All Together Now
Three years ago, when Welborn Young was named director of the Windy City Gay Chorus, he knew little of the ugly conflict that had created the job opening. His predecessor, Richard Garrin, had founded the chorus and served as director for 15 years; he'd taken an amateur ensemble and turned it into a nationally respected choral group, proving that professionalism could in itself be a statement of gay pride. But Garrin's perfectionism won him a reputation as a martinet--especially when he interrupted a concert to upbraid the audience for coughing. And his mania for commissioning new choral works was apparently driving the group into the red: by 1993 it was struggling under a $50,000 deficit. Attendance was dropping, and Garrin was criticized for concerts that were too long and serious. After a fiery clash with the board of directors, Garrin was fired.
Garrin's exit "barely even came up," says Young, recalling his initial meeting with the board. A doctoral candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he had an extensive background conducting choral music in central Tennessee, and evidently he struck the right chord with the directors, who wanted to move the ensemble closer to the mainstream without corrupting its well-burnished image. They seem to have chosen wisely: as Young begins his fourth season, the 78-member chorus has erased its deficit and is operating on an annual budget of approximately $260,000. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the chorus is part of Windy City Performing Arts, an umbrella organization that also includes the 68-member gay-lesbian chorus Unison and two smaller choruses, the lesbian group Aria and the gay group Windy City Slickers.
With each new season Young has tried to raise the chorus's visibility and spark wider interest in its work. On November 13 the performing arts organization will release a holiday album featuring all four choruses, and next spring WCGC will put out a greatest hits CD covering the last two decades. That album will include extensive excerpts from Jonathan and David, a new work commissioned in honor of the 20th anniversary that will premiere in March 1999 at the Athenaeum Theatre. Composed by Eric Lane Barnes (whose musical revue Fairy Tales has been produced in New York, Chicago, Minneapolis, and London), Jonathan and David explores a love relationship between the biblical characters Jonathan, son of King Saul, and David, the shepherd boy destined to become king of Israel. Like Terrence McNally's new play Corpus Christi, which is said to portray Christ in a gay context, Jonathan and David will likely cause controversy, but Jamey Thompson, general manager of the chorus, defends the piece: "While it may be deemed offensive by some people, we believe this new work will stand up as a quality piece of music."
Young's had his share of problems as well. Two seasons ago he staged a decidedly mainstream concert for Gay Pride Month that included songs recorded by the Village People and Patsy Cline; the choices annoyed some chorus members, who felt such fare was better suited to the lighthearted Chicago Gay Men's Chorus than to a serious group like the WCGC. Phillip Carson, chairman of the board, says that no one has tried to dictate the programming, but since then Young has avoided such material. In future seasons he hopes to stage a millennial concert and to perform in the suburbs and in towns like Rockford and DeKalb, where gay audiences have little or no access to a group like his.
In a bold move, the Goodman Theatre and the Lyric Opera of Chicago have set out to erase the line between opera and musical theater, which Broadway has already been doing for about a quarter of a century. What's more, Lyric and Goodman want to develop new works that will attract large audiences while maintaining "a high musical standard," according to William Mason, general director of the Lyric. "Through history, thousands of operas have been written, yet perhaps only 20 or 30 have earned a place in the standard repertoire."
Over the past dozen years the Lyric's composer-in-residence program has produced more than its share of forgotten operas: Bruce Saylor's Orpheus Descending, Bright Sheng's The Song of Majnun, Lee Goldstein's The Fan, William Neil's The Guilt of Lillian Sloan. Now Lyric and Goodman are commissioning, developing, and producing new works by Adam Guettel and Michael John LaChiusa, both of whom have been working off-Broadway for several years. Guettel and LaCiusa write in a cool, cerebral style reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim; in fact, LaChiusa and Guettel were the first and second recipients of the annual Stephen Sondheim Award, which is presented to new composers.
Richard Pearlman, director of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, says that both Goodman and Lyric had been compiling lists of promising composers, and when representatives from both organizations sat down to discuss a joint venture, Guettel and LaChiusa topped both lists. But if Lyric and Goodman truly hope to attract large audiences, why are they commissioning work from two artists who are so similar and whose music has limited appeal? Perhaps Goodman wanted to validate its decision this season to mount Guettel's earlier work Floyd Collins, a musical that received mixed notices off-Broadway in 1996. The new works should reach the Goodman's main stage within the next few years.
Ovid's Metamorphoses, the new production from Lookingglass Theater, has just added 50 cents to its ticket price: because the show has no intermission, Ivanhoe Theater owner Doug Bragan insisted on the surcharge to make up for lost revenue at the theater's bar. Bragan says the charge is standard policy, and he was quick to defend the concept of intermission: "A lot of people need to use the restroom, or take a breather if it's a serious show."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Welborn Young photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.