New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus …
The Untold Story of a Granite State Treasure
Founded in 1998, the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus (NHGMC) has an amazing, endearing history of triumphs and struggles, good times and bad. Through it all, the Chorus has delivered high-quality entertainment and musical joy to thousands of people all over the state. Despite overcoming fears and doubts in its early years, when acceptance of gay people in New Hampshire was scarce, NHGMC has blossomed into a professional musical and community-service organization in high demand. The Chorus is well respected and accepted by the New Hampshire arts community, the governor’s office, the mayors of New Hampshire cities, the NH Fisher Cats baseball community, many in the religious community, and in community-outreach circles.
In 2013, to commemorate the Chorus’s 15th Crystal Jubilee anniversary, NHGMC published and distributed a booklet that told the great untold story of this unique musical group. Excerpts from this story are presented below, with minor updates and adaptations. It’s a great read. Enjoy!
What is the NHGMC?
Since 1998, the NHGMC has produced two concert series per year — one holiday series and one various-themed spring series, with performances in at least four New Hampshire cities. In between these official ticketed concerts, at which the chorus guys don their sharp black-tie tuxes, NHGMC has also given to charities and performed special outreach concerts. In recent years, the group has performed in Concord to benefit the homeless and in Nashua to bring cheer to those out and about at their annual Great American Downtown Winter Holiday Stroll. They perform regularly at assisted living centers to cheer up the residents and, every year since 2010, in a proud display of patriotism, they’ve belted out the Star Spangled Banner from the field of Manchester’s Northeast Delta Dental Stadium to open the New Hampshire Fisher Cats minor-league baseball games, performing openly before several thousands of cheering and accepting mainstream-American baseball fans. Each year, the Chorus also performs in Concord at New Hampshire’s World AIDS Day interfaith service, as well as in Nashua at the annual interfaith service celebrating the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2004, the Chorus made history when it traveled to Walt Disney World in Florida to perform there as the first openly gay choral group. The trip coincided with its popular Spring 2004 concert series, Disney Spectacular. NHGMC has partnered with other orchestras and choruses to enrich the New Hampshire arts community. For the first time, several Chorus members sang with the Symphony New Hampshire Chorus and Orchestra in October, 2012. They’ve been invited to perform with other groups, such as the Granite State Symphony Orchestra (GSSO), and they’re exploring possibilities for a joint concert with the New Hampshire Philharmonic Orchestra.
Each year, as a community service, NHGMC provides a student scholarship to a New Hampshire high school senior planning a career in the Performing Arts. The Chorus is an IRS 501(c)3 not-for-profit group.
Founding and early years
The untold story of NHGMC is an endearing New Hampshire success story and dream come true.
NHGMC began in late 1997 as a twinkle in the eyes of three men who loved music — Richard Bojko, David R. Snelson, and the late David Swart — following a Boston Gay Men’s Chorus (BGMC) holiday concert that Snelson and Swart attended in Boston.
As told by one of the original singers, charter signers, and board officers, the late Chuck Hill: “These three men had the original dream. After that Boston concert, they said, ‘Gee, why can’t New Hampshire do something like that? It’s time!’ Then they told their friends. The word spread. That’s how I found out about it,” says Hill. “The chorus got going through word of mouth more than anything else. They put out the call to the community, found a director, an accompanist, a place to rehearse, and several men eager to sing. So the founders said, ‘Let’s get this act together, let’s find a place to rehearse and perform and bring our singers there.’ They approached Father Jerry Stretch at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Manchester for rehearsal space. He was a big supporter. Earlier in his life, Father Jerry had also been a bartender at Stonewall Inn in New York.”
The men assembled and began rehearsing as a choral group in April, 1998. That same spring, a state charter declaring the chorus a nonprofit corporation and signed by several chartering members, was filed with the New Hampshire Secretary of State. Thus on June 8, 1998, the Manchester Performing Arts Association (MPAA), doing business as the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus, was officially born!
Under their first music director, Rodney F. Mansfield, and first accompanist, Gary MacDonald, the Chorus’s first performance became an informal program sung for the second New Hampshire Pride festival at Manchester’s Veterans Park on a scorching hot first day of summer – June 20, 1998. The first group of singers sang in the park, along with Mansfield and MacDonald with a portable keyboard. The singers were met with cheers but also, sadly, some heckling.
