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The first River City Mixed Chorus concert featured eight men and one woman singing holiday songs, and it was presented at The Max, a popular Omaha club for gays.
That’s interesting, said Roger Bennett, a longtime member of the LGBTQA group, given that the chorus was founded in 1984 in part to give gay men an option for socializing that didn’t involve a bar.
“It (The Max) was the only place they could afford,” said Bennett, who joined the group in 1987.
On June 15, the chorus will present its 35th anniversary program. Things have changed a lot over the years, both for the chorus and in much of society’s view of gays and lesbians.
The nonprofit chorus now has more than 100 members and performs at two first-class recital venues, the Holland Center and the Omaha Conservatory of Music. In the early days, it had a budget of $8,500 to stage three concerts. Its current budget is more than $100,000, and its Christmas concert has sold out the past two years.
Under seven-year artistic director A. Barron Breland, the chorus has presented a growing number of commissioned works that deal with issues important to gays and lesbians, such as bullying. The coming concert, “The Rhythm of Change,” will feature a work celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, the event that started the modern push for LGBTQ rights in America.
The Omaha group commissioned the piece with similar choruses across the nation. It has several segments written by several people, including the composer for the Broadway musical “Dear Evan Hansen.”
Same-sex marriage is the most notable societal change since the chorus was formed. It’s also easier for gays and lesbians to adopt children. In many locations, laws are in place that protect LGBTQ people in the workplace. And AIDS is still a public health issue, but people are living longer because of drug advances.
But several longtime chorus members say they think it’s currently “two steps forward, one step back” — which, coincidentally, is a lyric in the Stonewall suite. They cite the struggles faced by transgender people as an example.
The chorus mission statement reflects that up-and-down dynamic: “Creating exceptional musical experiences to support diversity, inspire change and empower communities.”
The LGBTQ chorus movement started after the 1978 murder of Harvey Milk, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the first openly gay elected official in California.
“People got together and sang at the funeral, and it grew from that,” said Stan Brown, another longtime RCMC member.
The Omaha chorus was formed after a few guys went to Des Moines to see its chorus perform. They started talking about putting together a similar group in Omaha in an attempt to help people better understand gays and lesbians.
“They wanted to put a visible group of (gay) people in front of the general public,” Bennett said.
From the beginning, the River City Mixed Chorus was different because it always included women, both lesbians and allies (the “A” in LGBTQA).
There were some tense moments early on. People showed up to picket performances. They didn’t stay long, didn’t disrupt the show and there were no altercations.
And some chorus members were nervous about openly expressing their sexuality.
“A number of (chorus members) couldn’t use their real names,” Bennett said. “They could have been fired if people found out they were gay.”
Because of those challenges, the River City Mixed Chorus became a safe place for its members and friends. About one-fourth of the membership is straight.
Performers think of each other as family — when one member in his 80s had to move in a hurry, chorus members packed for him because he couldn’t do it, longtime members said.
“The chorus,” Brown said, “has really seen me through some ups and downs.”
Gay and lesbian milestones, both good and bad, also have bonded members.
“AIDS pulled us together in a stronger way,” Bennett said. “We helped represent the gay community.”
Coincidentally, the group’s first Holland Center concert came right after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage, said alto section leader Gloria Jensen, a straight woman who has gay friends but no gay relatives.
“Out in front of all of Omaha, we were able to say, ‘I’m sure you all heard yesterday was the court decision about same-sex marriage across the country,’ ” she said. The audience cheered.
New challenges pop up, however. Longtime member Judy Hancock said the group now has four transgender members who need support. They get a lot of pushback in society, she said.
“We sent a message early on that we’ve got your backs,” she said.
That sentiment is appreciated. Bennett said one of the transgender members told him that the chorus is one of the few places he feels comfortable.
Singers come from all backgrounds. Some have music degrees. Others can’t read a choral line on a musical score. The group has auditions, but the requirements aren’t stringent.
The choir produces the impressive sound that comes from intense rehearsals. At one recent practice, Breland focused on individual lines from the Stonewall pieces over and over until he was satisfied with the notes and the diction. He challenged the singers to eschew their music (it’s supposed to be memorized by performance time).
Blend, tone and overall sound are important, but it’s more crucial that chorus members are in accord when it comes to the group’s mission, Jensen said.
“Passion goes a long way if you can’t read music, if you want to be inclusive and welcoming,” she said.
And the lyrics are the most important thing of all. Veteran members worry that some LGBTQ people will become complacent, figuring their work is done.
That’s why the River City Mixed Chorus will continue to sing with a mission, even though it can get emotional, said Dana Evans, who handles the group’s public relations.
“You can be practicing and going along, and then in concert, a phrase hits you,” he said. “Songs become very personal for you, and you think you’re going to lose it.”
Summer 2019 events: More than 200 things to do in and around Omaha
If you get bored this summer, don't blame us. There’s more to do in the Omaha area, and beyond, than anyone could handle in three months. Festivals, concerts, feasts and family events pack the calendar from now until September.