Monday, July 11, 2005

Tour Memories: LeWana

While on the sightseeing tour in Wroclaw my group went inside a church and much to my surprise and delight, I discovered some posters of Polish Sign Language. Almost immediately to my dismay, however, I saw a sign on the door to a small children's chapel - "chapel of the blind and Deaf and dumb."

I felt outrage at the segregation of the disabled parishioners who were sent to worship with children, as if they didn't belong among the adults of this beautiful old church! And then to see that the Deaf parishioners were summarily oppressed by the label of "dumb" being applied to them, as if loss of hearing had anything to do with intelligence. The cruelty of words.

I was deeply saddened as we continued on our tour of Wroclaw.

Hours later, as we began our performance at the Philharmonic, I took my place and immediately saw sitting right before me was a young lad of perhaps 5 years that was instantly mesmerized with the sign language I was using. I don't think he took his eyes off of me the entire first half.

Sometime during the second half, he started "copy signing" - he sat there trying to make his little arms and hands move in a meaningful message as he attempted to mimic my work.

I was instantly touched and filled with hope. I know it's a lot to dream about, but what if, in the strange reality of life, our performance made such an indelible impression upon him that he grows up to be an interpreter and, as an ally, fights for the right for Deaf adults to worship in the church with their adult peers and for the removal of unfair labels like "dumb"?

His young eyes were filled with sparkle. My heart is filled with hope.

- LeWana, ASL Interpreter

Friday, July 08, 2005

Steve's Poland speech

A number of the guys have asked me for the text of the speech I made to the audience in Poland. Evidently I made people cry! In print, it reads as a bit maudlin, but I think it was pretty effective given the politically charged atmosphere of the concert (and the many straight people there).

Before the concert, Reuben and I were trying to figure out how to talk to the audience. Earlier that day, as we did media interviews, we realized just how rudimentary the understanding of gay people is in Poland. Even sympathetic reporters couldn’t understand why we had to put the word "gay" in our name. They were almost begging us to stop using it so that people wouldn’t judge us. One newspaper reporter said to me, "We just want your concert to be successful. Can’t you just ignore that you are also gay?"

We quickly realized that we needed to go back in time 15 years to when we both started working with gay choruses. Back then, the language we used was much different. We still needed to explain that we were "normal" people — that we weren’t sick or trying to recruit. There hadn’t been "Will & Grace" or Angels in America. Rock Hudson had just come out. It was a time when most people didn’t know that they knew gay people, and coming out was still a big challenge for even the bravest among us. So that seemed to us to be where Poland was (and that may be generous).

Anyway, here’s what I said. It’s also a bit choppy, as I needed to stop after every sentence for the translator. (My notes were actually lost along the way, so this is a bit of a reconstruction.)

Thank you for your warm welcome. We are honored to be in your beautiful city.

We did not come to Wroclaw to cause controversy. We came here to sing beautful music and to share a bit of our lives with you. We come from Boston, where one of our most famous citizens was President John F. Kennedy. He once said this:

"We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth."

Our truth is that we are gay men. Through our music we want to help you understand our lives and our dreams a little better. We choose not to live our lives hiding in the shadows but to live in the sunlight of acceptance and dignity. We are your sons, your brothers, and your co-workers.

President Kennedy also said this at the height of the Cold War:

"For in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children's futures, and we are all mortal."

Thank you for sharing this concert with us.

I think I then rambled on a little bit about music and then brought out the proclamation that Mayor Menino had given us for the trip. We read the following excerpt:

"Boston is the birthplace of the American values of liberty and freedom and I know the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus will represent the best of Boston to the people of Wroclaw. Therefore, I, Thomas M. Menino, Mayor of the city of Boston, do hereby thank you for welcoming the Gay Men’s Chorus and for giving us the opportunity to share their talent and spirit with you."

(We had been told that the mayor and perhaps the first lady of Poland would be at the concert. None of the invited politicians showed up, so I realized I had no one to present the proclamation to. So on the spur of the moment, I gave it to Jarek, the local businessman who helped organize the concert and who was arrested for handing out concert flyers the day before we arrived.)

The rest is a blur, but somehow I got offstage and then let loose with about 10 minutes of pent-up tears.

