Inspiring Lives Through Song
What started out in 1986 as a small group of men desiring to form a choral group has blossomed into the largest and highest profile gay organization in the Kansas City region—The Heartland Men’s Chorus.
Featuring close to 140 talented singers, the Chorus presents an eclectic repertoire of men’s choral music including traditional, classical, gospel, jazz, contemporary and popular styles. Last year more than 8,000 people enjoyed a bevy of their stage and community outreach performances designed to make a positive cultural contribution throughout the Kansas City and wider Midwest region.
Empowerment through Song
Using their voices to “enlighten, inspire, heal and empower,” the Chorus performs its major concerts at the Folly Theater, plus numerous community programs at venues across the city. The goal is multifold: to showcase their unique musical ensemble for new audiences; to benefit charities whose missions align with the organization; and to deliver musical messages to people in places where they feel their voices need to be heard.
“By taking our music to where people are, we reach groups and audiences who might never have had the inclination to come downtown for a main stage performance,” says executive director Rick Fisher. “Because we engage our art form to engender societal change, our programs deliver important messages about acceptance and celebrating diversity, and express the unique power of our performances and programming.”
Despite their focus on diversity, the Chorus (sometimes confused with the Heart of America Barbershop Chorus or the Heart of America Men’s Chorus) is often perceived as only of interest to the gay community. Not so, says Fisher.
“The Chorus is an organization of gay and gay-sensitive people who make a positive cultural contribution to the entire community,” says Fisher. “We have a number of women board members, non-singing support members, audience members, and fans involved with us.”
In fact, the Heartland Men’s Chorus audience surveys reflect a 41 percent female, and 36 percent heterosexual fan base.
The Gift is in the Giving
Since its founding, the Chorus has always focused on giving back. This includes through community performances, complimentary concert tickets, and volunteer efforts benefitting the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Kansas City Free Health Clinic, Missouri Citizens for the Arts, AIDS Walk Kansas City, Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, KCPT Public Television, SAVE, Inc., the Topeka AIDS Project, and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, just to name a few.
“Giving back not only helps us to reach new audiences, but continues to sustain our organization as well,” says artistic director Joseph Nadeau, DMA. “We are made up of a diverse array of individuals from numerous cultural, socio-economic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Therefore, we celebrate the diversity of our membership and community, and continue to find ways to reach out and give back.”
The Chorus’ philanthropic efforts resonate with Johnson County resident Steve Dodge. Initially a season ticket holder inspired by the organization’s vision and focus, he joined to “just sing.” Not long afterwards, Dodge recalls, “I realized that we had a much greater opportunity and responsibility to use our voices to touch people’s hearts and change lives.”
In addition to lending his voice in every concert since joining in 1995 Dodge has also served on the board of directors, and co-chaired their major fundraiser—the Dinner of Note—and their 25th Anniversary Celebration earlier this year. “I have seen tremendous growth in our membership [which] has been matched with growth of our operations, budget, and audiences,” says Dodge.
Now That’s Entertainment!
A Chorus performance is much more than stationary singers on a stage. It is a complete entertainment experience.
“Many of our programs are highly entertaining,” Fisher explains. “We use sets, props, costumes, choreography, lighting and a host of other production elements. It is probably for this reason that we draw large numbers of attendees from a seven-state region for our concerts. Over our 25 years of singing out in Kansas City, we have become a vital part of our city’s diverse arts scene.”
Nadeau agrees. “Our performances are engaging, enlightening, emotional and funny,” he says. “Though we often address relevant issues in our concerts, we also sing beautifully and have a great time. Every performance is a unique experience unlike any other choral performance in town.”
From December 2-4 the Heartland Men’s Chorus will perform Holiday Glee at the Folly Theater. To learn more about the Chorus and other upcoming performances visit www.hmckc.org.
“We Are All One”
According to Heartland Men’s Chorus board member and Johnson County resident Phyllis Stevens, the organization’s message “really is that we are all one—your uncles, fathers, sons, neighbors, and coworkers. It is what I want to get out to the community at-large, to those who may have a resistance to that message.”
The singing members, who are all volunteers, truly step out in joy to reach others, Stevens says. “The Chorus has gone into smaller communities, houses of worship, and other places where they may not have anticipated a welcoming environment, but in fact turned out to be very welcoming. That gives me hope that people are open to a different message of inclusion and acceptance.”
Singing member and Johnson County resident David Pasley is a living testament to how the Chorus changes lives. Invited to attend a performance in 2004 in support of a friend, he had his own internal struggles.
“At that time I had only been separated from my wife for a little over a year, and was not ‘out’ to anyone yet,” he recalls. “I remember being nervous about attending because I was afraid I might see someone I knew, or worse yet, that they would see me and then the truth would be out.”
The next concert he attended was All God’s Children, which included lyrics about someone who attended his first choral concert by a gay men’s chorus. “I remember thinking, ‘This is about me!’” Pasley says. “The chorus and that song reached out to me and touched me, and I was changed.”
A little more than a year later, Pasley joined the Chorus and found himself singing the same song that spoke to him, to others.
“That was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, singing the song that changed everything for me and maybe changing someone else’s life as well,” he says. “It took all I had to not cry. Instead, I stood there with my chest out and head held high, proud of who I am and finally ‘out’ to everyone that I know.”
To others Pasley says, “Life gets better and there is a world of happiness to be discovered. Be yourself and be proud.”