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A Fiendish Conversation with Seattle Men's Chorus's Dennis Coleman

The departing artistic director discusses the emotional weight and importance of SMC's Legacy.

By Seth Sommerfeld March 16, 2015

Dennis Coleman has been a Seattle Men's Chorus mainstay for decades.

As the artistic director and conductor of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, Dennis Coleman has brought choral joy to our city for 35 years. Considering that covers all but the first two year’s of the group’s existence, it's fair to call him an institution at SMC. Now, he’s preparing for his swan song. Coleman announced he'll retire from his lead position with SMC (and the Seattle Women’s Chorus) at the end of the season. But before he departs, he's readied one last truly emotionally powerful program.

With Legacy, the often fun-loving Seattle Men’s Chorus gets serious to honor the lives of two fallen figures in the gay community: San Francisco politician and activist Harvey Milk and Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. The program consists of two original compositions, I Am Harvey Milk and Tyler’s Suite, which attempt to capture the spirit of these men who died too soon and leave listeners with an uplifting sense of pride. Legacy officially debuts at McCaw Hall on March 28 and 29 (with a preview performance at the Renton Ikea Performaing Arts Center on March 21).

For our latest Fiendish Conversation, we talked to Coleman about the role of Seattle Men’s Chorus in the Seattle community, the beautiful emotional toll of Legacy, and his fondest memories from his 35 years with SMC.

What was the origin of Legacy? How did these two pieces come to be paired up for a single show? 

Over the last two years, we’ve been a part of one commissioning group that commissioned Tyler Suite, we joined with about six or seven other choruses. The other piece, I Am Harvey Milk, premiered two years ago by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and we’re just now doing the premiere of it here in Seattle.

I was at the premiere of I Am Harvey Milk in San Francisco, and it was incredible. I wanted to do it my last season because it’s such a profound musical experience and very important to who we are and the history of the gay movement. I wanted to find another half of the program that could speak eloquently. So we cocommissioned the Tyler Suite. It deals with the suicide of Tyler Clementi after he was bullied, or whatever you want to call it, by his roommates at Rutgers.

Those two seem to really fit together on a program for me. They’re just two flash points in gay history. We’re talking about two issues we confront in the gay and straight world: bullying and an important historical moment, the assassination of Harvey Milk and the work that he did in opening up politics to openly gay people. I think that you can make a case for Harvey for being the inspiration for people like Cal Anderson, here in Seattle, who was the first openly gay state representative. And then of course Ed Murray and Jamie Pedersen, who followed, just to name a few. In 1978, that was the moment when we really began to break into the political mainstream with our civil rights questions. We got that passage of the protections in San Francisco, [and it] ultimately led to Harvey Milk’s death. And then the emphasis, which really began here in Seattle with Dan Savage, on bullying. Actually, Dan says that the It Gets Better campaign really kicked off on the day Tyler committed suicide. So it’s all tied into Seattle and what we do. They’re just extremely important messages.

And on top of that, I Am Harvey Milk is one of the most exciting pieces of musical work I’ve done. It was written by Andrew Lippa, who is a very well-known Broadway composer. He’s not as well known as Steven Schwartz or Sondheim, but he’s had three or four big shows on Broadway and has another one that just opened last week. I Am Harvey Milk is Broadway music in style; I don’t necessarily mean necessarily upbeat dancing music as much as just music that grips you emotionally and dramatically. Though there are certainly some really upbeat moments where the whole audience will be on their feet, I think. Andrew Lippa’s coming and actually going to sing the solo, the part of Harvey Milk. He sang it in San Francisco at the premiere two years ago, and he’s a fine performer as well as a composer. 

So how does that Broadway style of I Am Harvey Milk work together musically with tone of Tyler’s Suite?