An avid theater and music lover, performer, and career educator, Mansfield had served as director of the Barnstormers Men’s Chorus for fourteen years. He had also founded the Greeley Singers of Pelham and the Mischaum Choral Society in Woburn, Massachusetts. With his exemplary qualifications, Mansfield quickly established NHGMC’s standard of choral excellence.
“Rodney had been an excellent, accomplished choral director already. His choruses sang at ham and bean suppers and community events,” says Hill, whom Mansfield seems to have drafted as a singer. “I didn’t start out as a singer. I started out on the support staff because I just didn’t think I’d be able to sing. I hadn’t sung since high school. So for the first two rehearsal weeks, I’m sitting in the church sanctuary watching these guys singing, while Rodney occasionally turned around to look at me. By the third week, he comes marching up the aisle and says, ‘Excuse me, who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m a support person,’ and he said, ‘No you’re not! You’re a baritone, so get your ass up there now! We’re not selling tickets yet!’”
The original NHGMC founders, according to Hill, were Snelson, Swart, Bojko, Mansfield, and MacDonald. Snelson and Swart sang as tenors. Snelson also served as NHGMC’s first president, and Bojko as first treasurer, on its first Board of Directors.
In ‘98, the founders also reached out to Jim Bretz, a high-profile leader in the New Hampshire gay community. Bretz, a baritone, member of the first board and successor to Snelson as president, helped organize the fledgling new Manchester Performing Arts Association in the early years, giving the Chorus its first exposure in New Hampshire. And Bretz had quite the resume! In addition to his successful career in health and human services, Bretz had founded and organized a plethora of New Hampshire groups, including the Minotaur’s Brotherhood Club, the New Hampshire Political Coalition of Lesbians and Gays, the Gay Couples Support Group, Dignity New Hampshire, the Young People Support Group, Out and Proud Men’s Group, and New Hampshire Naturally. He was instrumental in getting MPAA to host and sponsor a gala for the Diversity 2000 Leadership Awards — also known as the Lambda awards — honoring contributions to New Hampshire’s LBGT community.
Swart, Mansfield, Bretz, and Chuck Hill have sadly since passed away, but they live on in memoriam.
Hill, beloved by his NHGMC family, died suddenly on November 15, 2012, just a few short weeks after he gave the Board of Directors his Chorus scrapbooks and photos and provided personal tales for the anniversary storybook, in preparation for NHGMC’s 15th anniversary year. At the time of his death, Hill was immediate past president and Chorus photographer. He had also handcrafted, at his own expense, festive boutonnieres for the men to wear on their tux lapels each concert season.
“In the beginning we were very fortunate to have the support of Father Jerry at St. Andrew’s,” says Bojko. “He was really a tremendous supporter of the Chorus. He was very proud of it, and he would let his congregation know. He got up in front of our audiences and referred to us as his ‘boys.’ He was such a great guy.” After a few years, the Chorus made a decision to relocate its rehearsals to another church.
In the spring of ’98, Father Jerry asked MacDonald to be the Chorus’s accompanist. “Father Jerry knew me well because I had rebuilt and reinstalled the organ donated to St. Andrew’s,” says MacDonald. “They had originally asked the church choir organist there at the time, but he declined, so then Father Jerry approached me, and I agreed and volunteered. The rehearsal space was actually donated because the Chorus didn’t have any money back then. They had a shoestring budget! They didn’t compensate me or Rodney, simply because they didn’t have the money. Rodney and I had known each other a few years prior to that. I had played for his Greeley Singers.” MacDonald, in addition to his business career, had cultivated a music career, playing and refurbishing organs. Originally from Vermont, MacDonald started playing piano in the second grade. He went to Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and during his 45 years as an accompanist, he’s played for many church choirs in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Today, he’s an organist for the choir at St. Patrick’s Church, Nashua.
