Written by Tom Keogh
Dennis Coleman’s first encounter with Seattle Men’s Chorus (SMC) was in the autumn of 1980. The occasion was SMC’s second concert, on stage at the University of Washington’s Meany Theater.
Despite being brand new, the fledgling organization had no trouble selling out the hall’s 1,200 seats. Coleman---at the time a closeted gay man in charge of the music at a local evangelical church-- barely got in. He sat in the last row of the balcony.
“I wasn't even sure if Seattle Men’s Chorus was a gay chorus,” Coleman says. “But as soon as I heard them and watched their presentation, it was clear to me they were.”
In 1981, Coleman answered an ad placed by SMC seeking a song arranger. He began attending rehearsals. After being fired from his church job for being gay, Coleman rebounded. He became SMC’s substitute conductor and then artistic director for $200 a month.
After 35 years in the latter role, Coleman is retiring.
“I began with around 50 singers and an annual budget of $120,000,” he says. “We experienced very rapid growth in both membership and audience.”
Coleman, 67, has overseen the evolution of Seattle Men’s Chorus, along with the creation of the parallel Seattle Women’s Chorus (SWC) in 2002, into a thriving artistic institution serving as a tireless, entertaining champion of LGBT rights. He leaves behind an impressive legacy: the Choruses’ non-profit parent corporation, Flying House Productions, currently has a $3 million annual budget, and joins the ranks with Seattle Opera, Seattle Symphony, The 5th Avenue Theatre and Pacific Northwest Ballet as one of the largest non-profit performing arts organizations in Seattle.
He has set a high bar for LGBT choruses. Both choruses tour the state frequently. SMC has performed at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center as well as internationally. Combined, the Choruses produce a total of 25-plus performances each year for over 30,000 people in the Seattle area. Together SMC and SWC are the largest LGBT choral organization in the world with a combined membership of over 600 volunteers.
Under Coleman’s leadership, the Choruses have regularly commissioned scores from such esteemed composers as John Corigliano and Robert Moran; they have kept a delightful tradition of booking top-drawer guest stars including Debbie Reynolds, Rosemary Clooney, Megan Mullally, Chely Wright, and Harvey Fierstein.
But perhaps his most significant achievement has been supporting the organization as it reflected, and responded to, a generation’s worth of frontline issues, challenges and occasional victories for the LGBT community.
Founded in 1979, SMC survived early clashes between its origins in a gay church and newer, secular members.
“The first conductor exited, and the chorus took control,” says Coleman. “But there was infighting about our name, whether to include the word ‘gay’ in there.” The choice not to include the word might seem in conflict with the momentum in the 1980s for gay men and lesbians coming “out.” But Coleman and the chorus ultimately chose not to draw a line between gay singers and straight audience members.
“We felt it was too restrictive,” Coleman says, “though we always made it clear on stage who we were. At that time, most people didn't really think of gays as respectable. So we stood up there, 160 guys in tuxes in the biggest concert hall in Seattle, and we sang. That was impact. It put a face on the gay community for many to see.”
Still, a number of SMC members had to be identified as “Anonymous” in concert programs for fear of losing their jobs. Coleman is proud of the fact that the chorus has served as a safe haven for many of its singers and even some in its audience to publicly come out to their families.
SMC’s mission expanded with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“We became a mental health provider for the community. There were few places where gay people and straight friends could cry and laugh together. We became that meeting place. Our concerts were always packed. Intermission was an opportunity just to see everybody. We lost many, many chorus members to AIDS.”
In the 1990s, Coleman directed SMC toward the role of “subtle player” in regional and statewide battles over employment rights, adoption rights, and “all the civil rights we were trying to piece together prior to marriage equality.” Those battles continue today. This mission driven arts organization was stealthily driving their message, through song, into new territory.
“We had to fight legislation and initiatives coming against us. We took active roles in our concerts and while touring to promote our agenda politically. We took a marriage equality tour three years ago prior to the state vote. [Same-sex marriage was legally recognized in Washington in 2012.] So we've always tackled whatever is happening through songs that describe our struggle.”
Several members of past, short-lived Seattle-area women’s choruses sought that same expressive opportunity. They approached Coleman to create the Seattle Women’s Chorus and in 2002, SWC gave their first performance.
“There were a lot of feminist and lesbian women who had no specific chorus to communicate through song about issues,” he says. “They asked us to put together an organization similar to the men’s chorus. We carefully considered the budget and implications and decided in the end it was our responsibility. It was our mission and we couldn’t say no, even though it was going to be risky. We had to do it.”
In the years since, SWC has created impressive concerts that speak to the interests of the women’s community, such as the 2014 program “We Can Swing It,” exploring how women during World War II permanently changed the workplace.
After three decades, Coleman is proud; many thousands of men and women have participated in the Choruses under Coleman’s leadership and, together in song, made significant contributions toward critical successes for the LGBT community. Unfortunately, bigotry and setbacks continue today. There are many new issues to tackle and both Choruses are enthusiastic about their responsibilities going forward. Reflecting on his retirement, Coleman says, “it's time to step aside and allow someone with fresh vision” to take over.
Following a pair of farewell concerts, Coleman will work with incoming artistic director, Paul Caldwell, on transitioning him to the Choruses. Paul is currently wrapping up his tenure as conductor of the Youth Choral Theatre of Chicago, the Windy City Gay Chorus, and Windy City Treble Quire.
“Just as I had no idea what issues we would be facing when I took the reins in 1981, no one knows for certain today what’s ahead,” Coleman says. The chorus will always have an important role to play because we break down the wall between the singer and the audience---not just by singing someone else's lyrics, but singing music that tells our stories.”