First of all, I Am Harvey Milk was written by a single composer, while Tyler’s Suite was written by seven different composers, all chosen for their specific strengths and their commitment to this message. So all seven movements vary in style. Stephen Schwartz, the composer of Wicked, wrote a piece that’s very jaunty and Broadway style. Ann Hampton-Callaway, who is a terrific cabaret singer and composer that we’ve known for years, she wrote a piece that’s a lovely ballad. The opening number is by John Corigliano, who is kind of the dean of American classical composers. Jake Heggie, the eminent opera composer, wrote the final movement in Tyler’s Suite. So it’s varied musically; different styles pulled together, each one is reflecting a different angle of looking at Tyler’s life. It’s all tied together by a solo violin part that goes all the way through the work. Tyler was a violinist, so that’s kind of the point that ties everything together from his point of view.

It begins with an elegy written by John Corigliano, very, very beautiful and mysterious. Just ooohs and ahhhs from the chorus and the violin while we show pictures of Tyler’s life on the video screen behind us. Then it goes into a piece that talks about wanting, as a child, for him to have his own voice and speak as a person. The title is “I Have Songs I’ve Never Heard.” He wants to play. And then it continues on; there’s a point-of-view song from Tyler’s brother and one from the point of his mother, both of whom will be here. So different angles, all tied together with a violin solo.

The other thing about this concert is that it’s a very difficult concert to sing for the guys, because in the first act they’re dealing with all of these emotions which many of them have experienced being gay men. Being bullied or teased or subjected to that kind of stuff in school or work. So it brings up all of these raw emotions when you sing about another life like that. And then the second act, I Am Harvey Milk, is even more powerful. In the second movement, for instance, we are called to be actors and represent the voice of the bullet that went through the brain of Harvey Milk. I can’t tell you how riveting it is and how difficult it is to sing for those guys. And then later on in the work we sing a piece called “Sticks and Stones.” And of course, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” but we change it: “Sticks and stones can break our bones, and names can really hurt.” And in the course of this, we take on the voice of many of our critics. There are words spoken out loud by the chorus that represent many groups that have been discriminated against. We actually say the n-word as a chorus. We say fag. We say kink. We say chink. We say all of these derogatory words. And that is very difficult for these singers to do. I actually had a dozen or more singers just not be able to sing the concert because it was so emotional for them. Some of the other choruses that have done this program have brought in counselors to talk to the guys and deal with these memories that they have and the fears the music brings up.... These words are in there, and I don’t say them lightly, but we are actors; we are called upon to represent that. And they’re getting behind that and knowing that by saying some of these names, and claiming them, they rob them of their power. But the way that they’ve been used for decades, they are very powerful, and they do hurt.

Now, I don’t want to make it sound like the whole work is just negative. There’s a piece in there called “Friday Night at the Castro,” and it takes a look at the burgeoning gay scene in San Francisco in the late ’70s, when Harvey Milk was there and just the excitement of being caught up in that moment. It’s the first place that it happened in the United States, where the gay community really moved in and created a place where they could be safe. So “Friday Night at the Castro” is a dance number, a disco number, just like was going on in 1979 at the Trocadero and all of the other big clubs in San Francisco. When we rehearsed it in the room last night, I was noticing in the back of the room that some of my staff members who are not singers were singing along and dancing while the chorus was singing. It is just so infectious and joyous. And the piece ends with a movement called “Tired of the Silence” in which Harvey Milk’s actual words that he spoke in speeches are recreated by the actor playing him. And it ends with this gigantic build up to a double forte, the loudest the chorus can sing with the orchestra. It builds and builds just on the statement “Come out. Come out. Come out.” Probably 45 times we sing that, until the whole hall is ringing with that sound and we hold the last word for about 10 seconds and then there’s a huge cutoff. It’s just highly dramatic and positive and exciting. You can tell I’m kind of excited about it. [Laughs]

And it’s a hard thing to sell. How can you sell a concert about assassination and suicide? That’s an uphill battle. But it’s all positive in the way we approach it, and it’s life affirming and joyous in the end. 

Since you've been there almost since the start, what do you feel is the role of the men’s chorus in the tapestry of the Seattle cultural scene?