“The first year we were all getting organized,” says MacDonald. “We were out there trying to lure anybody and everybody. We didn’t have auditions back then, not even tryouts. We were just trying to open it up to those interested in singing. Rod listened to their voices, but there was no formal audition. Rod even brought in his partner, Bob Halle, to sing as a baritone. Rod was a very good director. He could be very laid back, but also very demanding when he needed to be. But he was a very nice guy. He had so much experience. He treated me very well, and we got along famously. Rod pretty much picked out the music. He did a lot of standards. He had experience with four-part male choirs. He had quite a library, and we used a lot of that because we didn’t have a budget to buy music. He brought in many pieces from the Barnstormers.”
Talented first tenor, Steve Valido, is the only remaining original singing member. When Valido and accompanist MacDonald met in April of ’98, they not only shared their love of music and musical talents but also fell in love – becoming partners in a relationship that continues today. Says MacDonald, “I met Steve when I arrived as accompanist. Steve was living in Lawrence at the time and needed transportation to and from Manchester rehearsals. Rod picked him up a number of times, and there was some carpooling for a while. Sometimes Steve even took the bus up there. He made a huge effort to get up there for rehearsals. I started helping him out and taking him home from rehearsals. We hit it off right away. I was very attracted to him and I loved his voice!”
Mansfield and MacDonald served for three years, producing four concert series: A Holiday Festival, Singing Out with Pride, Sounds of the Yuletide, and Bits of Broadway. The chorus actually performed the Spring 2000 concert series, Bits of Broadway, together with the Pioneer Valley Men’s Chorus of Northampton, Massachusetts. In the program, the Pioneer Valley chorus sang a set of songs, NHGMC sang a set of songs, and then the two choruses teamed up to sing one song together — one performance in Northampton and one at Christ Episcopal Church, Portsmouth.
In September, 2000, Mansfield and MacDonald were succeeded by the Chorus’s current artistic director, Luc Andre Roberge, and current principal accompanist, Gary Finger. Roberge and Finger were already singers in the Chorus. Roberge had joined as a very talented bass in September, ’98. Finger became hooked after he joined as a baritone in January, 2000, with his boyfriend at the time, Rick Carkin.
Mansfield passed away in May, 2011, at age 80. He was fondly eulogized with a memorial written in the concert program for the Winter 2011 series, Peace. Mansfield’s biography also appeared in the Crystal Jubilee concert series programs — Winter 2012 series, Colors of Winter, and Spring 2013 series, We Got That Swing!
MacDonald recalled that transition: “Before they looked at Luc Roberge as a replacement for Rod, they interviewed a few director candidates, but I wasn’t overly impressed with them. Some of them were real hot shots! Overall, I thought it would be a good time to bow out as accompanist. At the time, I didn’t know they would ask Luc, and I didn’t really know about Luc and his directing skills. But I can tell you that Luc has been a very fine director! I didn’t know Gary Finger well, either, though we’ve become good friends since. He’s a great player and very talented. And he’s also a very nice guy.”
An incredibly accomplished accompanist himself, Finger, who started playing piano in the fifth grade, married Carkin on 10-10-10 at Unitarian Universalist Church of Manchester, taking advantage of New Hampshire’s new same-gender marriage law. The Chorus sang several beautiful songs for the couple at their wedding ceremony. Finger grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and graduated from North Texas State University, Denton, with a Music degree in Performance.
NHGMC organized various fundraising events, most occurring in the early years. In 1999, for example, Bojko, a very successful New England antique dealer, helped the Chorus host an Antique Roadshow and Appraisal Day in Manchester. Bojko and his partner, John Mullen – also a support staff member with Bojko back then – are proprietors of Parker-French Antique Center of Northwood. In 2004, NHGMC organized a performance in Derry to benefit the Chorus, starring nationally known stand-up comic and comedic actor, Ant!
But what was the chorus really like during those first few years? It may have been a dream come true but according to Bojko, it wasn’t exactly a Norman Rockwell existence. The fledgling young musical group was struggling for survival, organizationally as well as financially, says Bojko, and characterized by loud, raucous disagreements between “member factions” over the future direction of the group. “There was some serious fracturing and plenty of drama. But I think that’s the nature of organizations when they first get started.”
