"I'm conducting the London Gay Men's Chorus," Charlie Beale tells me when we meet. Until that moment I had known Charlie solely for his work as an educator and pianist; his work with the new ABRSM jazz syllabus is extraordinary. I was unaware of his wider skills and interests.
Jane Edwardson furnishes a similar revelation. Once she was a student who attended my lectures, though I never got to know her. When researching gay and lesbian choirs before writing this piece, several people suggested that I speak to the conductor of two Leeds choirs, the gay and lesbian Gay Abandon and the female small group Deep C Divas. That enterprising conductor turns out to be Jane Edwardson. Again, I had no idea.
Both the London Gay Men's Chorus (LGMC) and Jane's two choirs in Leeds are relatively young. For that matter, so is the whole gay and lesbian choral movement. The LGMC started in London in 1991, when nine guys who wanted to sing together did their first gig in an Islington tube station! Subsequently LGMC has increased to 130 members.
"We're a very popular, growing, organisation," says Charlie Beale. " Our main intention is to sing extremely well, and also to be a social group, to represent the diversity of gay experience. We try to challenge assumptions about what gay men are like, to provide a broad picture of what it means to be gay."
Jane Edwardson set up Gay Abandon in Leeds in 1997. "I wanted to get involved in a choir," she says. "At the time there were two choirs in London, the LGMC and the Pink Singers. I knew of the Brighton Choir, the Norwich choir and the Birmingham choir, no others. I didn't know how many people would come along. Gay Abandon grew within the first year to 30 members and subsequently to 70 members." Deep C Divas is a much smaller group, just eight singers. Their CD carries the motto: 'Firm Feminist Principles Should be Combined with Glitter, Glamour and Good Times'.
What are the expectations of the audiences who come to hear these choirs? "Some people say that we are just a really good choir. That's the point," explains Charlie Beale. "Our members are dedicated. For an amateur group, we work extremely hard. For instance, we do everything from memory. We are mixed ability. We don't audition. We don't chuck anybody out. We voice test, then we have support mechanisms within the group."
Jane's choir is similar. "Because it is gay and lesbian, Gay Abandon attracts singers of a wide range of abilities," she says. "So we have members who can sight sing at the drop of a hat. We've also got people who haven't sung since they were told at school that they couldn't sing! People come along as much for the community as for the singing."
Charlie tests only to see whether LGMC members need help."To discover what sort of voice they are," he says. "We've got everything: people who have postgraduate qualifications in vocal performance from American universities, people who have been singing in opera choruses for twelve years professionally, right through to people who've only ever sung in the bath before. That creates a demanding group to run, where people with educational experience are particularly welcome. We have a lot of self help going on within the group. So there are people within the baritones or within the second tenors who'll say: 'Maybe we'll go through that little bit, if anyone would like some help.' We try and run activities that stretch the best singers, give them a challenge. We run voice and music notation workshops, those kinds of things." Which explains why the LGMC rehearses a minimum of once a week, meeting up to three times weekly in the period before their big gigs.
Although Gay Abandon meet less frequently, just once a week, they are no less dedicated than their London colleagues. "We work really hard," says Jane, who combines her conducting with her work as a mental health nurse. She is also training as a tutor with the Sing for Pleasure organisation. "We have to ensure that the rehearsals are fun, as well as being focussed on the music," she says. "We have a laugh. One of the special qualities of the choir is that it's a focus for our community. We regularly sing for 400 people. We present a very positive image of the gay and lesbian community in Leeds."
I ask whether being gay or lesbian effects the choice of what is sung. Jane says that at the moment the Gay Abandon choir doesn't want to sing sacred music. Why? Doesn't that cast out a large portion of the choral repertoire?
"In the past the church has been very oppressive towards gay people," she explains. "So some people don't feel comfortable singing sacred material. Otherwise, the music ranges widely. We've done a bit of jazz. We've had Pete Churchill come and work with us. We've had David Fligg come and do his own compositions and English part songs. I've done lots of popular arrangements. We've done a bit of barbershop, some items from Benjamin Britten's Gloriana, some madrigals, Byker Hill from 'North Country Folk Songs', arranged by Philip Wilby, and Will Ye Go Lassie Go? arranged by Michael Neaum."
