Sunday, August 21, 2016

Seeking Solace in Song

Many people think of music merely as entertainment: an art form that can inspire them or the part of any religious service that is most likely to lift their spirits. A smaller number of people think of music as an anchor: a gift that keeps on giving, the sound which gets them dancing, or the force which can be relied upon to keep them afloat during the stormier chapters of their lives.

For some people, music is an integral part of their professional lives. Whether as producers, accompanists, curators, or performers, they take their music very seriously. Thankfully, they also know how to have fun with it. I've always enjoyed this video clip of cast members Ryan Jack, Logan Keslar, Manuel Santos, and Billy Fagen (from the 50th anniversary tour of West Side Story) lip-synching two numbers from Dreamgirls at a party celebrating the tour's final performance.

In 1963, Judy Garland and Dirk Bogarde headlined a new movie entitled I Could Go On Singing. For Garland's fans, the film's release marked the first time since 1954's A Star Is Born that their idol (who had starred in some of MGM's most beloved movie musicals) had sung on film. As it turned out, I Could Go On Singing also marked the last film role in Garland's stormy career.

Two years later, when John Kander and Fred Ebb made their Broadway debuts with 1965's Flora The Red Menace, they wrote a wonderful torch song for their 19-year-old leading lady, Garland's daughter, Liza Minnelli.

The 1970s witnessed the birth of a new musical phenomenon in the LGBT community. In June 1978, music teacher Jon Sims founded the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Marching Band and Twirling Corps. Mindful of how many LGBT people had performed in their high school marching bands, his hunch that they still had their instruments (but no excuse to play them) proved true. Later that year, Sims launched the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, which held its first rehearsal in October.

While these two musical groups were offering a new place for gay men to socialize, their growth and importance soon changed due to two horrifying events: the assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk on November 27, 1978 and the onset of the AIDS epidemic three years later.

The SFGMC toured to nine cities in 1981 before returning to perform at San Francisco's Louise M.Davies Symphony Hall (where they received the key to the city from Mayor Dianne Feinstein). On June 26, 2013 (the same day the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that Section 3 of 1996's Defense of Marriage Act and that 2008's California ballot initiative known as Proposition 8 were unconstitutional), the SFGMC performed the world premiere of Andrew Lippa's powerful oratorio entitled I Am Harvey Milk (which had been co-commissioned by seven gay men's choruses).

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As more and more gay choruses formed in cities with large gay populations, their performances began to offer a new sense of acceptance, community, and extended family to those who may have only received conditional love from their families, religions, and false friends. As the AIDS epidemic spread and millions succumbed to HIV, it became an inside joke that some men joined these choruses for an opportunity to go husband hunting (as well as for their desire to sing).

The London Gay Men's Chorus plays a pivotal role
in Saar Maoz's life in Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

The London Gay Men's Chorus plays a crucial role in the life of Saar Maoz, the protagonist of a new documentary (written, directed, and produced by Tomer and Barak Heymann) that was screened at the 2016 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival. Although he grew up in the Orthodox environment of the Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu and served as a paratrooper in the Israeli Air Force, Saar (the eldest of seven children) spent 18 years living in London as an openly gay man. As he recalls:
“At age 14, I realized that I was not attracted to members of the fairer sex. This understanding rocked every value my parents and teachers had instilled in me. I discovered that I could not be a part of the biblical stories about Adam and Eve, Zipporah and Moses, or Boaz and Ruth. When I looked for the parts of the Bible that applied to my situation, it was written that my judgment, as a member of the religion I belong to and for which my forefathers arose and fell, is the divine punishment of being cut off from my people (Karet). These moments of discovery were terrible and particularly lonely. I tried to find some air to breathe in the days that followed, seeking some sort of Halakhic leniency, a quiet corner in which I could speak to God. Because I lived in a house filled with younger siblings, I found God in the bathroom and burst out crying." 
Saar Maoz is the protagonist of Who's Gonna Love Me Now?
"At age 15, I remember begging God to change me, to explain what was happening to me. But my God kept silent and only answered me through the different weekly Torah readings from thousands of years ago, which did not deal with what I was experiencing here and now. I began to think that maybe it was worth talking to someone about it, and started examining my surroundings: Two parents who love me and trust me, but are also fervent in their faith, and a grandmother and grandfather in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, whom I could very well lose forever with one sentence (‘I’m not attracted to girls, I’m gay’). This thought was so unbearable that I filed it away with the same speed that it was born.”
Saar Maoz stands behind two Orthodox Jews as they
pray in a scene from Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

After arriving in London and falling in love, Saar thought that his first relationship would last forever. It ended after three years. His second relationship involved a lot of partying and promiscuity which led to his being rudely informed that he should get tested for HIV. Rather than turning to his family in Israel for support and love, the 39-year-old man found the strength he needed to cope with his diagnosis after joining the LGMC (where he instantly acquired an alternative family). Because he was active on the group's membership committee, the people in the chorus knew him and cared about him. Some even loved Saar enough to call bullshit on the way he handled some of his interactions with other men.

