It’s 1996, several guys from Toronto are in Tampa Bay for the 5th Gala Festival. This is the biggest LGBTQ Choral event in the world. Maya Angelou opens the festival with a keynote. Surrounded by 4,700 gay choristers in almost 100 ensembles, these guys are inspired. They come back to Toronto and found Forte the Gay Men’s Chorus; now, celebrating its 20th year.
Forte creates two types of performances in their annual season. In Fall and Spring, they host Cabarets, which are fun opportunities for solo or small group performances usually linked around a theme. March 2017’s Cabaret is “Unzipped: Bad Romance”, stories of dates gone wrong. In December and June, they hold their regular, fun concerts.
The choir now numbers 50 with a spread of people from across the region, various ages, and different professions. “This is not just a choir of the gay men of Toronto. We’re actively trying to engage with the super diverse communities, cultures, ages, incomes, immigration statuses, education and more of the community”, says Nick Green, Membership Director of the choir. Though an LGBTQ Choir, there are straight-identified people and anyone who is male-identified may audition for the Choir. Green notes happily that the ranks of the Choir continue to increase year after year.
A lot of that growth has to do with the work of another chorister, Jeremy Elder, the Choir’s Marketing Director. A marketing professional himself, Elder describes the “renaissance” in outreach the Choir has undertaken in the last few years. He is savvy and speaks of “moving away from physical tickets to e-ticketing, Eventbrite, social media, targeted ads”, and a brand new website. For their 20th anniversary, they are working on four music videos to commemorate their work. The first, an arrangement of Hozier’s Take Me to Church, is available on YouTube:
Nick Green grew up singing in and listening to Choirs back in his hometown of Vancouver. Here in Toronto, he looked for two things to satisfy his needs: 1) a musical outlet; and 2) community. He finds that in Forte, joins, and is still here three seasons later. He is a well-known Toronto-based playwright who has keen insight into the larger history of the Queer community in Toronto. This is key to Ed Connell, the Choir’s distinguished conductor, “to imbue musical excellence with an even more human need to break down barriers, and join hands in understanding, fellowship, and love,” he says.
Community forms a core activity of the Choir. “If you are looking for community, this is that. Socials are our way of saying, come and be part of our community”, says Green. There’s the usual, going to the Ex in the summer, Medieval Times, to see a Musical, Screemers at Halloween, and they’ve done an escape room. But, after every activity, they almost always end up at Woody’s, a staple bar in the Village.
There is history in places in the Village. The Cabarets take place at Tallulah’s Cabaret at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Buddies and its artists fought, created, rebelled, and invigorated an arts scene in Toronto that has had worldwide effects. It is the oldest operating queer theatre company in the world. That same Cabaret space is a nightclub for partygoers on weekend nights. These party spaces are an important part of the community and have been for generations.
Sometimes these spaces are used for violence and hatred. The Choir found itself grappling with the aftermath of the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre in mid-2016 when 49 people were killed, and 59 were injured for being at a Gay nightclub. The Choir felt the need to sing about the loss. Forte sang an arrangement of Melissa Etheridge’s Pulse, a song she wrote to commemorate the deaths. The lyrics are striking: “I am Human; I am love. And my heartbeats with my blood. Love will always win. Underneath the skin, everybody’s got a pulse”. For Elder, commemorating lives lost through song provided “community, support, and comfort when it was most needed.” Perpetual oppression and ignorance continue to create violent encounters, often in places that are considered sacred and precious to Queer people.
Through this, there is also a constant need to learn, heal, and grow. Green was particularly hit by this a few years ago during the concert “My Story, My Song”. The Choir was singing an arrangement of Patchwork Quilt. The song was chosen to commemorate lives lost in the AIDS crisis. “The feeling of standing with these queer men, singing about the AIDS crisis. It was very special to come together around common history, sharing suffering and hope artistically,” says Green.
In 2014, Connell programmed, All is Calm, a cantata/musical of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Performed 100 years after that fateful evening, the story is of one night when the soldiers on both sides of the trenches laid down their dispute to sing and share music from opposite sides of a great divide. Connell will remember this as one of the greatest responses from an audience in five decades as a professional musician.
Music is inherently community-based and requires us to think of others. Ed Connell embodies this while explaining his approach to arrangement, “I imagine the song as it might be sung by these remarkable men: my colleagues, my students, and my friends. I literally hear their individual voices as I create the arrangements; and if I am successful, then when I give it over to them, they truly are the ones that bring it to life”. It is no wonder that Forte continues to create music that inspires and creates community.
The Unzipped Cabaret Series, Bad Romance. March 24th, 2017, 10 p.m. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto.
20th Anniversary Pride Show and Celebration. June 24th, 2017, 7:30 p.m. Trinity-St Pauls Centre.