April 17, 2006
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Tim Seelig, the Turtle Creek Chorale's Artistic Director, Explains The Power of Harmony
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Lots of people wondered if a "gay cowboy" film could speak to them. Of course, BrokeBack Mountain broke down prejudices as it scooped up Oscars and other film accolades for its beautiful tale of tragic love. In The Power of Harmony, a documentary film which follows a gay men's chorus from Dallas, Texas, we are treated to another slice of life. A celebration of music, teamwork, and community, the film intersperses top notch musical performance footage with the personal stories of several members of the Turtle Creek Chorale. The touching and troubling stories of coming out as gay in the Bible Belt are portrayed, along with the healing power that comes with singing as part of the Turtle Creek Chorale. The chief figure in the film, Artistic Director and Conductor Dr. Timothy Seelig, talked with BuzzFlash about his own story, and that of the Turtle Creek Chorale.
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BuzzFlash: The Power of Harmony is a very moving documentary, and we’re very proud to feature it on BuzzFlash.com. The Turtle Creek Chorale has been around for 25 years. As a Yankee, I have to wonder, how did this chorale get started deep in the heart of George Bush’s Baptist Texas?
Tim Seelig: In the very beginning of the gay choral movement, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus took a national tour. They came to Dallas, and a lot of gay musicians went to that concert. Two church musicians got together after a choir rehearsal on a Wednesday night over Margaritas and said, “We should start a choir.” Really, the San Francisco chorus is known as the grandfather of our movement. They really did evangelize for the gay choral movement in the 1980s.
Of course, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus obviously has the "G" word in its name – the gay word. It was decided that just couldn’t work in 1980 in Dallas, Texas. They chose a locale near the gay section of town - Turtle Creek - because they thought it sounded nice, and they just called it the Turtle Creek Chorale. Just FYI, of the 200 or so gay and lesbian choruses around the world, only about a third of them have gay or lesbian in their names.
BuzzFlash: That was before you came along?
Tim Seelig: The Turtle Creek Chorale was a really good group of men for their first seven years - they sang extremely well and had a concert season. Then they sort of fell on hard times – as did I – and we found each other and have been happily codependent ever since. I was down and out, and the chorus was down and out, and it was a perfect match. I added things from my own background that they had not experienced before, and certainly other gay choral groups embrace, and that is the theatricality and a broad spectrum of repertoire.
At my very first board meeting, the board asked me, what did I see as the future? I said, “Well, I just was fired from a church of 20,000 members, and I’ve left my home and family. I don’t have the option to fail. So whatever it takes is what it’s going to take, and that’s what we’re going to do.” They kind of said, you can leave now while we pass the hat to pay for the rent. It was an interesting time for the chorus. Within a couple of years of that, we’d got back in the black and were paying our bills. Then it just sort of took off.
BuzzFlash: All your members are volunteers. In fact, they pay dues.
Tim Seelig: They do. When I first got here, I had come from being a professional singer and professional musician. When they told me that these guys paid dues to sing, I said no self-respecting musician actually pays to do this. They said, well, that’s the way it works. Throughout the years, as the organization has grown, the members have done studies and asked if we should get rid of dues. At every turn, they have said absolutely not. As in any hobby or avocation, paying into it gives you an added sense of buying into an investment.
BuzzFlash: When you listen to and view this documentary, you’re immediately brought in to this very majestic music. These singers are people who have been auditioned.
Tim Seelig: Each person auditions, and they have to re-audition every year. But I will tell you that we’re a family, and no one has ever been kicked out in a re-audition. Once you’re in the family, you’re in the family. The re-auditions give me and the other musical people on the staff an idea of where each singer is, and where we need to work harder to shore up any weaknesses and keep the chorus at the level that it has achieved. That’s what it’s about.
BuzzFlash: One of the very moving things about this documentary is that it’s interspersed with individual stories. In your case, you were in a Baptist church leading musical education, and you eventually had to leave because you came out. You exchanged one musical community for another.
Tim Seelig: I did.
BuzzFlash: As we clearly see in the film, this is a community. In what ways is it a community?