I've been there for 35 years now, and we are consciously always trying to represent the gay community, both in the type of music we sing—like this concert, which is very specific—and at other times, just through our presentation and our welcoming. You know, initially, we were the place where the gay community in Seattle could gather. It was the only place back in the late '70s and '80s where a couple thousand gay people and their supporters regularly got together. And our intermissions were just social events. We spread them out to 30 minutes because that’s where people saw each other. Then the AIDS epidemic hit, and things changed, and we became sort of a voice of healing and the voice of mourning for the organization and a safe place where we could come together and mourn and fight for a cure and fight for recognition. When AIDS began to subside due to the new cocktails, then our focus in the music that we sang began to head toward some of the civil rights battles that we’ve been very prominent in, specifically the statewide protection for gay people in employment and most recently, of course, the marriage amendment. All of these different things we’ve fought for and sung about in Seattle and—more importantly—in other cities around the state, we feel had an impact on the votes that came through and the way the state has changed its attitude and has been supportive of the gay and lesbian community. We still travel a lot to Eastern Washington, where it’s not quite as accepting. We’re doing a tour there this July.

The role of the men’s chorus in the community is two-fold. Number one, it’s artistic. We’re the only kind of established large male chorus in the city. There are a few other small ones, but we really represent that art form. And beyond that, chorally, just in terms of all the hundreds of choirs there are in Seattle, we’re very, very unique in that we identify as gay men—we do have some straight men singing with us, but they all support that—and we sing by memory all of the time. None of the other choirs do, or very few. We feel that communication with the audience—face to face—is what we’re about. We’re putting a face on the gay community. And our audience has always been around 50 percent gay and 50 percent straight; we’ve never locked ourselves into just a corner singing only for the gay community. In fact, I see our mission as really trying to reach outside that community and bring about some healing with families and organizations that have really been ripped apart by the controversy over homosexuality in the last 20 years or so. There have been so many lives that have been damaged. We’re a safe place and healing place both for the singers and for the audience. So our role in the community here is a mission to educate about the gay rights movement, about who we are, and to bring about acceptance, but also provide musical excellence. We really focus on entertainment, so that it’s not like a church choir or high school choir, where it’s just standing on the risers with a book in front of you and singing in robes. We’re really focused on the theatrical side of it, and that makes us unique among choruses here in Seattle. We are equally committed to the lyric, and how we deliver that, as we are to the musical excellence. 

As your time with SMC is winding down, do you have any favorite moments stick out from your tenure?

Oh, there are so many. I always look at the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots; we were in New York City, marching that June in the Gay Pride Parade and we sang with the New York City Chorus at Carnegie Hall. But we also sang at St. John the Divine in an interfaith worship service for the people that were gathered there in the gay community, and the reaction we got when we sang “We Shall Overcome” that day was the biggest ovation, the most stunning automatic standing ovation we’ve ever received. That’s a high point that all the choir members talk about. It spoke so closely to what we were about; that audience was completely wrapped up in it.

And then the guests we’ve also been able to work with…we’ve worked with 30 or 40 major stars on stage: singing, reading poetry, dancing, or any number of things. People like Maya Angelou, Bobby McFerrin, Debbie Reynolds, and on and on and on. That’s one of our strategies, to bring in really well-known people to attract an audience that might not come to see a gay chorus otherwise. And that allows us to continue to change hearts and minds.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

One thing I forgot to mention is that the chorus has members that are still in their late teens, all the way up through members in their 70s. And within that group, we have men who were there in San Francisco in ’79 or who were in New York during Stonewall. And we have new, young people who don’t even know what those things are. They have no idea about the generation of struggle and fight that has allowed them to live the way they do today. That [education] is part of our mission. But it’s also our mission to listen to the young people, and see where they see the future, and, in part, to take our mission as a chorus and adapt it to that. Because we are part of the future. So that age difference is really important to us.

That’s the last sermon. [Laughs]

Seattle Men's Chorus: Legacy
Mar 28 & 29, McCaw Hall, $28–$68

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