SAN DIEGO — Until recently, the men's chorus had become a musical dinosaur. The once-popular genre had receded to mere memories of well-scrubbed collegians crooning bathetic drinking songs or middle-aged men huffing their way through macho "Stout-Hearted Men" anthems. Typical of most universities, San Diego State University eliminated its men's chorus from the catalogue in 1972. Elsewhere in the county, the genre survived only in the vestigial form of amateur barbershop quartets.
Then last fall the San Diego Men's Chorus was formed and became one of the city's musical success stories. Over their inaugural season, they performed three different choral programs to full houses, found themselves in regular demand for benefits and political rallies, and landed a contract with San Diego Opera to sing the Norwegian sailors' chorus in the 1986-87 season's production of "The Flying Dutchman."
Apart from the 50-member ensemble's rapid emergence on the local music scene, the chorus has another trait that makes it unique. It is composed entirely of gay men.
"While it's not a requirement," explained chorus board member Ken Young, "the chorus is for gay and gay sensitive men." The group rehearses in the social hall of the Metropolitan Community Church, a North Park church with a primarily gay and lesbian membership. "The gay tone is apparent in the group's socializing and rehearsals, but it is first and foremost a men's chorus," Young added.
Moreover, the chorus is part of a nationwide movement of similar musical groups that has its own continental organization with the festive acronym GALA Choruses, which stands for Gay and Lesbian Assn. of Choruses. Help and inspiration from other choruses in this 45-member organization gave the San Diego Men's Chorus a head start.
When Young and several other San Diego singers decided to launch the local chorus, they coaxed the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus to come down to San Diego and give a benefit concert at Balboa Park's Casa del Prado. As a result of that August, 1985, concert, the San Diegans had $1,500 in their coffers before they auditioned a single singer.
Young had sung in the Twin Cities Men's Chorus in Minneapolis before he took a position in public relations with the San Diego Zoo. After three years in San Diego, he missed singing in his Minnesota chorus enough to want to form one here. When Young and his cohorts held auditions early last fall, about 60 men turned out. They accepted 40.
"We performed our summer cabaret concert with 50 voices," Young said, "and now we accept only about a quarter of the people who audition."
Understandably, the chorus has become an important symbol for the local gay community. Typical of their involvements in social and political causes, they sang last Memorial Day for a rally held at the Federal Courthouse after the AIDS march and participated in Hillcrest's annual Gay Pride Parade the next weekend. Earlier this month, they performed at the annual Freedom banquet of the San Diego Democratic Club, a predominantly gay and lesbian political group that is also the county's largest Democratic club.
Support for the chorus from within the gay community proved strong, as evidenced by the plethora of ads placed by gay-oriented businesses in the chorus' program magazines.
"Our first year, we needed to go with our logical audience," Young said. "There was a gap in the gay community for quality artistic groups, and we were welcomed by that community. Our summer pops concert was the easiest to sell. But to draw an audience to hear Randall Thompson's 'Testament of Freedom' and other serious choral repertory from that group is more difficult."
Hoping to expand its audiences beyond the confines of the Hillcrest glitter crowd, the chorus' winter concert will be held Dec. 13 and 14 at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, and they've booked UC San Diego's Mandeville Hall for the spring.
Unlike the Los Angeles chorus and Chicago's Windy City Gay Chorus, the San Diegans decided not to use the word gay in their name. Part of the reason was the city's conservative image, but the men also wanted the name to focus on music, not their sexual preference.
"With us, the music comes first, and we want our musical performance to make or break us," Young said.
The chorus director, Ken Caton, claims he came to his post by accident. Because he was busy completing his certification for the Metropolitan Community Church's parish ministry, his sole aim was to take his place in the tenor section. But when the chorus' first director did not pan out in the first month of rehearsals, the board drafted Caton, and he has been on the podium ever since.
The 43-year-old Caton was a likely choice, however, since he had directed high school choirs in Colorado and more recently had been the resident music director of La Mesa's Lyric Dinner Theatre before its demise.
In a way, the San Diego chorus is trying to make up for lost time. San Francisco, not surprisingly, started the gay chorus movement and now has four different choruses that belong to the GALA Choruses network. Chicago boasts three such ensembles, and even places such as Madison, Wisconsin, and Rochester, N.Y., organized their choruses before San Diego climbed onto the bandwagon.
Following the lead of the Twin Cities Men's Chorus, which commissioned a piece from noted American composer Ned Rorem, Caton has been lining up a new work to be premiered on the chorus' spring concert. Caton tapped Los Angeles composer LeRoy Dysart for the commission, which will be a choral song cycle based on poetry written by gay and lesbian poets.