Tim Seelig: When the gay choral movement began, in 1979-80, it was a really different time. It was really just about, we’re gay and we want to sing, and we want to have fun. I arrived 19 years ago, just as the AIDS crisis was beginning, and all of the choruses changed completely due to that.
I came from a background of ministry, which I had given completely up, but all of a sudden I found myself not just using the musical training that I had, but finding myself in that role as minister - taking care of people’s emotional needs as they went through a really tough time.
The gay choral movement now has shifted. Now we are focused on the quality and the excellence of the music more than the uniqueness of being a gay chorus. For me in particular, when I came here after I came out and left the church, I had no clue really what my next role in life would be. It’s been an amazing journey.
BuzzFlash: It comes out in the film, and it’s on your website, that over the years, the Turtle Creek Chorale has lost 140 members to AIDS, so there must have been tremendous pain shared in the community.
Tim Seelig: In 1991, TBS did a documentary about the Turtle Creek Chorale, and by 1994, it had won, I think, twelve national awards, including the national Emmy. It is called After Goodbye: An AIDS Story. It’s still available on VHS. It’s about the stages of grief, and includes Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and Ruby Dee and other people talking about the grief process, and the Turtle Creek Chorale sings.
We didn’t have time to go through the stages of grief - shock, anger and so on - one stage at a time, with each person we lost. We found ourselves experiencing each of those stages simultaneously about different people. Just when we would get to the acceptance of one, another one would pass away and we were back to the anger and the shock. It was numbing, I will tell you. It was absolutely numbing for a long time. There were times when I thought, we have 200 people in this chorus, and we’re losing ten or twelve a year – one day there won’t be a chorus. Those were strikingly horrible days.
And, by the way, After Goodbye: An AIDS Story was directed by Ginny Martin, who directed the new film as well. As we were approaching our 25th anniversary a few years ago, I said to the board, we need to do another documentary near our 25th anniversary, about who we are as we turn 25. That’s how this all started back up.
BuzzFlash: The film is just fantastic in going from the soaring music, to at times, your hysterical musical skits – to the personal stories. There’s a couple that I’d just like you to talk about, because it does reflect how we all have communities, whether we’re gay, heterosexual, black, white, Latino, Muslim, Jewish, Christian. You have a gay couple who are going to adopt a child in Central America. It’s a very moving development, following that story in the course of the film.
Tim Seelig: You know, no one ever imagined that a gay male chorus would have to have child care during its rehearsals. We have two new babies in the chorus this year. One man and his partner already had triplet girls, and they’ve adopted a baby. And then another of our singing members adopted a baby. We’re truly going to have to make arrangements for the children. But one of the things that comes out of the documentary, I think, is that once the AIDS crisis calmed down a little bit and we realized that we were going to be here after all, we sort of woke up and said: now wait a minute. We have suffered at the hands of people and ignorant governments that wouldn’t pay attention. By George, we deserve better than we’ve had. And part of that is to create family units.
I think it’s absolutely fascinating now – the tables have turned, apparently only in the last few months. The polls say that now the majority of Americans say it’s okay for gay people to adopt children. That is just huge because it certainly wasn’t that way a couple years ago.
BuzzFlash: Among a number of stories which are interspersed in the film, there’s a member of the chorus who’s middle-aged, and he’s with his partner, and it’s his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. He is going to call them, but he hasn’t spoken to them in 20 or 25 years. He calls his grandmother first and gets a lecture from the Scriptures about how he’s living a heathen, hellacious lifestyle.
Tim Seelig: Right.
BuzzFlash: She, eventually, does pass on his parents’ number, and he has a call with them that goes okay. They talk to him. They don’t hang up. They say they’ll see him. It’s rather inconclusive, but he’s happy. What percentage, if you can even guess at this, have some relationship with their family? How many have embracing families?
Tim Seelig: Probably less than 10% grew up in families that were accepting, so that when they came out, their parents were like, oh, okay, and moved on.
BuzzFlash: Only 10%.