- Steve

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Tour Memories: David

I'm a Chorus widow, groupie, or whatever you want to call us non-Chorus members who got to go to Europe with the BGMC (my partner, Chad Weirick, is on the left, I'm on the right).

The trip was so exciting, from the roar of the crowd in Berlin to all the controversy in Wroclaw. The tour guides told us so many things about the situation in Poland that we didn't know what to expect. I was amazed at the people who came to see the show. It was almost as if they weren't concerned about the protests; they only wanted to hear the concert, and they did. The showing of the protesters, on the other hand, was pitiful, and they were gone by intermission.

There was so much emotion involved in that performance, and the Chorus sounded fantastic. In the end, I believe it was the best performance of the trip. The donation of the proceeds to children's AIDS projects made the experience all the sweeter.

I would like to thank everyone for making this trip possible, from the BGMC Board of Directors and staff to the members themselves. I made some great friends on this trip. Of course, Down by the Riverside is permanently stuck in my head.

- David S., Chorus booster

Tour Memories: Tom

The guide who took my bus (#2) through Berlin, Wroclaw and Prague was Alina Peretti, a Pole by birth and survivor of four concentration camps who saw her sister die in one of them and lost several other family members. She is a thrice-married architect who is now living in London with husband #3, an environmentalist. Alina’s combination of take-charge assuredness and grandmotherly concern helped us through the trip during the good and tense times. Seeing her dressed in black and ready for a party at the Prague gay bar called Gejzeer on Wednesday night was amazing.

The day after the Gejzeer party, as about half the group boarded buses for a side trip to Terezin, the concentration camp which sent some 137,000 people on to their deaths in camps throughout Eastern Europe, Alina climbed aboard the bus to deliver a short speech. She told us she was unable to go into the bar the night before because the dark corridor and flashing lights at the entrance created a memory too much like the camps of her girlhood, some 60 years ago. Then, in a touching and eloquent address, she thanked us for going to Terezin, for taking time from our vacation, to learn what so many millions experienced. "We can’t ever forget what happened," she told us, and then left the bus. The trip for her was too painful to make. For me, the trip was a revelation. My one afternoon in Terezin can never be forgotten. Nor will the wonderful force that is Alina Peretti.

- Tom W., Baritone

some good news from Wroclaw

In all the political drama surrounding the Poland concert, we forgot to tell you that the Wroclaw concert helped raise about $2,000 USD for a small organization that runs a home for children and teens with AIDS. They receive no government support and have to do their own gardening to help put food on the table.

When we gave them the check, I didn’t quite get why the two women accepting it seemed so overwhelmed. It was later explained to me that $2,000 will help them keep the house open for almost a year!

- Steve

Up next on Czech TV ...

While we were in Prague, Czech TV filmed our rehearsal and performance at the Rudolfinum. We just learned from our contact there that the next edition of Czech TV’s gay and lesbian magazine program "LeGaTo" will include the coverage of our visit and will be broadcast on Wednesday, July 13, at 10:05 pm Prague time. After the broadcast, it will be available for viewing at the Czech TV website. Choose the program name (LeGaTo) from the list of available programs on the right-hand side of the webpage, then click on the relevant date on the left-hand side of the page.

Tour Memories: Tim

"Piano" in Poland

During our concert in Poland, my husband, Robert - at right, he's wearing white, I'm in blue - sat next to a distinguished-looking Polish gentleman. After the concert, Robert got into a conversation with the gentleman, who turned out to be a music teacher. He exclaimed, "The music was wonderful, especially the piano!" We are all accustomed to our audiences' understandable raves about Chad Weirick's incredible talent as a pianist. So Robert replied that we are very lucky to have Chad perform with the Chorus. The gentleman cut Robert off: "No, I mean when the Chorus sang piano, it was wonderful. It is in the quiet moments that you find the real artistry of a group." Knowing how carefully Reuben worked to shape our sound in the intimate moments, I was thrilled to hear that our audience appreciated just how much work it takes to sing both quietly and with intensity.

