa Fe on March 26 at the Lensic Theater with the state premiere of Unbreakable, a choral piece by composer Andrew Lippa, creator of I Am Harvey Milk.
Aaron Howe, artistic director of NMGMC, says the piece celebrates significant, but lesser known, figures from the gay rights movement. “After he was commissioned to write I Am Harvey Milk, Andrew Lippa caught the bug and has become a great supporter of gay choruses,” Howe says. Lippa created music and lyrics for Broadway productions such as Big Fish and The Addams Family.
The NMGMC production of Unbreakable—which premieres in Santa Fe before performances in Albuquerque on April 4-5—features 60 choral singers and four soloists, accompanied by a 13-piece orchestra. Among the relatively unsung LGBTQ heroes brought front and center in the 90-minute piece are Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams, author Gertrude Stein, Bayard Rustin, a civil and gay rights activist who marched with Dr. King, and Sylvia Rivera, a Latina American gay and transgender rights activist. Soloists in the production will include Lina Ramos, Dianna Hughes, Bill Brooks and Brian Seals.
“It’s described as a musical chronology of LGBTQ lives in America and we’re singing about significant events in LGBTQ history, including the AIDS Crisis and the ‘Lavender Scare’ in the 1950s where Eisenhower decided to fire all government employees who were lesbian or gay,” Howe says. “There’s also a piece about this villainous professor Dr. Charles Socarides, who championed forms of conversion therapy,” Howe says. “The music is very Broadway, very popish. It’s also emotional and communicates relatable human concepts.”
A Safe, Nurturing Space
Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of the Albuquerque-based gay men’s chorus, which has served as a safe space and home for self-expression for the queer community for decades. “In 2020, the most appropriate term is probably ‘queer choruses,’” says Howe. “For gay men, especially, they wanted to have a place to sing the songs they wanted to sing. It’s probably kind of stereotypical, but these were generally show tunes and songs that let them share their love for other men. And they wanted an environment where they would be able to show support for each other.”
He emphasizes that the launch of New Mexico’s chorus coincided with the launch of similar groups nationwide. “Many of these choruses were started in the late 1970s and early 80s and you’ll see many choruses from major cities celebrating their 40th anniversaries over the next few years,” says Howe, who has been working with the chorus for about 10 years, beginning as an interim director and eventually taking on the full-time position.
Howe says GMC participation has held steady at about 60 members over the last decade, although the composition of its membership has evolved, becoming more inclusive.
“We came to the conclusion that excluding people wasn’t in line with our values. In the past I was very wary of that. We now welcome anyone who can sing in the traditional men’s chorus range—Tenor One, Tenor Two, Baritone or Bass.”
Howe explains, “In the past the chorus was gay men and that was it. In recent years we’ve become more diverse. We’ve had heterosexual, bisexual and trans men in the chorus. We’ve also had some trans women whose voices still fit the tenor sound. It’s worked out really well,” he says.
“We welcome anyone,” Howe adds. “This year, for example, we have a cisgendered heterosexual woman in the chorus.”
Other 2020 Highlights
GALA choruses procure donations and sponsorships from people in their communities who believe in their mission.
“When we first started we did all of our concerts in churches, because churches don’t charge very much,” Howe ways. Now, however, through sponsorships and donations, the NMGMC can perform in venues like Albuquerque’s Highland Theater and National Hispanic Cultural Theater and The Lensic in Santa Fe. These venues not only offer more seating, but opportunities for better lighting and production values. “It’s really exciting that this year 2019/2020 Season, we are able to do three of our concerts in the Lensic, which seats about 800.”
In addition to Unbreakable, the NMGMC will present a Pride Concert at the Lensic on June 20. Throughout its history, the chorus also has sung for numerous AIDS events, church services, holiday parties, senior centers, at the annual Presbyterian hospital tree lighting, and with the Santa Fe Symphony, the Zia gay rodeo, Isotope baseball games, the Albuquerque Gay Pride festival, and GALA (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses) festivals in three other states and Canada. The chorus’ performances are funded by a number of sources, including sponsors Long Leash on Life, Bank of the West, Home on the Range (Range Cafe/Standard Diner/Freighthouse), Century 21/Unica, and Talia Freedman & Co Real Estate, as well as though a grant from the Music Guild of New Mexico.
Though most of its membership lives in and around Albuquerque (right now they claim only one member from Santa Fe), NMGMC’s performances covers the state and regional map, having performed in El Paso, Phoenix, Tucson, Taos, Las Cruces, Grants, Socorro, Farmington and Los Alamos.
Howe says 2020 is especially exciting for the chorus because it will be participating in the quadrennial GALA Festival 2020, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ performing arts event, with this year’s festival scheduled for July 4-8 in Minneapolis-St. Paul. With more than 10,000 members, GALA Choruses is the leading association committed to serving the GLBT choral movement.
“We’ll be with so many LGBT choirs from not only the U.S., but around the world. Last time there were choruses from the U.K., Germany, and other European cities as well as one from China,” Howe says. “These gatherings started small and now it is huge. In addition to concerts and recitals, there will be everything from seminars to flash mobs.”If you’re interested in singing, volunteering or providing financial support for The New Mexico Gay Men’s Chorus, reach out To Aaron Howe at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To learn more about Unbreakable and purchase tickets, click here.