Member Spotlight: Timothy Seelig, Artistic Director, San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus
“The phenomenon of a gay men’s chorus is a vital part of the musical fabric of our society. It is not a gimmick to draw a crowd. We have always just wanted to put on great concerts – and make a difference while doing it.”
Where did you get your start in choral music?
I grew up in the Baptist church in Texas and always sang in the choir. I never really wanted to be the choir director though. I majored in vocal performance in college, with a minor in choral conducting, completing the master’s and doctorate at the University of North Texas as well as a fourth degree in lieder and oratorio from the Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria.
We had returned to the states when I got the call to join the Swiss National Opera. So my wife and I packed up the two babies and headed to the Alps. Once I began singing opera every day, it dawned on me that I really didn’t like being an opera singer. We moved back home where I resumed my position on the faculty of Houston Baptist University and as associate minister of music of a church in Houston.
Then the big thing happened—I came out as a gay man. The church fired me, the wife and kids, gone, house gone, all of it gone. I was visiting Dallas one weekend and I heard that there was such a thing as a gay men’s chorus. I had no idea. There was a group looking for a conductor, so I auditioned. They said they could pay me $12,000 a year because there were only 40 people in the chorus. So I kept my teaching job in Houston and commuted every week to conduct the Turtle Creek Chorale.
So both you and the Chorale were experiencing hard times.
As I have said many times, we were perfect for each other. We were both bankrupt, dysfunctional, and codependent. After a year, they moved my salary to $20,000 a year, and I supplemented that by being a temporary office worker. And bit by bit, we grew and evolved. I ended up leading Turtle Creek Chorale for 20 years, and when I left there were 250 performing members, four ensembles, 39 CD’s, and two PBS documentaries. I was just back in Dallas in February to conduct their 35th anniversary concert.
That’s pretty good for someone who didn’t want to be a choral director. How did you do it?
I brought a little different sensibility to the job than I would have if I had been a choral conductor from the start. I brought a lot of theater and opera into the choir room because that was all I really knew. I thought we should entertain the audience and take them on a journey. So we began using colored lights and costumes and props. I trained them as if they were opera singers and we ended up with this incredible, rich, dark sound that few men’s choruses really pull off. And that’s what made it different in the marketplace.
A lot of what you’ve learned you have put into books about the nuts and bolts of running a choral organization. The Perfect Blend has all of these great warm-up exercises. The Perfect Rehearsal has lots of tips for conductors about how to structure their chorus rehearsal. And The Perfect Choral Workbook has some 40 different forms and lists that can help you stay organized. Why did you decide to write these books?
When I started at Turtle Creek, I had led the church choir and an ensemble at the university, but never a stand-alone community chorus. So I learned by the seat of my pants. It was all trial and error.
I had to learn how to motivate a chorus. You can’t give them a grade and if you try to guilt them, they will walk out the door. You are only as good as the music you are producing and your mission.
After I stepped down from the TCC, I spent two years as artistic director in residence for GALA Choruses. I visited 40 GALA choruses around North America. The bottom line message for me was this: Figure out who you are and find your niche in the market. Don’t try to be all things to all people. Figure out what it is you can do well and do it really, really well.
The book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, talks about how to figure out who you are. One way is to do a 360—go out into the world and find out what people think about you and then decide, is that what you want to be? Once you find that niche, the book says, “Don’t broaden. Dig.” Make sure what you do is the best that you can do.
You became the artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in 2011. This group first appeared in public in November 1978 at a candlelight service for Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone who had been murdered. And then came the devastation of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. It’s quite a remarkable history. What are your aspirations for the group moving forward?
The gay chorus movement started with this chorus. Now there are 185 GALA choruses in North America. The SF Gay Men’s Chorus started as a gay pride thing, and really grew up with the AIDS crisis. And then as we emerged from that, the impetus moved toward social justice. Now we are getting that. We are assimilated. We’re on television. But it is not just about assimilation; it is about equality.
So what is your mission?
The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus creates extraordinary musical experiences that inspire community, activism, and compassion. That mission statement is hanging on the wall at our rehearsals with those four things front and center. That’s who we are.
Each of the four pillars of the mission statement overlap. If someone comes to us and is really only interested in maybe one—say, community, to find friends or a date—they are not going to be happy. We spend the majority of our time making music and the other aspects are byproducts of that.
Your mission has activism as one of your core values. Is your activism about gay issues?
We are at one of the absolute epicenters of LGBT rights. As such, we are actively involved in every aspect of our movement. That said, of the approximately 40 performances we do each year, many of them are in support of issues that are not LGBT specific.
Our primary activism now is in commissioning music. The doors are just flinging open. The first year I got here, Steven Schwartz composed a piece for us called "Testimony," inspired by the It Gets Better project. We recorded it at Skywalker Ranch, filmmaker George Lucas’s production studio. Then the Broadway composer Andrew Lippa wrote I Am Harvey Milk, a 45-minute oratorio. Then last year we commissioned eight composers to do eight movements of the story of Tyler Clementi, the young man who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man. Tyler's Suite is now going all around the country.
Any words of wisdom you could pass on to other choruses wanting to do more commissioning?
We usually commission a piece and then get six or eight other choruses to join in to help with the finances. Those choruses then get first dibs to perform the piece. You really do have to be careful who you allow to write the music, because there is a lot of so-so music being written. All of our music is written around a theme or an occasion. None of it is, “Write whatever you want.”
If I were at a small chorus, I would find three to five choruses around the country that you respect, but not competitors in your market. I would ask those groups to be my email buddies. Do group emails and share the music you like, how you staged it, etc. And when you are considering a new composition, offer those groups the opportunity to co-commission with you.
There is a lot of choral music being composed right now. It would seem to indicate that choral music has a bright future.
I think so, but what attracts people to a concert is more than just wanting to hear good music. A recent NEA study found that people come primarily for social reasons. They want to be with people who appreciate the same things they do. And they would also like to have some kind of interaction from the stage. They don’t just want to sit there and not be moved or touched. So music is not the end. It is a means to the end. And we have to figure out what that end is. My end is always to touch lives.
Books by Timothy Seelig
Singing Positive is a documentary that focuses on the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and its complex relationship with AIDS. This unique project was shot in two stages over a span of eighteen years.
For a Look or a Touch (Song Cycle) by Jake Heggie (libretto by Gene Scheer) based on stories from the film “Paragraph 175,” about gay men’s experiences of oppression and the resistance in Nazi Germany.