In Who's Gonna Love Me Now? the LGMC (seen during rehearsals and performances) offers a strong musical backdrop to Saar's personal drama as he struggles to resolve whether it will ever be possible to reconcile with his family. He misses them and misses life in Israel, but doubts he can visit them on their kibbutz without being lectured about the shame his illness and lifestyle have brought upon a family of religious conservatives (including some who are so blinded by what they've learned in Torah classes that they can barely see Saar as a human being).

Saar's mother comes to visit him in London
in a scene from Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

At the time filming began, Saar's paternal grandfather had Alzheimer's disease; his homophobic father had a rigid military mentality and was disgusted by Saar's lifestyle. His mother worried about how HIV might shorten Saar's life expectancy and the remaining time for their family to be together. One of his younger brothers was a pompous ass who didn't think he could feel safe letting Saar interact with his nieces and nephews in case any accidental contact with a drop of Saar's infected blood might contaminate the children.

During a visit to Israel to attend a nephew's bar mitzvah, several relatives accuse Saar of having abandoned the family when he moved to London. He, in turn, confronts the stubborn brother who has clung to a willful ignorance about AIDS. Saar doesn't mince any words as he explains that when he needed to talk to someone after being diagnosed with HIV, no one in his family bothered to call to see how he was doing or offer their support. Nor does he hold back when explaining how much it hurts to know that his own brother wouldn't even make the effort to learn about HIV and understand what Saar was going through.

Poster art for Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

Slowly, and with no small amount of heartache, Saar's family starts to come around. His mother visits him in London (his father makes a subsequent trip by himself). One of his younger brothers tells the family that if Saar becomes ill, he will be there to help take care of him because he genuinely loves Saar as his brother.

When news reaches Saar that his grandfather has died, the fact that he can't attend the funeral hurts badly. But, after realizing that the tug of war between life in London and life in Israel can't easily be resolved, he reaches a turning point. After reading an online ad for a position with the Israel AIDS Task Force, he applies for the job. Following a successful interview while visiting his family, Saar is offered the position and moves back to Israel to embark on a new chapter in life which will take advantage of his experiences building membership for the London Gay Men's Chorus.

Saar gets a kiss from filmmaker Tomer Heymann

Earlier this year, Saar wrote an Op-Ed piece in Haaretz following the release of Who's Gonna Love Me Now? in which he stated:
“Recently, while I was flipping through the newspaper, a surprising item caught my eye: Orthodox rabbis are calling to integrate gays into their community, saying ‘there is nothing wrong with same-sex couples.’ The rabbis of the community I once belonged to are saying for the first time that my sexual preference is not a sin (and to avoid confusion, they continue and draw the distinction between the predilection and the act, which according to them is something else). I wanted to stop the car, join hands with all the passengers and dance as if I’ve been granted independence. At the exact same moment, I felt a great anger and sadness. I wanted to hug that confused and lonely young man [I was] and tell him: You see? Sometimes it takes 30 years, but in the end it gets better.”
Saar Maoz is the protagonist of Who's Gonna Love Me Now?

Who's Gonna Love Me Now? has many poignant moments along Saar's journey toward acceptance from his family and return to life on the kibbutz. Most touching is the confrontation during which he delivers an ultimatum to his siblings, telling them that they must decide whether or not they want him to remain in their family. Here's the trailer:

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In 2007, a two-character, one-act song cycle received its world premiere in Seattle with baritone Morgan Smith singing the lead, and baritone Julian Patrick in a non-singing role. Composed by Jake Heggie with lyrics by Gene Scheer, For A Look Or A Touch was commissioned with a very specific purpose: to create a work that spoke for the German homosexual population's experiences under Nazism (both their oppression as well as their resistance to it). As Mina Miller explains:
“For many years Music of Remembrance had envisioned commissioning a work which would address this tragedy. Our challenge was to find a composer who could communicate its moral and historical importance, and do so in a way that would be intimate rather than didactic. When I came to know Jake Heggie's music (Dead Man Walking, The End of the Affair), I knew immediately that we had found the perfect composer for this work. I am so impressed by the emotional honesty of his writing, and by how expressively his music captures complicated human relationships.”
Mina Miller, Founder of Music of Remembrance