It took a while, but fortunately and eventually the new group moved through its raucous beginnings. “Jim Bretz tried to keep the peace, tried to bring everyone together. He tried to emphasize the social aspects of the Chorus,” Bojko added. “Jim also really tried hard to bring us more visibility. Hence he got MPAA to sponsor the Diversity awards, and I do believe it brought the chorus a lot of visibility in the gay community. Officially, MPAA was the sponsor, and NHGMC sang at it as guest performers. Back then, some of us envisioned MPAA becoming a focal point in the gay community, bringing all the different factions and groups together. Jim wanted to do that, and he had the connections to do that, but sadly he passed away.”
MacDonald agreed that some angst characterized the early years – that it was anything but a portrait of serenity. “During those years, the chorus was made up of a good bunch of guys. But in the beginning, some of the attitudes weren’t quite, shall we say, as calm as they are now!”
MacDonald added, “David Snelson and Dave Swart were very nice guys. David Snelson put so much of his heart and soul into the chorus. He offered some good leadership as one of the founders. At the beginning, they didn’t have a formal board of directors, so he was heading things up as best he could. Dave Swart had a good attitude. He was big helper in practically everything, and he worked really well with the guys … They were a dedicated bunch of guys. We had quite a few of them commuting, like Steve, to Manchester from great distances.”
In addition to believing it was time for New Hampshire to have its own gay men’s chorus, the founders created NHGMC, Bojko says, “because we were also looking for a social outlet.” Bojko stayed as a member for about three years. “Before the Chorus was founded, we had kind of a brunch club that used to meet. Dave Snelson and Chuck Hill and some of the guys were part of that. So the chorus was also to become a vehicle for social interaction.”
“In the beginning it was difficult recruiting men,” continued Bojko. “I was not a singer. I was strictly a support person, and I volunteered to be treasurer and cultivate our not-for-profit status. I was the money man, I guess. We knew we’d have to go out and solicit funds and ask for contributions. At first, we didn’t want to use NHGMC as our name because, back then, we thought it could have been an issue. With the word gay in the title, we were concerned that no one would want to give us money. That’s one of the reasons we called it the Manchester Performing Arts Association. But we also wanted an umbrella organization to develop different groups, a women’s singing group, a mixed group, all under that umbrella. Around 2000, we did once start to organize a women’s group, but it was unfortunately a failure. It never got off the ground due to lack of interest … I actually did alright raising money. From that antique road show and appraisal day that we organized, we made $1068! We considered that a lot of money!”
By all accounts, despite the drama and hardships of the early years, NHGMC has successfully fulfilled all three goals of its mission statement: To present quality entertainment, provide an opportunity for wholesome social interaction for members, and present a positive image of the gay community in New Hampshire.
Family, brotherhood, and camaraderie
If you ask Chorus members today, they’ll tell you they’re not just casual friends who happen to sing. They consider themselves a family. They’re brothers. The close camaraderie from rehearsing, performing, sharing a love of music, and socializing throughout most of the year has spawned lifelong friendships. Says Tim Dullea, who joined as a baritone in 2003: “At this point, for me, singing is a formality. The friendships I’ve developed in this group over the past ten years – and I get all emotional when I say this – are so special. Everybody is just really special. People come and go, but there’s a core that sticks around. I love the group and love the guys so much. I just want us all to succeed. I want the group to be there in the future. I want other men to have the same great experiences that I’ve been fortunate to have.”
Marc Perreault, who joined as a bass in 2000 and has served on the board in a few positions over the years, echoed Dullea’s sentiments about the Chorus’s closely knit family: “I instantly fell in love with the great camaraderie among all the members. Our chorus family and the camaraderie have always been a constant. It’s always been there for me. Friends are family that you choose for yourself, and I truly believe I have a family with the Chorus. I count each one of those relationships as precious. To see all the thousands of people who we’ve touched — that’s something to be very proud of. There have been so many relationships built on a love of music. Our music has enriched so many lives.”
