An Interview with Dr. Gerald Gurss: “Unbreakable” Premiers in March
We took a few minutes to sit down with our Artistic Director, Dr. Gerald Gurss to get his thoughts about our spring concert Unbreakable and the new choral work of the same name to be premiered at that concert.
After a few weeks of rehearsals, we wanted to get Gerald’s thoughts on the concert, the new choral work, and the process of preparing for this concert.
There’s “Unbreakable” the concert and Unbreakable the choral work. Could you tell us about the choral work? How did it come about? How did TCGMC get involved?
To honor the 50thanniversary of the Stonewall riots (a catalyst of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement), several GALA choruses commissioned Tony Award-nominated composer Andrew Lippa to create a work that would attempt to celebrate those historical heroes who have helped to forge a path to queer culture in 2019. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus under the supervision of Dr. Timothy Seelig led the project to create Unbreakable, and they premiered the work with Lippa himself as one of the lead soloists. TCGMC will be the second chorus to perform the work, which will be the Midwest premiere.
I’ve created a term to describe Unbreakable: “Broadway chorotorio.” In many respects, Unbreakable is cut from the proverbial cloth of modern Broadway – – a nice composite of sappy ballads and earworm melodies, mixed with edgy rock numbers, featuring belter and character voices as well as more “classical” singers. However, in many respects, the work is much like an oratorio, even though the text is not of a sacred nature. The lead soloists drive much of the storyline and emotional content, while the chorus serves as social commentary, or “turba” (drawing form the passions of Bach). While some of the work is staged, most of it is really, “stand and sing” with minimal blocking.
The work is fairly genius at engaging the audience to learn about lesser-known historical figures. The use of the libretto as well as projections tell the stories of personalities such as Gertrude Stein, Jane Austen, Cyril Wilcox, Lem Billings, Bayard Rustin, and Sylvia Rivera to name a few. A portion of the audience might have a surface (Wikipedia-first-paragraph) knowledge of who these people were, but perhaps, they do not know to what extent they were crucial in the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. For example, Lem Billings was JFK’s best friend at prep school, and helped run many of his campaigns, but few know that he wrote JFK several love notes, and that Jackie Kennedy did not favor him, because she thought there might actually a romantic interest between her husband and Billings.
The work culminates in the idea that even though the LGBTQ+ community has had it’s struggles, we are survivors who have lost battles along the way towards equality, but who will remain unbreakable when it comes to continuing the fight.
Who are the guest soloists involved with Unbreakable?
Twin Cities-based Roland Hawkins and Aimee K. Bryant will join TCGMC for Unbreakable. Both Hawkins and Bryant have extensive experience in the Twin Cities theatre scene. Hawkins has performed with the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre and premiered in Operaworks 52’s premiere production of Mother King. Bryant joins TCGMC with a long list of theatrical accolades including being chosen as a 2015-16 McKnight Theatre Artist Fellow. In 2015, she was nominated as the “Best Actress” in the Twin Cities’ City Pages ‘Best Of’ series. In addition to her acting, Bryant also has several gospel and R&B recordings.
Perhaps the most celebrated star joining TCGMC is mezzo-soprano, Janet Hopkins. The New York Times calls her, “a vintage diva,” and the Washington Post describes her as “angel-voiced.” Hopkins made her Metropolitan Opera debut in their 1991 debut of John Corigliano’s Ghosts of Versailles, and then she had a 16-year career with The Met.
What are some of your initial thoughts about Unbreakable the choral work, now that you’ve had a few weeks to work on it with the Chorus?
Unbreakable is quite unique. The work is an amalgamate of various vocal art forms: opera, oratorio, choral cycle, and Broadway show. Perhaps its greatest contribution to LGBTQ+-centric choral repertoire is that it brings to life lesser-known historical characters from the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement and educates the audience regarding their contributions to where the movement is today. The work also makes a point to include LGBTQ+ activists of color, a piece of queer history often overshadowed by Harvey Milk and Judy Garland.
The music itself is as diverse as its storyline. The audience can expect to hear elements of many musical genres including: Broadway ballads and character songs, rock, gospel, and classical.
Two movements in particular stand out as especially powerful: “41” and “Sylvia.” The text for “41” comes from a 1981 New York Times article: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” The emotional impact of this article is built upon 2 factors. First, we know that those men did not have cancer; they were among the first to lose the gruesome fight with AIDS long before modern medicine. Second, the composer, Andrew Lippa, has the chorus sing from 1-41 in a powerful crescendo, creating a musical memorial to those 41 men. The second part of Unbreakable that really grabs my attention is “Sylvia.” The “Sylvia” in question is the trans civil rights activist, and self-identified drag queen, Sylvia Rivera. Almost every queer LGBTQ+ person can tell you a list of derogatory names, which has been ascribed to them over the years. Sylvia takes these venomous slurs and empowers herself to sing a rock ballad comprised of a text built upon those slurs.
Could you tell us more about the rest of the concert? What should we expect?
Unbreakable tells the audience a lot about where we’ve been, so I thought the first half should speak to the present – where we are now. The concert opens with the power-ballad “This is Me,” from The Greatest Showman. The song, while not originally about LGTBQ+ people, discusses that freedom and empowerment that comes from loving yourself – – from truly finding what makes you uniquely beautiful and letting that uniqueness shine brightest in your life. Two other pieces worth noting in the first half are Michael R. Jackson’s “Why I’m Here” and an original composition of mine, “Stand Up,” featuring a text by the acclaimed poet Charles Anthony Silvestri. “Why I’m Here” is the newest addition to the AIDS Quilt Songbook (2018) and addresses what it’s like to be black and face HIV stigma, regardless of HIV status. The important discussions of HIV stigma and race come together in a beautiful marriage in Jackson’s setting. The TCGMC performance will be its choral debut; the composer was kind enough to allow me to arrange it for chorus.
The Turtle Creek Chorale of Dallas, TX commissioned “Stand Up” in 2018 for their commissioned choral cycle, Peacekeepers. “Stand Up,” a 2018 finalist for the American Prize in choral composition, ask of its audience to rise up and stand against in justice whenever and wherever its seen.
What do you hope audiences will walk away with after the concert? (What are they feeling, what do we want them to do – calls to action?)
Not only do I want the audience to recognize the tour de force that is the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus, I also want them to take the curiosities created during the concert and go learn more about the history of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement. The chorus only has 75 minutes to teach a good start on this history, and the rest is left to the audience. Education is powerful, and that power is entrusted to those willing to actively work to engage in that learning. Ignorance is easy.
The LGBTQ+ civil rights movement is by no means an insular, linear phenomenon. The movement has had its victories, its defeats, and even some victories that were later reversed to become defeats; nonetheless, our people have fought with a resilience and courage that persist today. Fighting for equality does not have rest days. This fight has intersected and continues to intersect with issues surrounding race, gender equality, economic status, poverty, and faith.
Tickets for Unbreakable are now available online or by calling the U of M Box Office at 612-624-2345. Performances are Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30 at 8 p.m. at Ted Mann Concert Hall. Saturday’s performance will be ASL interpreted.