Three vocal ensembles. Three rehearsals. Three performances. That’s what’s been going on over the last forty eight hours. One was the Messiah (full Christmas section and most of both the Easter and Resurrection sections – 16 choruses in total) with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. One was a Lessons and Nine Carols (nine choral anthems and nine carols) with East Lake Methodist Church Choir. One was my usual Sunday morning with the Unitarian Universalist Church Choir. Only two choral anthems for this one including ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ (only the UUs would use that as an anthem in service). Even though I had the bass solo, I felt underused in comparison. Let us just say that I am choral sung out for the season. There is still another rehearsal and a Christmas Eve service with the UUs but that’s going to be a piece of cake in comparison.
I sometimes wonder how I ended up as a choral singer. There was no tradition of it in the family. My father has a nice tenor voice and likes to sing but never sang with any sort of group to my knowledge. My mother was a soprano who would sing in church and with the family but never at any other time. My brother is a decent singer and has been since a very young age and sang in various ensembles when he was in school and has been garage banding off and on during his adult life. He’s also a decent guitarist. My parents strongly believed in developing an appreciation for music in their offspring so we all learned to play an instrument and were taken to musical theater, the symphony, the opera, and other such things from a relatively young age.
I enjoyed musical theater as a kid but it didn’t become a passion until high school. My struck by a thunderbolt moment came in the balcony of the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco half way through my senior year in high school. We had a Jan term week where you would spend a week exploring some topic in depth over that time and that year, I was on the trip to San Francisco from Seattle (a city I was very familiar with as my maternal grandparents lived there) with a bus load of classmates to take in the cultural sites. Our teacher chaperones bought us a block of tickets to the National Tour of the original production of A Chorus Line. We may have been up in the heights, but that night changed my life. The cinematic staging, the way the story was told as much by the lighting design as by the acting, the honest depiction of gay characters where that was not the central focus of their lives… I don’t think I moved for two hours.
I came out of there determined to learn as much about the art form of musical theater as I could. My high school wasn’t big enough to have a drama program that really did much in the way of musicals so, even though I was heavily into tech theater at this point; all my experience was with straight plays. Back in Seattle, I reapplied myself to learning more about how plays progress from words on paper to a theatrical experience. I stage managed. I built sets. I did costumes and scavenged for props. I got my first chance to direct a one act. I started going to the theater around town more to see what other people did and what was possible with imagination. I did a little performing but I wanted to work with music theater and I didn’t sing. I had never been in a choir or glee club or sung seriously in church. I was pretty sure I couldn’t.
The next year I was off to Stanford and settled into what would eventually become a double science major. But the siren call of music theater would not leave me be. I started off small, helping on some set crews. Then I was asked to direct our dorm play my freshman year because I had at least directed before and no one else had. ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ turned out rather well for a dorm lounge production and some of the more important theater types on campus saw it and decided I had a modicum of intelligence and talent. I was given more and more chances to work on student produced and drama department produced shows and I kept learning. And reading. And studying. And worked my way to the top of the Stanford theater food chain in a few years.
On my return to Seattle for med school, I had the skill set to work my way into the musical theater scene of the mid 1980s. Stage managing, assistant directing, directing for the most part. I made a lot of friends and was slowly starting to climb the ladder. But med school ended and it was back to California for residency. And goodbye to music theater as it simply did not mix with every third night on call. And then there was Steve. Steve put up with my residency and my fellowship and my being gone a couple of nights a week for overnights at the hospital. When that phase ended, he wanted a more settled home life with me. He didn’t want me out at rehearsal every night. I complied. Besides, I had been away from theater for some years and hadn’t established any local bona fides. We made up for it by becoming major theater goers, usually going once or twice a week to something.
I was starting to poke my nose into Sacramento projects and making some friends when we found ourselves propelled to Alabama and, shortly after that, Steve’s illness and death took priority. And here I was, forty years old, widowed, grieving, and with no connections or local reputation. I figured music and theater would be something I would attend moving forward but would have no real space in my life. Surprise. Tommy came into my life from a classical music theater background. He twisted my arm into joining first the UU choir and, some years later, the Opera Birmingham and Alabama Symphony Choruses. He insisted on my taking voice lessons. He told me that my lack of belief in my own singing was just that, a lack of belief and that I simply needed to be taught some rudimentary skills. Something must have clicked for the two of us became mainstays of the local scene within a few years.
Tommy’s death has pushed me into a need to challenge myself and I’ve been auditioning for meatier projects and roles the last couple of years. And sometimes I have surprised myself by actually landing them. The pandemic shut down showed me how much I like singing with others. I’m not really a solo singer. Even with all the lessons and the experience, I don’t have a great instrument. But I’m just fine in ensemble and I can sell a character in musical comedy. (The only roles in the standard opera repertoire I’m right for are Lillias Pastis and Buoso Donati). But I’ll probably stay a choral singer as long as I can read the music and not get lost on my way to stage left. And people seem to like having me around. I suppose it’s because I show up to rehearsal, I’m usually prepared, and I have XY chromosomes.
I suppose I’m living proof that life can change in unexpected and hugely gratifying ways, that you can teach an aging dog a few new tricks, and that you should never say never. Because it’s a very short road from listening to Hotel California on the car stereo to singing choral backup for The Eagles.