by Brian Justice
For a city of its size, Kansas City has a remarkably large and diverse arts scene: Opera and ballet companies, the Nelson-Atkins, a vibrant community of visual artists that anchors the Crossroads District and is making space for itself in the West Bottoms, a nationally recognized repertory theater company, a symphony orchestra, chamber music, a ballet and, since 1986, the Heartland Men’s Chorus.
One of the first gay men’s choruses in the country, the HMC is a groundbreaking organization. Its first concert featured 30 vocalists, four of whom still perform with the HMC. Now with 150 voices, it has become one of the seminal gay choral organizations in the region
“HMC is a jewel in the crown of Kansas City’s artistic community,” says Executive Director Rick Fisher. “As the only gay men’s chorus in our service region, we offer a unique artistic product and programming sensibility that is a regional draw. For that reason, we draw the largest audiences for choral programming in our region.”
Based out of the Folly Theater, HMC presents an annual three-concert season, performing for a total audience of more than 6,500 there, alone, in 2015. And it reaches even more people every year through local and national outreach events, having performed with men’s choruses in St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, Denver, Tampa, San Jose, Miami, Dallas, Portland, London, Paris, Hamburg and Montreal.
Outreach includes the production of original CDs, 10 since 1994, and DVDs of its concerts “The Few, the Proud,” featuring Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer as narrator, and “All God’s Children,” featuring the Rev. Dr. Mel White.
The chorus’ goals include advancing men’s choral music by commissioning new compositions and arrangements, including “Two Flutes Playing,” by Kansas City composer Mark Hayes and featuring orchestra and dance; “Country Angel Christmas,” based on a children’s book by Tomie dePaola; “Life is a Cabaret,” a concert tribute to John Kander and Fred Ebb co-commissioned with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles; “Oliver Button is a Sissy” and “I Am Harvey Milk” in collaboration with other GALA Choruses; “A Very Special Christmas Special,” by Eric Lane Barnes and David Maddux; and “The Promise: A Christmas Miracle,” by Robert Seeley and Robert Espindola.
With an annual operating budget of more than $700,000, the chorus is the largest LGBT organization in the Midwest, and national recognition includes the 1998 GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Award and a 2011 OUTMusic Award, “Outstanding Choral Recording.”
A social environment that was still largely hostile to LGBT issues, and the AIDS crisis, were factors that impacted the formation of the chorus in the mid-1980s. “The chorus was a place where people could be who they were because they were struggling with coming out, being gay, or being rejected because of that,” says Artistic Director Dustin Cates. “It was also an environment where people could find support and love.”
“I am in my 24th year with the chorus,” says Mike Sigler. “The chorus gave me a chance to sing and perform and spend time with men I would probably not ever know except through our shared love of music. That is more significant when the group is all gay. We have a much stronger bond than a more conventional chorus.”
The advances in LGBT rights and public acceptance have not changed the chorus’ fundamental mission, though its focus will.
“I think that we are at the edge of this next chapter where we have to decide how we broaden our message even more,” says Cates. “When we don’t have marriage equality to sing for, or many of the other issues that the LGBT community has been fighting for, we still have to respect and celebrate the achievements of LGBT organizations such as ours. The song has to be broad.”
Fisher adds, “Long term, we want HMC to continue to be known for cutting-edge, relevant programming that confronts important societal issues.”
Cates, who joined the Heartland Men’s Chorus less than two years ago, credits the two artistic directors that preceded him for not only establishing a venue for advocacy, issue-based singing but, also, singing for excellence.
“I hope to find an even greater balance between lighthearted, drag queen kind of stuff and excellent men’s choral music,” he says. “And I think that we have really taken that challenge seriously. I regularly hear that the chorus sounds fantastic and I think that’s a tribute to not only the hard work that they are putting in, but also the building blocks that the previous conductors put into place.”
In the immediate term, the chorus, like all arts organizations, is focused on budgeting issues created by cuts in arts funding by the state, and finishing details of an upcoming outreach tour of small communities in central and western Kansas. While the chorus has performed nationally and internationally, it places particular importance on performing in smaller communities throughout the region where they believe that their voices most desperately need to be heard.
“About 20 years ago we sang for a PFLAG group in Topeka, the land of Fred Phelps,” recalls Sigler. “After our performance, a woman with tears rolling down her cheeks came up to me to thank me for being there. Her son had just come out to her, and she was afraid for him, that he might not find any friends and other gay men to be with. I felt extremely proud to have been part of a group that could provide so much comfort to another person.”
The Heartland Men’s Chorus’ next concert is in March, a concert with KC A Cappella, an a cappella choir comprising KC metro high school students and in collaboration with Deke Sharon, the musical arranger for the “Pitch Perfect” movies.
In honor of the chorus’ 30th anniversary, it will premiere in June an extended musical work based on the poems of Maya Angelou. The chorus is among the first to be granted those rights by the Maya Angelou estate.
“I think that we have something special in that our organization has existed for almost 30 years now,” says Cates. “That makes us one of the first gay men’s courses in the country, and certainly one of the largest, and we have the most successful track record as far as continuing our mission, which is to foster this environment where we serve our singers. We create an environment in which they feel fulfilled and we do the same thing for our audiences and our community.”