In December, 2012, this family camaraderie was on full display at the first 15th anniversary Crystal Jubilee concert series, Colors of Winter, in Manchester, when past Chorus members joined current members on stage to sing a loving song that has become NHGMC’s anthem — Brothers Forever, with words and music by Greg Gilpin. There couldn’t have been a dry eye in the house, as the men who’ve loved the Chorus over the years sang the sweet-refrain affirmation: Brothers forever, best friends through it all … Brothers forever, best friends through it all …
And in a similar poignant, loving moment in May, 2013, founder and first Chorus president, David Snelson, returned after an absence of many years to attend the last 15th anniversary concert, We Got That Swing!, in Manchester. Snelson was introduced and treated like a celebrity, as he and other past members then joined their brothers on stage to sing another Chorus favorite, Turn Around, Look at Me.
Many other sentimental moments have colored the Chorus’s history. Director Roberge, a gifted bass who occasionally sang a solo in the early years, had a knack for dedicating them! Early in 2001, Roberge met his future husband, Rickey Shepard, at the salon where Shepard worked. As their relationship blossomed, Roberge quickly brought Shepard into the Chorus family. So at the Spring 2001 concert series, Life, Love, and Relationships, Roberge dedicated his solo, If I Loved You, to Shepard, seated in the audience – much to Shepard’s surprise! Since then, Shepard has become a Chorus icon, first serving as accompanist assistant for Finger – though more affectionately known as “Gary’s page turner” – then as a bass. (Shepard and Roberge were married on December 21, 2013.)
One incredibly sweet moment for the Chorus, for Roberge, and for his family, happened at the Spring 2003 fifth-year anniversary concert, Take Five. Roberge had just come out to his parents on the evening before the concert. “I remember sitting with them and telling them … there was some crying. For them, it was such a non-issue. However, my mom was very upset over all the concerts she had missed … It was so much of a non-issue, they went and told all their friends about the concert, and a couple of dozen of their friends showed up!” When it was time to sing his solo, Old Man River, Roberge sprung a surprise. “I dedicated the song to my parents. I informed the audience that I had just come out to my parents, how it was a non-issue with them, and I acknowledged that they were there with a lot of their friends. My mom cried and cried, and at the end of the song, they both got up and gave me a big hug. Actually it was also a very emotional moment for the audience and the Chorus. I found out later that a lot of the guys had difficulty singing that song after I had prefaced it with my coming-out story. They were fighting back tears.”
Roberge’s proud parents and special Chorus friends, the late Tony and Jeanne, attended every concert together since that time — until Tony passed away in 2013 and Jeanne passed away in 2015. Proud of their son’s accomplishments, Tony and Jeanne had inspired Luc’s love of music and singing when Luc was a small child. During concert intermissions, they were known to tell concert goers: “Are you enjoying the music? My son is the director!” Two months after Tony’s death, Luc dedicated one of Tony’s favorite Swing-era songs, Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition, to his father at the Spring 2013 concert series, We Got That Swing! A very patriotic man, Tony would’ve loved all the patriotic medleys featured in the Spring 2013 concert program, such as Patriotic Cohan, Armed Forces Medley, and God Bless America. Jeanne was memorialized in the program of the Spring 2015 concert series, Decades.
Longtime member, popular soloist, and tambourine accompanist, baritone Keith R. Nelson, reminisced about his first concert series in December, 2001, A Nostalgic Holiday. “I remember my first night at rehearsal. The Chorus was small. That was the season they made the first Christmas CD. Now, when I listen to that CD, I remember how wonderful I felt inside, being a part of something special and exciting. I still love being in the chorus. I feel a real allegiance to the Chorus.” Nelson, who lives and works in Manchester as a letter carrier for the US postal service, never fails to command a huge and very vocal section of fans in the Manchester concert audiences. In the Spring 2015 Decades concert, Nelson received a thunderous standing ovation for his powerful solo of I Am What I Am from the 1980s.
“All our sons” and Chorus moms
Support staff Chair and Tim Dullea’s mom, Carol Dullea, has served on the support staff since December, 2003. She and her husband, Marty, affectionately known to the Chorus guys as “mom and dad,” have attended nearly every concert over the years, working hard on behalf of NHGMC in every way they can. In addition to running the support staff, Carol sometimes makes announcements to audiences. For several years, she introduced the Chorus with her trademark line: “And now… please welcome my son and all the sons of the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus!” She succeeded Melissa Riley and Allan Sheehan as Chair.
