Michael Harper was mulling over the idea of a concert commemorating Little Sister’s lengthy anti-censorship battles when serendipity came knocking.
“Janine Fuller mentioned that Little Sister’s was turning 25 and it seemed like the perfect opportunity,” Harper says over lunch at the Davie Village Café. The café is appropriately festooned with photos, press clippings and other memorabilia celebrating Vancouver’s gay history. “So we put it on our list, made some decisions by consensus and started to select songs.”
The result is Voices Carry, a multimedia concert by the Vancouver Men’s Chorus that celebrates freedom of expression and gay identity with music, narration, movement and multimedia. Harper is the concert’s producer and choreographer. He also wrote lyrics for one of the featured songs, an erotic homage to sexual freedom.
The modern-day protest song — more commonly called the folk song — enjoyed a brief spike of popularity during the 1960s. Inspired by Woody Guthrie, whose songs inspired hope among the unemployed and homeless as they sat around campfires during the Great Depression, singer/songwriters such as Woody’s son Ario Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and other artists actually made activism sexy for a spell — and sellable. Today, activism seems to be a dirty word. That makes art a dirty word too, because art is activism.
“I never thought of myself as an activist. I wasn’t really all that into being political,” says Harper, who has a theatre background dating back to his teenage years working for an amateur theatre company in Halifax.
Since joining the Vancouver Men’s Chorus in 1994, he has realized that self-expression is the most potent form of activism. In fact, self-expression is activism. “The main message of any concert we present is to be positive about being gay.”
The Voices Carry program includes a range of spirited, thought-provoking 20th century songs and new, original compositions that express in music what words alone cannot, taking us on a journey beyond gay rights to the core of what constitutes a civilized society: the right to express controversial ideas and protest censorship.
There are plenty of unexpected surprises. The Lavender Song, for example, is a gay liberation song penned during Germany’s pre-Nazi Weimar Republic, a time and a place in which gays, Jews and other minorities enjoyed freedoms that were taken away during Hitler’s clampdown on anything non-Aryan.
Audiences can also look forward to a revised version of Rise Up. The danceable 1983 pop song by Parachute Club was a hit across Canada and swiftly became a gay anthem.
The evening also features an historical video montage about Little Sister’s backed by the chorus, with poetry by Constantine Cavafy and works by Kurt Weill and Cole Porter. Melissa Etheridge’s Giant, One Voice by the Wailin’ Jennys and other songs round out the bill.
The Vancouver Men’s Chorus celebrated its own silver anniversary in 2006 and has been directed by Willi Zwozdesky practically since its inception. It is one of North America’s leading gay men’s choruses. Voices Carry will debut in Vancouver at the Commodore Ballroom May 3, then tour BC with stops in Victoria, Nanaimo and Kelowna.