Arts & Entertainment
5 min

From AIDS to ABBA

Canada's first gay choir shares 25 years of memories

A FELLOWSHIP OF SINGERS: 'There is something about a group of men singing together on certain subjects [that can be] very poignant, very moving.' Credit: Noble Kelly

Michael Harper still remembers the day he found out Matthew Shepard had been murdered.

He and a bunch of buddies were streaming out into the cruel, early morning light after partying their faces off at a Black & Blue party in Montreal. It was Oct 12, 1998 and the headlines of the morning papers brought the tragic news: a sensitive, slight, gay college boy in rural Wisconsin had been brutally beaten and left to die in the cold night, tied to a fence by his killers.

So when the Vancouver Men’s Chorus (VMC) sings Randi Driscoll’s Shepard tribute “What Matters” in concert, it resonates powerfully and vividly for Harper. “I don’t think there’s ever a performance I don’t struggle to keep the tears back,” the VMC’s resident choreographer says.

The VMC is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary, which will culminate in a special retrospective performance entitled No Small Feet on Jun 17 at The Commodore Ballroom.

Conductor Willi Zwozdesky who, save for three months, has been leading the chorus since the very beginning, has been reflecting on the early days a lot lately.

The gay men’s choral movement really began in San Francisco in 1980, he says, when a group of men went on a now legendary tour around the US. Some of the founders of the VMC were inspired by a show they witnessed at the Seattle Opera House. When they returned home, they founded Canada’s first gay men’s chorus.

But when it came time to perform in public for the first time, the man the VMC had hired to conduct wouldn’t take the podium.

It was 1981 and “people were very closeted and nervous to come out publicly,” Zwozdesky explains. He ended up being asked to lead the group. The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course by the mid-to-late-1980s, the chorus’ whole experience was coloured by the AIDS outbreak, and many of the period’s concerts were connected somehow to the crisis, often raising funds, or awareness, or both. Ultimately, the disease hit very close to home.

“Some of the guys would come [to rehearsals] visibly ill,” Zwozdesky recalls. The experience of singing with a community of gay men may have helped extend some members’ lives, he adds.

Zwozdesky also remembers how some of the members became unable to perform material directly related to AIDS, as it was simply too painful to deal with.

Then again, the feeling of community that arises from singing about serious subjects can also be a positive, empowering thing.

“There is something about a group of men singing together on certain subjects [that can be] very poignant, very moving,” says Harper. For him, it’s songs about family and identity struggle that really stir his emotions.

“There were times I really didn’t feel like going to rehearsal. It’s raining, it’s the middle of winter, it’s cold,” he confides. But then he would pick himself up, get to the rehearsal, and start to sing. Maybe it’s the whole physiology of singing, the deep breathing and release, but by the end of the night, Harper would feel rejuvenated.

The Halifax native, who joined the VMC in 1994, has had times when he needed a break from the commitment, but even when he has dropped out of performing he has continued doing behind-the-scenes stuff such as designing the programs or stage-managing.

Unlike Harper, Dale Frankin, the president of the VMC, has never missed a concert in 25 years.

Born in Calgary, the 56-year-old originally joined the chorus for a simple reason: to sing. When he moved to Vancouver in 1978, there were no musical outlets for gay men to sing together, so when he heard that a group was forming in 1981, he jumped at the chance.

Over the years, Frankin has sung all over North America with the VMC. He is particularly proud of a 1986 concert in Minneapolis, Minnesota on Canada Day when they sang O Canada; and another Canada Day show in Ottawa with the Toronto Gay Men’s Chorus.

“It’s a real fellowship with everybody,” he says. Though “you can never repeat your first time experience with any of these things,” the memories become more precious as time goes on, he adds.

He, too, stresses the impact AIDS has had on the chorus. By his count, the VMC has lost over 40 members to AIDS-related deaths during its lifetime.

The chorus doesn’t really have a typical member profile. The average stay in the group is anywhere from two to five years, but the VMC also has about 10 members who have been active for over 20 years. That’s an impressive number for an organisation that normally has from 50-75 singers at any given time.

One of the newest singers, and the chorus’ youngest member, is 24-year-old Ryan Fry. He joined last September, looking for a way to express his creative energy since moving to Vancouver five years ago.

The first tenor sang regularly in elementary school in Winnipeg, but after “ruthlessly being made fun of by other teenagers” when his voice refused to change, he gave up an activity that was dear to this heart. Singing with the VMC is like returning to an old love for him.

Though he wasn’t initially aware of the chorus’ history, he has come to realise how “hugely respected and looked up to across Canada” his new choir mates are. Known for its complicated repertoire, Canada’s first gay chorus is held in awe by its colleagues, Fry says proudly.

Fry is also a member of the VMC’s sub-group Synergy, a small a cappella group which has its own concerts and almost always does a number or two in the main group’s shows.

Synergy is featured on two tracks on the new CD Encore, which the VMC released during last month’s Unison festival.

According to Zwozdesky, Encore is a sort of look back at the VMC’s history and is packed with “songs that are so good they’re just never going to go away.” There are chestnuts from the golden age of songwriting, such as Rodgers and Hart’s “Isn’t It Romantic,” “Come On-A My House,” as well as topical material like “What Matters.”

When you revisit songs, you often find new things to explore, Zwozdesky says. “It becomes clearer what the group’s style is, what the group’s tastes and sensibilities are.”

Zwozdesky credits a lot of the chorus’ success to the hard work and dedication of arranger and composer Stephen Smith, who has been a member since 1991, as well as the other long-time members. He says the continuity and stability they bring is invaluable.

This month’s silver anniversary concert is built around the theme of dance. The chorus wanted to do a medley of an artist whose career spanned roughly the same time period as its own history; Madonna was an obvious choice. No Small Feet will also feature an ABBA medley, waltzes, square dancing and, as Fry puts it, other “weird and wonderful things.”

The past 25 years have seen a lot of highlights for the VMC: performing Liszt’s Faust Symphony with the Vancouver Symhony Orchestra, the Chor Leoni Choir and the Vancouver Bach Choir; singing highlights from Hollywood musicals with the legendary Marni Nixon; and performing at the Gay Games in 1990.

But really, it’s the more elemental things that keep these men going: community, brotherhood, and yes, even love. The men develop friendships that last a lifetime; quite a few have even met their partners and ended up marrying fellow singers.

Frankin, who has been there right from the start, plans to keep on singing for the foreseeable future. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time,” he says. “As soon as I stop enjoying it, that will be the time to step down.”