London’s South Bank Centre goes gay for the Various Voices festival (formerly known as the European Lesbian and Gay Festival of Song); the Pink Singers are one of the festival’s three stakeholder choirs.
It is so hard to describe what Various Voices is to someone who has never been to one. Once every four years, the LGBT choirs of Europe gather to sing to and show each other how far they have come. On the face of it, this is like any other choral festival, but the gays really do have all the fun, and VV is like a massive family reunion with two thousand relatives you actually like.
The journey to VVL has been a long one, and we knew we had a lot to live up to. VV 2005, my first, was expertly put together in Paris by our friends the zany Equivox and the slick Melo’men. At the end of it London and Geneva put bids in to Legato to host the next one, but the award only came a year later. It was then that Team London, the group comprising members from the Pink Singers, Diversity and the London Gay Men’s Chorus, started the wheels in motion. We’ve been meeting pretty much every first Tuesday of the month since, but much more frequently in the last year, and it was wonderful to see members of all the London choirs putting their time and effort in under the guidance of the Festival Director Martin Brophy.
The biggest coup was securing the world-famous Southbank Centre for the four days of the festival. We needed a venue where people could sing and socialize in one space, and there is nowhere so perfect. But that was just half the battle, there was a programme to plan, a registration process to set up and a million other logistical nightmares to sort out. But before I could even blink the information desk in the Clore ballroom went up and the delegates started arriving! It was time to just cross our fingers and pray that all the preparation would see us through.
Of course preparation for the Pinkies’ choral performance was also on my mind. The Pink Singers sent a large cohort of delegates and we were in the opening concert Voices Of Our City on the Friday night. It is always more nerve-wracking singing to other choristers, but we have been tweaking our repertoire since the start of the year and were ready. Besides, you could not have had a more positive audience. In particular Somewhere and Teardrop were spine-tinglingly lush, and our set was greeted with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. In fact, the standing ovation was a regular feature of all the choir performances. VV is not about acknowledging the musical prowess of the established choirs, it is about supporting the smaller, fledgling choirs. We all understand the power of song to move, celebrate and overcome prejudice, and it is choirs like Sing Out Bristol, making their debut at a VV, but especially the women of Le Zbor from Croatia, who put up the most inspiring of shows.
Knowing that the three choirs of London have such differing musical styles, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised by the variety of performances on display. From Der Homophone’s theatrical tale of Cleopatra, to the Vancouver Men’s Chorus’ tightly harmonized Celine Dion, to Rainbow Chorus’ narrative of protest songs, to Canta:re’s exploration of Robert Schumann’s music, there literally was something for everyone. And the music didn’t just stay in the theatres either, it was on the cabaret stages, it was at the bar, it was in the fountain, it was on the riverside. We sang about stopping homophobia, we sang to Remember Justin, but we sang mainly because we love to.
Like Lou T, I aimed to install myself in the Clore Ballroom for the morning vocal warm-ups, followed by the free performances. I caught the musical director of Rozenkoor taking off his shirt as a part of Steam Heat, I saw the girls of Die Rheintoechter doing their sexy, sinuous choreography. I watched our own Tanya and Cilla do their beautiful rendition of Indigo Girls. It was just so much fun!
Two events really stood out to me over the weekend. The first was the Big Gay Sing: imagine 900 gay men and women who can all hold a note, totally up for performing gay anthems, led by a choir made up of members from all the different choirs. I was sitting next to Oliver from Die Mainsirenen and he couldn’t stop singing, even in the parts where we were supposed to listen to the soloists. Our own Thomas performed a jaw-droppingly inspiring rendition of Over the Rainbow with a friend from Diversity, to a truly deserved standing ovation from the audience.
The second event was With One Voice, the performance of the from-scratch festival choir. I sat between Nicholas from the LGMC and Franck from Podium Paris, or “Tatjana” and “Susan” if you went by the names printed on our seat backs! I doubt anyone could have told me just how awe-inspiring it was to be part of a 400 voice chorus performing Carmina Burana in a huge auditorium like the Royal Festival Hall. And we did it all with just 48 hours of rehearsal.
At the end of the day everyone had their own experience of Various Voices. The one moment which encapsulated it for me was when some of the Pinkies, together with Henning from Vox Homana, were in Pizza Express after the closing ceremony, having dinner, feeling a little tired and a little sad that things had come to an end. The women of Gemengd Dameskoor were at an adjacent table. Seeing us they started singing their songs to us in the middle of the restaurant, and we sang our songs back to them, to applause from diners and staff. It is memories like this which make my world a little brighter.
Various Voices is a very special treasure; it has been an honour to be a part of Various Voices London 2009. Roll on VV2013!