Carol loves the Chorus so much she sports an “NHGMC” vanity plate on her car! “I didn’t think anyone else in Massachusetts would want that plate,” says Carol. I was very involved in the Chorus by that time, and thought it was a great idea. Even better, I love it when someone asks what it stands for. I very slowly will say ‘New Hampshire GAY MEN’s Chorus. My son is a member. I am Chair of their support staff, and I’m kind of a surrogate mother to the members of the Chorus.’ I have never had a negative response – sometimes surprised responses! – but mostly people are interested.”
Carol and Marty saw their son perform for the first time quite by surprise. As Tim Dullea tells it: “When I joined in 2003, I did not tell my parents. To keep a secret from my mom is pretty spectacular in and of itself. But I did manage to surprise them. I invited them to a concert. I was really ‘supposed’ to go with them and sit in the audience! I worked out a plan where I was ‘running late’ and would join them there later. So there they were, sitting in the audience at our Spring 2003 Take Five concert, and I surprised them when they saw me walking down the aisle in my tux with the other guys! The reason I did that was because mom always had tried to get me to join a chorus, like a church choir.”
After attending that first concert, Carol and Marty made it a point to attend all four concerts of every concert series. “That’s just the type of parents we are. Actually I think it’s a mother thing! If my kids performed or played a sport anywhere, we were there for all. We’ve always gotten involved in anything our boys did – drama, recitals, little league, cub scouts, PTA…”
Carol became support staff Chair as a result of yet another practical joke. “I joked one day to Allan Sheehan that I knew his announcements by heart, that if he ever needed help I told him I could say them in my sleep. So, the following concert he had Tim tell me that Allan had laryngitis and would I mind doing the announcements for him. So I did – but afterwards found out Allan didn’t have anything wrong with his voice! But from that point on, I owned the announcements. And, along with the announcements came the work of the support staff – arranging for refreshments, the PFLAG appearance, the raffle ticket sales, ticket sales, ticket collection, program handouts, clearing the hall afterwards. Marty plays a big part in all these chores because he will do almost anything I ask. He also does the ‘grunt work’ of lifting, carrying, running around.”
Concert intermissions, thanks to the support staff’s hard work, have always been a special, enjoyable social time for audiences to mingle with Chorus members. It’s a chance for people to catch up and rekindle acquaintances. Representatives of local organizations, such as Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbian and Gay Youth (PFLAG) and other social organizations like Seacoast Gay Men (SGM) of Portsmouth and Capital Gay Men (CGM) of Concord, also set up tables. Food, drink, good conversation, reminiscing, and plenty of literature and merchandise for sale are always in abundance at intermissions.
Says Carol about her and Marty’s dedication to Tim and the chorus: “Our involvement with the Chorus has meant a great deal to us – first of all, and most importantly, because it has meant so much to Tim. You never stop being a parent no matter how old your children are. What’s important to them is important and meaningful to you. The Chorus has been so great for him. And the Chorus guys are so great! We love everything about the Chorus. We have really come to love and respect all the guys. We love being around them. They are some of the nicest guys we have ever met. Every year it gets better and better.”
“The guys were the first large number of gay men we had ever intermingled with,” Carol continued. “At first, it really took us by surprise that they thought we were unusually wonderful parents, whereas we wondered to ourselves, ‘What makes us different from many of the other parents?’ At first, quite a few of the guys would come up and say, ‘I think what you guys do for Tim is just wonderful.’ This surprised us because we never did anything differently for Tim than we did for our other son. But soon it made us realize that some of the Chorus members weren’t accepted or supported by their families, and that made me feel sad. The second or third time I introduced the Chorus to audiences, I started saying ‘my son and all the sons…’ I wanted people to know that I wasn’t just a staff person but a very proud parent. I also wanted other people to realize that they are all ‘sons’ – not just mine. I know Luc Roberge’s mom loved what I said – and has always told me she loves to have me do the announcements. That made me feel good because I know we share the same feelings of love for our sons and for the Chorus.”
