Life on an Upward Note
by Brian Justice
“If you had told me three years ago that I would be the conductor of a gay men’s chorus, I would have said that that wasn’t exactly in my five-year plan,” says Dustin Cates, artistic director of the Heartland Men’s Chorus. A Kansas City native, Cates taught high school choir before joining the HMC almost two years ago. He lives with his husband, Raymond Cattaneo, and their 4-year-old son in Kansas City, and spoke with “The Phoenix Newsletter” about how he came to lead one of the oldest and largest gay men’s chorus in the region.
“If people aren’t familiar with the Heartlands Men’s Chorus I have to explain that it is a 150-voice gay men’s chorus in Kansas City, and they go ‘We have a 150-voice gay men’s chorus in Kansas City?!’ But if they do know what the chorus is, then they are usually very complementary and appreciate the work that we do. And I would certainly say that the fact that Kansas City is the size that it is and that we have a gay men’s chorus of 150 says something about our city.
“I went to the conservatory at UMKC for my undergrad and in 2004 started teaching high school choir at Raytown South High School. At the conservatory, you are certified to teach in Missouri and Kansas, and a really great job opened up at Shawnee Mission South High School and I spent six years there. I also got my master’s in school administration from Baker University. I thought that maybe I would be a principal, or possibly a performing arts administrator, something like that?
“Then, the plum job for high school choral directors in the state of Kansas came open at Olathe East High School. The program is really robust. There are tons of kids and lots of financial support. It was a really great situation, with an assistant and a full-time accompanist. People always ask me, ‘So, was is it just like ‘Glee?’ and I would say that every now and then some kind of dramatic teenage thing would go on and that there is singing involved, but that is just about how much it was like ‘Glee.’
“But the support that program enjoys has was helpful because during that time I got married and my husband and I adopted a little boy, so my priorities were shifting in terms of balancing my professional life with my personal life.
“Before we adopted four years ago I think that both Raymond and I would say that we had this equal partnership in that we love our jobs and what we did and we also were able to concentrate on our relationship but I think that when you have a child, things get turned upside down and I think that was a real perspective changer for me, in that things just got better. The passion and drive that I had to be the best I can be in my professional life was enhanced by this addition to our family. I thought that I knew what love was, but man, when you hold that little baby for the very first time, things change forever.
“At the end of my second year at Olathe East I got a call from Rick Fisher, who is the executive director of the Heartlands Men’s Chorus. They were looking for guest conductors and wanted to know if I would be interested in doing that.
“And so I conducted the concerts as a guest conductor and had a great time and it really gave me an awareness of what the chorus was all about. As an audience member I knew that they did a wide variety of literature with really high production values. And all of that was true, but I also became aware that this was also a really tight knit, important community internally, for the singers. The chorus is their family and the network of support that they have was really impactful on me.
“But I did my guest conducting gig, and they said they were doing a search for a new artistic director. I thought about it and talked it over with my husband and decided that I would give it a go. And I really was not expecting to get the job. But I ended up getting it! That’s how it all happened.
“The outreach and advocacy and support that the chorus provides the community are really important. As a teacher I loved the impact that I was able to have on teenagers, as a music teacher and the impact that music can have on a teenager, but also because I am an out, gay man with a husband and a child, teaching in southern Johnson County. That was important, too.
“And now, where I felt like I made this impact on teenagers, I feel like I’m having a broader impact on the community and the arts scene in Kansas City and the LGBT community, and that that is very rewarding. I won’t say that I don’t miss teaching high school, because there is an energy that you get from high school kids that is amazing, but I think that I get a similar energy from my guys.
“I always joke that conducting a chorus of 150 gay men is sometimes not much different from teaching high school boys. But that could be said about a giant church choir, also. I also spent a lot of time as the director of music at the Church of the Resurrection. When you’re dealing with human beings there are always challenges, but there are really great rewards, too.
“You know, music is not just to make sound and it’s not just for us but it’s to really make a difference. Whether we are singing to create this beautiful, flawless musical experience for the trained ear or we are trying to create this emotional experience that changes people’s hearts and minds, there’s really not much difference. The purpose of the music is to make a difference.” t