Caught Short in Berlin

OK, it was me. I was the first person off the stage during our formal concert in Berlin. The hall had gotten pretty warm, and I virtually leapt out of my tux pants and jumped into a pair of black shorts, ready for a balmy evening and a tall beer on the banks of the River Spree celebrating with our host chorus, RosaCavaliere. When word came down that we were called back to sing another encore, I thought I had figured out a tactful solution. I carefully slipped into place in the fourth row behind my fellow chorines. Nobody had to know about my shorts, since I was in formal concert "drag" from the waist up. All of a sudden several chorines started taking pictures of me, and I sensed that my plan had begun to unravel (see blog post titled "Victory in Berlin," below). We collected ourselves to sing Marry Us with all our hearts, and then I moved to slip back off stage behind the guys exiting with the front rows. That's when I felt a tug on my tux shirt and realized that my good 2nd Tenor buddies had decided that I should wait my turn to file off with my row ... and share a special moment with our audience. It's a good thing Berlin has a rich tradition pushing the boundaries of social convention.

- Tim W., Tenor 2

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tour Memories: Gerry

Berlin's Christopher-Street-Day Pride Celebration

My memorable experience here was not only singing for the hundreds of thousands of faces cheering us on when we sang on their "quad," but afterwards walking through the crowds of people with my Chorus buddy Dave (I'm far right, he's next to me). As we walked, I saw and spoke with so many people who were celebrating their pride and was asked by a person of color if there were many other people of color in the Chorus and whether they participate in our Boston Gay Pride parade. This guy was accompanied by another man who had been to Pride celebrations in Boston and New York (imagine my surprise). I told him of our separate Unity Pride for people of color, in addition to Boston Pride trying to integrate all communities of color into the Boston celebration. He seemed disappointed that we had not already overcome that hurdle and said that [out] Black people in Germany were just as comfortable and eager to participate in the CSD parade regardless of color. I realized this was a lesson we need to and should take from our counterparts in Germany.

Poland and Reuben's words of encouragement

This is of a more personal nature.

I recall vividly Reuben's words while we were at dress rehearsal at the hall before the concert in Poland. He was telling us of his media interview and how he had to explain that we were not there to provoke ill will and bad feelings. His words resonated in my heart and soul because it reminded me of something my mother said to me almost 15 years ago when she asked if I were gay. She told me that I should be proud of who I was, hold my head up high and "to not provoke anger, but to provoke thought in those around me and help them understand my lifestyle by acting in a responsible and mature manner."

Reuben's words immediately took me back to that day with my mother. Tears began to stream down my face, and my heart was filled with not only love and understanding, but the desire to sing better than I ever had before, and with ultimate and extreme pride. I saw Reuben look at me with a puzzled expression on his face. Luckily, my buddy was there to console me. I couldn't explain to them at the time what I was experiencing, but it was a catalyst for my singing that evening. I knew I had to be there singing for those who thought we were there for the wrong reasons, and I needed to provoke their thought process in accepting that no matter who we were, beautiful music could come from us and be shared by all.

- Gerry J., Tenor 1

Monday, July 04, 2005

Home again, home again

It's July 4th and most of us are now back in the States. The events of the tour certainly have given me a new perspective on our country and our celebration of independence.

So let's wrap up the final days of the tour:

Friday, July 1, was our final full day in Prague and it was rainy once again. Most of the guys had an easy morning and everyone gathered at 1 pm for our trip to the Rudolfinum for rehearsal and the concert.

Dvorak Hall is just one part of this enormous and stunning building. After making our way through the labyrinthine basement to the dressing rooms, we entered the hall. Now I have seen my share of concert halls in my career, but none can compare with Dvorak Hall. We'll have some photos shortly, which will do a better job of showing you the beauty than my description. And the acoustics are unbelievable. Like velvet lined with silk - plush and reverberant but with a surface sheen that sparkles. Needless to say, the guys sounded spectacular.

Reuben conducted a fairly concise and easy rehearsal, which was filmed by a gay Czech film crew for a TV documentary. After rehearsal they interviewed a few chorus members: Corey Spence and Christopher Dean, as a representative married couple; tenor Gerry James; and myself. They also spent quite a while talking with baritone Jim McDonnel; they wanted to interview an older member, because they said the gay movement in the Czech Republic is only young people - they said no one over 40 is comfortable being out. Jim is one of our senior members, and I know his perspective impressed them. Everyone came away in tears. (You may have seen Jim profiled in Bay Windows a few weeks ago for his 20 years of participation in the AIDS Walk.)