For the record, a few other “chorus moms” – like Perreault’s mom, Marty, and baritone Randy Calkin’s mom, Lee – attend as many concerts as they can.
Overcoming fears and doubts
Ameriprise financial adviser, Maureen Dastous, has helped the chorus a great deal via her business acumen and her connections to the New Hampshire arts and financial communities. She served for several years as a Board member until 2012. She says she was eager to work for NHGMC after the guys dazzled her at the first concert she attended. It became love at first sight. Says Dastous, “Once I heard them, I loved them! I couldn’t get over them! It’s been one of the joys of my life!” Dastous, a straight woman with three successful grown children, added: “I’ve always been gay-friendly. I sometimes think, ‘How brave to stand up under the banner, New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus.’ Even now people ask me, ‘Why do they have to call themselves that?’ and I say, ‘Why shouldn’t they?!’ It’s an organization for singing and socializing for a bunch of gay guys! So now I go around saying, ‘Yay! NHGMC!’”
Various members of gay men’s choruses across the country have likely heard the subtle don’t-ask-don’t-tell question: “Why do they call themselves a ‘gay men’s chorus’ and not a ‘men’s chorus’?” Even now, some people may still believe it’s better for gay people to conceal their orientations when they serve in our armed forces, perform on stage, compete in sports, or simply do their jobs in their places of employment. But the American GMC experience, now more than 35 years old, has reinforced one truism about art and music ― that a work of art is intertwined with and becomes an extension of the artist. Thus GMC singers have historically performed with empathy for their common experiences, expressing their unique perspective as gay men and telling their stories through music. Though most of NHGMC’s music is not “gay themed,” each concert program typically includes at least one gay-themed song or a few gay-themed lyrics.
Past president of the Board of Directors, Peter Olesen Lund, believes music is the universal glue that binds us. Says Lund, who joined in 2002 as a support staff member: “I have found that music is a point of commonality with people, and I appreciate and am aware that the Chorus can be a point of commonality for audiences who may or may not be comfortable with an orientation other than straight. I see the Chorus as important in creating that point of common ground. I see the music as a point of transcendence for any discomfort that people may have with different orientations …”
In the spring of 1998, when the Chorus filed itself as a legal New Hampshire nonprofit group, there was some initial hesitation among original members to sign the document, according to Hill. The original signers of the state charter were Bojko, Snelson, Bretz, Hill, and baritone Richard Rafferty, who had also served on the board.
Says Hill, “I was scared to death to sign that thing! The others were also reluctant to sign it with the name, New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus. I didn’t want the government to know. I was also scared I’d lose my job. I even deliberately wore dark glasses at our Pride performance in ’98! I was afraid that people from my job would see me. You have to remember this was fifteen years ago. A lot of things have changed. In those days, we’d go to bars down in Boston, had no problem dancing in the streets there, but were very cautious up here.”
Thus the group used the umbrella name, Manchester Performing Arts Association.
“Finally I said, to hell with it, I’ll sign it. The others did as well. We thought it would be easy to do, but it wasn’t,” says Hill. “We wondered, ‘Where is this paper going to go? Up to the state? What is the state going to do with it?’”
Bojko also spoke of the hesitation: “You know, 1998 was not that long ago, but it was a world of difference when it came to acceptance of gay people in New Hampshire ― that is, with the exception of the Seacoast area. Yes, there was a hesitation about blowing off the closet door hinges and then asking for money and for grants as a non-profit group, and sure, we thought the name, New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus, might have a negative connotation. Yes, there was some reluctance. When you sign your name to a document, you sometimes don’t know the ramifications. One of us was a social worker for the state. One of us was a teacher. There was some concern. Today, would you want to sign your name to an official document that officially declares you as gay? I don’t know. But back then, under the umbrella MPAA name, there was much less reluctance.”
Interestingly enough, NHGMC welcomes gay or “gay friendly” adult men over the age of 18 as singers, as well as women on its board and support staff. There are several straight singers in the chorus. In fact, the group has a father/son singing combo ― baritone Sean Chadwick and his bass father, Wes Chadwick, who both joined in 2005. Sean is gay; Wes is straight and married to yet another chorus mom ― and chorus wife ― Sue Chadwick. And Sean’s sister, Soprano Sarah Chadwick, became a smash-hit as NHGMC’s first female guest soloist in the Winter 2013 concert series, A Rose in Winter.