Heggie's experience writing contemporary operas (At the Statue of Venus, To Hell and Back, Three Decembers, Moby-Dick, The Radio Hour, and Great Scott), as well as numerous songs and song cycles has made him beloved by singers such as Frederica von Stade and Joyce DiDonato. As the San Francisco-based composer recalls:
“When Mina called and asked me to create a new chamber music composition on this subject, I was deeply moved -- and hugely challenged. How on earth could we do honor and justice to this subject? As an opera composer -- a theater man -- I told Mina I'd want to include a singer and find a narrative of some kind. But when I looked for poetry or stories from the era, I was deeply upset to discover a vast silence. Because homosexuality was against the law in Germany until 1970 (even after the camps were closed, the war over) gays stayed in hiding or got married, fled or tried to blend in. Not until the late 1970s did the literary and art world break the silence (e.g., Martin Sherman's 1979 play, Bent). Even in 2005, when the European Union's Parliament drafted a resolution regarding the Holocaust, any mention of the persecution of gays was removed.”
Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer
(Photo by: Robert Hart)
“After visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and reading book after book, I came across Robert Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's extraordinary documentary film, Paragraph 175. It provides testimony from several gay men, survivors of the camps in their 70s, 80s and 90s, telling stories they never thought they'd be able to tell. Surprising, tragic, funny, hateful, shocking stories. Then Mina Miller sent me a link to the journal of Manfred Lewin, a gay Jew murdered at Auschwitz with his entire family. I had all the elements, just not the story. I needed a librettist. I had just worked with the tremendously gifted Gene Scheer (a songwriter as well as a librettist and lyricist) on a new song cycle, with plans to write an opera together, so I asked him. I shared the research I'd done with him; he found books I didn't know about. When Gene came across Manfred Lewin's journal, excited by the beauty of Manfred's poetry, he called me right away.”

Unlike most contemporary operas (which rarely survive past their original production), For A Look Or A Touch has evolved over the years in a most curious way.  An adaptation as a staged work for chorus and soloists was co-commissioned by the Seattle Men's Chorus and the Boston Gay Men's Chorus. The choral version was subsequently performed by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus as well as the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC) in Kansas City.

A scene from the Seattle Chorus's world premiere of Jake Heggie's
choral version of For A Look Or A Touch (Photo by: John Pai)

Surprisingly, there was yet another step to come. Commissioned by Music of Remembrance, 2012's Another Sunrise was a 30-minute scene written for soprano and chamber ensemble. 2013's Farewell, Auschwitz featured Scheer's translations of the lyrics created by Krystyna Zywulska while she was imprisoned at Auschwitz-Birkenau. 2016's Out of Darkness: An Opera of Survival reshaped the music from the previous three works into a two-act opera. The first act was devoted to Krystyna Zywulska (whose defiant poems became anthems among her fellow prisoners). The second act was devoted to the relationship between Gad Back and Manfred Lewin.

My friend, Bob Orth (who portrayed Gad Beck in the world premiere production of Out of Darkness in Seattle) invited me to attend a performance of the opera at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. While it was a deeply moving experience, there was no doubt in my mind that the structure, text, and music in Act II were dramatically much stronger than Act I. As Heggie notes:
“Manfred wrote his journal for his lover Gad Beck (one of the storytellers in Paragraph 175 (Gad has also written an autobiography). The two teenagers were lovers in Berlin until Manfred and his family were taken. In their love affair, we found our story: an actor would play Gad in the present day, while the baritone would sing the role of Manfred, appearing one night to Gad as a ghost. Through the two of them, we'd be able to share Manfred's poetry and the stories from Paragraph 175. Manfred's question, 'Do you remember?' established the work's tone.”
Gad Beck as a young man (left) and later in life (right)
died on June 24, 2012, six days before his 89th birthday
“In our story, Gad wants only to forget the horrors he lived through; Manfred's ghost wants only to be remembered, for Gad to treasure their powerful, timeless love. The play between past and present was, musically, filled with rich possibilities. The tune for 'Do you remember?' serves as the anchor of the piece; most of the other material in the piece is connected to it. I chose the instruments in the ensemble for a variety of color (so I could include elements of jazz and swing), for a lyrical as well as gritty instrumentation, and for the percussive possibilities of the piano, including using the inside of the piano.”
David Pichette (Gad) and Morgan Smith (Manfred) in a scene
from the 2011 world premiere of the choral version
of Jake Heggie's For A Look or a Touch in Seattle

Both the song cycle version of For A Look Or A Touch and the world premiere recording of Out of Darkness are now available on Here's a video of the Boston Gay Men's Chorus performing the choral version of For A Look Or A Touch.

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