Tim Seelig: We, in Dallas, live in a place that young gay men out there in smaller towns sort of dream of moving to – someday, getting out of their own little town. So we are the grateful recipients of a lot of people that come to Dallas because it’s much more open, it’s a much larger city. A lot of people have come from smaller places, and certainly from religious backgrounds that have been repressive. I would guess, of the remaining 90%, half have managed to regain a relationship and probably half are estranged. That would be my guess.
Since we finished filming Power of Harmony about a year ago, there are some updates. Van, the fellow on the phone call, did go and see his parents. In the meantime, they had discussed it among their family, and when he went to visit they told him they did never wanted to see him again. Then his grandmother had a critical illness and was near death, and she said, I want to see Van. He went and arrived before his grandmother passed away. So, they want to reach out, and then they think about it again, and then they can’t.
Both of my parents were professional Baptists and, they are great. They are really interesting and I respect them highly because they’ve never told me that my lifestyle or orientation is wrong. But I know they pray for me. They believe that the God they worship is strong enough and powerful enough that if that God wanted to change me, well, He or She certainly could. I think that’s a wonderful way to go about it. They don’t feel like it’s their responsibility to tell me how to live my life.
BuzzFlash: Put it in God’s hands.
Tim Seelig: Yes, absolutely. They leave it up to Him. My daughter is in the documentary, and my son has recently married. He and his wife have formed a really great relationship with me and my partner, so that story is evolving.
BuzzFlash: Does the chorale ever get any kind of discriminatory feedback? I mean, does Reverend Phelps ever show up and picket the Turtle Creek Chorale or anything of this nature?
Tim Seelig: We have not had any overt protests of our music, but we certainly have had our share of discrimination. Certain artists or schools will not perform with us. We were thrown out of the First Baptist Church of Dallas when we were selected to sing for a national convention that had rented their auditorium. Their actual quote in the Morning News was, “If there were a convention of adulterers in town, we wouldn’t let them sing here either.”
BuzzFlash: I haven’t run across an adulterer’s choir, myself.
Tim Seelig: We get our share of barbs, but we’re very careful to be very up front. We’ve had children’s choruses, the Texas Boys’ Choir, sing with us, and we’re very clear with the parents and the sponsors and everybody that we’re a gay men’s chorus, and we’re about making music.
BuzzFlash: When I watched the film, I sensed the sheer exuberance, the joy of the people who are members of the choir singing. This is something they absolutely love to do. It’s in their faces. They are very disciplined in their singing, very proud of what they’re doing, and they make beautiful music. Why is this so important to them?
Tim Seelig: I can answer that one really simply. It is expressed over and over by members who join the chorus and by audience members. When you’re growing up, and let’s say you’re singing in church choir or your high school choir, or even in a college choir - most of these people are not "out," even to themselves, and certainly not to their church or their school. They have this secret life of being a gay man, and yet they have this life where they love music. It is the most amazing thing when they come to a rehearsal, and they go, oh, my goodness, the thing that I love – music – I’m going to get to experience that and be all of who I am - and that is a gay man. When that collides, it is amazing.
One of our guys wrote a beautiful poem about breathing. As a child, he held his breath, afraid that people would find out. And as a teenager, he held his breath because he was afraid. And yet he loved music. But, he said, I walked into a rehearsal of the Turtle Creek Chorale for the first time, and I breathed again. It was just the most beautiful thing, and that’s part of the joy and the dedication. I’m the lucky recipient of all of that. I get these guys that will work hours and hours and hours every week for all these years, and they just love it.
BuzzFlash: You’re there, conducting, looking at all their beaming faces as they’re singing and partaking of this great joy and soaring music, and also music that they have fun with.
Tim Seelig: Absolutely. We do the whole gamut, from, really, really serious music, and all the way to crazy. That’s the other part. If they had just grown up in church choir, they didn't get to do all the crazy stuff. We have pretty much no boundaries on what we can do, and we stretch it, so it’s really fun.
BuzzFlash: Thank you so much for your time.
Tim Seelig: Thank you.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
Interview Conducted by Mark Karlin.
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The Power of Harmony (DVD), a BuzzFlash Premium
The Power of Harmony, a BuzzFlash Review
Turtle Creek Chorale home page: http://www.turtlecreek.org/