If anything, the LGMC has an even larger repertoire. "Our starting point is that there are no boundaries," says Charlie Beale. "If we were the London Symphony men's chorus, people would be able to make assumptions. But we can sing creative things that other people wouldn't do with the male voice choir." The LGMC repertoire includes conventional material, some Dowland, some music in English 20th Century style, some Vaughan Williams. What else?
"A version of Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out of My Head, with dance music backing track. We do some movement. We do show songs as well, and some South African music, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. We can provide something for everybody." The LGMC web site points out that show tunes are 'camp, fun, and always go down well'. Nicely put.
Both choirs sang in the Gay Games, which took place in Sydney last year. A huge event, with more than 30,000 participants, it is bigger than the Commonwealth Games. "Part of it was a cultural festival, so there were lots of gay choirs and other artistic activities going on," explains Charlie. "LGMC must have done seven or eight performances in the space of three weeks. We sang at the Moore Park Stadium and at the Olympics Aquatics Centre." The LGMC sang at the opening event in a choir of seven hundred people. "We sang at the unveiling of the quilt for people with HIV and AIDS, which was very moving," says Charlie.
Clearly, the overseas trips are exciting. Around seventy from LGMC made the trip to Australia. Jane's Deep C Divas also sang in Sydney, at the Opera House. "That was fantastic, an amazing experience," she says. Jane is now preparing for Sing Out, the conference of gay and lesbian choruses in the UK and Ireland, in Dublin this summer, with ten member choirs.
Charlie is already looking towards the Gay Games in Montreal in 2004. "Then there will be 100-150 gay choruses from all over the world, including highly acclaimed choirs from the Philippines and Amsterdam," he tells me.
Meanwhile, for the LGMC the prospects are varied, with gigs in hospitals, festivals and conferences. "We do the Queen Elizabeth Hall," explains Charlie. The QEH appearance was a two-night event. For that, the LGMC added a bass player, a keyboard player, a drummer and a couple of other soloists as well.
"We like to do things that connect us with the community as well, not just the gay community, but with other communities where we can make a difference," he says. A look at the LGMC's web site confirms this; clearly there are plenty of opportunities for members to widen their circle. The site reminds readers of the choir's strong presence during the aftermath of the Soho bombing, which reaffirmed their position as spokesmen for the gay community.
Many of their performances are for organisations associated with HIV and AIDS. "We are a registered charity. For example, we sing at functions that Ken Livingstone puts on," says Charlie. "We sang at a cancer ward last year. We undertake a balance of community events and big showpiece performances. What we are working on now is to develop that eclecticism, something that can become pick and mix, where you say, 'We'll have a bit of Dowland, then we'll have a show song, then a pop song, some world music, we'll have some improvising'. One of my ambitions for next year is to do a whole set of music that would work in gay clubs. We would do a set of six or seven dance music tunes with backing tracks, going to the community to perform. At the same time we're developing an entirely classical programme. Or rather, classical and improvised, where we'll be commissioning works from new composers, combining some high art sense of purpose and seriousness about what we do with a sense of humour and also a cutting political edge. We want to be surprising. We want to challenge people some of the time."
One of the special qualities of the LGMC is the diversity of backgrounds. "The choir is an amazing group of people," says Charlie Beale. "If you need a plumber, or you need an architect, or a lawyer, almost certainly there will be someone in the choir who can help. I've worked with choral societies as a conductor before. This is very different, in the sense that it's much more bonded. I think it affects our singing. People say that there's an emotional power about it. No matter what style of music we're singing, they say that there's a sense that the group is very committed to what it's doing. The choir sings with great passion, with an intensity, a conviction. It's something that gay men can do in the evenings that doesn't involve going to smoky bars and clubs. You are in a safe space. You can be yourself. No one's going to attack that in any way." He laughs. "Actually, that's not quite true, as there are people who can be quite aggressive, as I'm sure you can imagine."
This summer the LGMC is doing a UK tour, visiting Manchester, Dublin, Belfast and Brighton. They appear at the Queen Elizabeth Hall again, on 18th July.
The choir has a waiting list of 40 men, accepting people every six months to nine months, depending where there's a gap in the season. "It'll be interesting to see how it goes," says Charlie.
If the LGMC can fill the Queen Elizabeth Hall for two consecutive nights, it's a safe bet that their tour will be a success. There'll be plenty of glitter, glamour and good times. He needn't worry.