By Emily A. Klein
As director of the acclaimed Seattle Men’s and Seattle Women’s Choruses (together, they boast a combined singing membership greater than that of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir), Dennis Coleman has come a long way from his humble beginnings as a church pianist in his hometown of Klamath Falls, Oregon. But his roots have always informed his approach to music as a powerful force for building community, opening hearts and minds, and fostering social change. The Seattle Lesbian talked with Coleman as he prepared for his final season after more than three decades at the helm of this vibrant Seattle institution.
What initially drew you to choral music?
Growing up in a small town in southern Oregon, Klamath Falls, the only thing I really excelled at was [playing piano] in church and in choir at school… I played for all the choirs in church and all the choirs at school, and I really began to love choral music. And I started buying recordings by the Robert Shaw chorale, who were the preeminent national choir at the time. My father brought home a recording of “The Messiah” one year…I wore those records out!
When I came to the University of Washington, I didn’t major in choral music, I just was getting an education degree, which would allow me to teach choir, as well as a performance degree in voice and harpsichord. But choir was really what I wanted to do. I also felt a really strong call—and I use that term kind of in the religious terminology, “call” to do something – I felt called to use music to sort of effect people and help to change them in some necessary way, or inspire them. Certainly, the fact that I was involved in church music from the very beginning, and I then went to a Southern Baptist seminary – during this whole time I was closeted – I really learned the principle of trying to use music to move an audience in some fashion…My real focus is the impact a concert will have on an audience.
There have been significant changes in the culture over the last 30 years. How would you say the mission of the Choruses has evolved over time?
For me, it’s very distinct…When I first came to the chorus in early 1981, [it] had been in existence for about a year and a half…At that point, we were just, especially in Seattle, a little bit behind some other places. We were really in that period of coming out, just celebrating: “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”
And then of course what happened next was AIDS hit. That period of the chorus changed us completely, because we began to see ourselves as the organization that was providing mental health to the community in giving them a place to gather together. And so we were sort of caring for our members that were sick, and singing just to create awareness of who gay men were in the city during a time when a lot of people really didn’t want us to be in public. When the Chorus went to New York City once for a concert, in, I think, the late 80s, the stewardesses on the plane put on plastic gloves to serve the men. That was prevalent. So we were singing, we called it, to put a face on the gay community, to as many thousands of people as we could.
Then, when AIDS sort of began to come under control. We moved into a period of political activism, where we were fighting for certain rights in the city and the state to protect workers, all the different campaigns that happened at that time, we would always get really behind them, and do concerts about the issues, and sing in Eastern Washington. We’ve been seeing some tremendous victories, so the chorus right now is closer, and kind of more social and motivated together than I remember in a long time; it’s really in a good space!
The women’s chorus started about 11 years ago and they’re going great guns. They’ve sort of developed their own signature.
I often call the chorus a church…we meet on a weekly basis, and we believe pretty much in one mission, because as an organization we care about our own members, plus we’re very concerned with evangelizing to the rest of the community around gay issues. We have one sort of spiritual leader, that’s me, so it’s very much like the church, and it functions in the same way for these men – and I think for the women as well.
What is special about outreach and advocacy through the arts versus straightforward political activism?
They’re both extremely valuable. But music and personal stories that you’re told from the stage, and just the fact of looking up there and seeing 200 openly gay men in symphony hall, those elements change people’s attitudes that really don’t often read the political stuff or follow it too closely. There’s a Peter, Paul and Mary song that we often refer to that says “music speaks louder than words,” and it’s very true: If you’re in the business of trying to change attitudes and make people think more progressively, music is a powerful way to do it.
I was struck by the diversity in the men’s chorus.
It’s pretty amazing actually. Our racial diversity sort of reflects the city. We have the young guys coming in, some of whom are identifying in all kinds of gender ways.
You’ve been with the chorus for more than three decades. Do you have any favorite memories that really stand out?
When we went to NYC [for the] the 25th anniversary of Stonewall, we were there to sing in Carnegie Hall, along with the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. There was an interfaith worship service at St. John the Divine, the big Episcopal cathedral at the north end of Manhattan. All three choruses were invited to come and sing and we all sort of took the wrong tack initially, we chose sort of [conventional] choral music. When we got there I sensed that that was the wrong approach. We were the third choir to sing, so at the last moment I just told the choir, “We’re not going to sing that, we’re going to sing ‘We Shall Overcome.’” The response that we got was like a tidal wave. The standing ovation started at the back of this huge cathedral full of thousands of people like a wave, just roaring; it’s the single biggest ovation I’ve ever received, and that moment stands out to a lot of chorus members, because we were in the right place at the right time with the right song, we caught the moment and we were flexible enough to do it.
Riding a Segway across the stage in a Seattle Women’s Chorus holiday concert one time was a high point for me! I did not drive into the pit at Meany hall, I avoided it, and didn’t fall once on stage, and we did the concert, like, five times or something! So that was great.
Creating this concert series “Hallows in the Cathedral” is a real high point for me, because I’ve found, for the women, the same sort of niche concert that the men have at Christmas.
Another wonderful experience that I’ll always remember is when we sang a concert with Rosemary Clooney. My mother, who grew up during the Second World War got to come to the concert and sit down with Rosemary Clooney, who was one of her great idols, and that was very powerful.
What has your been your most significant contribution to the Choruses? How would you like your legacy to be remembered?
There’s a couple of things. As the artistic director of the organization, I have always been focused just on that; I don’t spend my time doing administrative things; [that] caused other men to step forward and fill in those roles. I’m proud that in terms of administrative organization and staff, we have the very strongest staff of any choral organization in the nation – that’s one thing I’m particularly proud of.
Secondly, the formation of the Women’s Chorus. We’re one of only a handful of choruses nationally that have both a Men’s Chorus and a Women’s Chorus that are equally sized and really both equally strong.
I’m proud of having developed this presentation style of using the theatrical arts: stage design, lighting design, sound design, costume design, stage direction, etc. Using those theatrical elements within choral concerts gave us, I think, an ability to reach thousands of people that normal choirs don’t. Because we present it as entertainment, even if it’s classical music, we present it in a challenging, provocative way, or in some form that’s going to draw people and interest them. I’m very proud of having developed that.