Following a dinner break, everyone gathered in the hall to warm up for our final concert. People were visibly tired, but once they got their tuxes on, you could see everyone rally for this last show. We were introduced by Jiri Hromada, the head of the organization Gay Initiative, which is pushing the fight for a domestic partnership law in the Czech Republic. On Monday, the
bill was reintroduced for the fourth or fifth time to the parliament and passed its first reading.

The audience included several parliament deputies and other dignitaries involved in the legislation. When I addressed the audience after intermission, I told them that we hoped our appearance added just a little bit of extra energy and good luck to their effort. Coming on the heels of Spain and Canada, they think momentum is on their side this time!

Following the concert and a few tears, everyone threw their concert clothes on the bus and we took off for a walk in the rain to the river Vlata (the Moldau) for our dinner cruise. While the dinner buffet was a little scary (OK, I hope not to see whitefish salad or any marinated or smoked fish for some time), the cocktails and the view made for a magical evening. As the boat sailed under the Charles Bridge everyone was singing (resonant, but not pretty!) and snapping pictures.

Over the next few days, we will have members of the Chorus write up some of their impressions and experience and start posting them. The tour is over, but the stories have just begun.

- Steve

Friday, July 01, 2005

Friday morning Prague time ... this will probably be our last post from Europe as the concert is this evening and we leave first thing in the morning. However, once we get back to the States, we will continue to update you on the final day and then reflect on what happened and try to collect some of the stories we haven't told yet.

Thursday was our first rainy day in Europe, other than a shower in Berlin. It was fitting, then, that more than half of us took a day trip to the Terezin concentration camp. Terezin was the Nazi's "model" camp, used for show to the International Red Cross. There is also a legacy of music and art that came from the camp. Nonetheless, it was brutal and lethal. I don't quite know what to say about the visit other than it felt important to physically be there. The bus ride back was somber and reflective.

The evening concluded with a group dinner in the Old Town section of Prague and an exhortation from Reuben to get a good night's sleep so our voices are fresh for the concert. Dvorak Hall is one of the world's greatest halls and I can't wait to get in it and sing.

It was just dawning on people last night that this will be our final day. It can't be! It both feels like we've been here for an eternity and that we've just started. I'm sure there will be lots of tears tonight after the concert on our farewell river cruise (not to mention the tears of those of us who have a 6 am flight!). I don't want the trip to end, but I also can't wait to get home to my partner and relax.

Thanks for sticking with us and we'll see you in the States. Look for an update about the Prague concert on Sunday or Monday.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Onward to Prague

Things are settling back down to a dull roar now that we are firmly and safely ensconced in Prague. It is impossible to overstate the beauty of this city.

Today (Wednesday) the whole chorus had a four-hour sightseeing tour that began at the Prague Castle and worked its way down to the Charles Bridge and into Old Town. While at the castle, two news crews came by to film us singing in front of St. Vitus Cathedral. So lots of news coverage here too, just no protesters driving the coverage, glad to say.

Most of the guys stayed in town for shopping and sightseeing, while I had to run off to Radio Prague to do an interview for their English-language broadcast. We had a great chat which included a lot of talk about gay marriage, as the Czech Republic just sent its domestic-partnership legislation back to the parliament this week for its first reading. So our visit is especially timely and everyone here asks about gay marriage in Boston. Several married couples are on tour with us, and they will get a workout of interviews with TV crews during our Friday rehearsal. (By the way, the piece on Radio Prague should air on Thursday, although I don't know the time. I think it's also available online, but I haven't had time to test that yet!)

We also think that Reuben will be on the Prague version of "The Today Show" tomorrow morning (I may accompany him). More than a dozen guys have asked me some variant of "Who will be interviewing you? Katia Courica?" I'm sure the Czechs have their own perky counterpart!

Thanks to everyone for their supportive notes to us via the blog and email since Poland ... much appreciated. I am still processing what happened and hope to write more about it. We're told the Boston Herald had a blurb today, and Joel Brown's terrific blog hubarts.com is doing a great job covering us. We'll look forward to talking to them, the Boston Globe and Bay Windows among others when we get back.

- Steve