Though they have their orientations in common, NHGMC members are far from monolithic. They represent a cross section of New Hampshire. They come from all walks of life and from all over the Granite State ― and even a few from Maine and Massachusetts. Until just recently, their NHGMC web site posted in-depth biographies of singing members and board/staff members. “These short stories were so well-received. They humanized the members, as each member had his or her interesting life story to tell,” says baritone Paul Cioto, immediate past president and author of the biographies. “It gave the public some insights into the great guys behind the beautiful voices ― where they’re from, what they do for work, what their interests and hobbies are, where they went to school, why they love to sing. When the public reads these stories, they’re reminded of someone close to them ― a beloved friend, a brother, a son, a father.”
Says Hill, “Fifteen years ago, I don’t think we could’ve posted web biographies. Guys would have been reluctant, just as there was serious concern about photo releases back in the beginning. For a long time, we had a few guys who did not want their names in the program and did not want their names released under any circumstances. Fifteen years ago, we also likely couldn’t have sung the national anthem at baseball games because we would’ve been heckled. Obviously, times have changed. And it’s so great now that people realize we are fathers and brothers and sons and husbands and grandfathers, that we come from all different walks of life. That song we recorded for our fifth anniversary, ‘Color Out of Colorado’ ― we used to get standing ovations for that because it rang so true. The lyrics ask the audience to look at us and realize who we are. We’re your DJ. We’re your car salesman. We’re your plumber. We’re your mailman. We’re your bank teller. We’re your news announcer.”
“We’ve opened doors that people thought would never open for New Hampshire,” Hill continued. “Like in 2004, singing at Disney World! Think about it. We were the first openly gay group actually allowed to sing inside the park! Until then, everyone else had been singing outside the gate! We have proven that we are a serious, high-quality musical group, that we don’t sashay down the street in high heels, swinging boas and pearls. Though we do have breakout soloists and ensembles that do the campy thing for a song here and there, we’ve never worn it on our sleeves…”
That big bold sound
“We’ve always had a masculine, bold sound and energy,” Hill continued. And the Chorus has always been proud of that sound and its high-quality choral arrangements in four-part TTBB harmony that it belts out for audiences all over New Hampshire and beyond.
The Chorus regularly gets complimented on that big bold sound. Says Perreault, “What’s unique about NHGMC is that we have such a small membership, but with a very big and beautiful sound!” Perhaps Carol Dullea said it best: “They have always had great voices and great performances. It never ceases to amaze me. Just before the first number of every concert, you see a relatively small number of men ― and then they blow you out of your seats with the power of their performance! I love it!”
No, they are not nearly as large or as well-known as their musical brothers of the legendary Boston Gay Men’s Chorus or other big-name choruses across the country. But notwithstanding the small size of the chorus — ranging between 20 and 30 members over the years — the men of NHGMC have taken comfort in being known for knocking their audience’s socks off with their signature professional big bold sound.
“Any time new people see us perform, it seems they’re overwhelmed by how good we really are,” says Tim Dullea. “They thought we’d be good, but they’re usually just amazed beyond expectations of just how good … If you ask anybody in Massachusetts, they’ve probably heard of the BGMC. But if you ask anyone off the street in New Hampshire if they’ve heard of us, they’d probably be clueless.”
Sometimes called the “best kept musical secret in New Hampshire,” the Chorus has struggled over the years to win exposure and name recognition with the general public. Their 15th Crystal Jubilee anniversary, however, did provide a good opportunity to spread the word — and to a certain extent it has worked because NHGMC has never in its history been held in higher esteem than it’s held today.
To commemorate the Chorus’s 15th Crystal Jubilee anniversary and long history of service to the people of New Hampshire, both Governor John Lynch and Governor Maggie Hassan bestowed upon NHGMC a Governor’s Commendation, declaring a New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus Day in the State of New Hampshire. Governor Lynch’s commendation was read at the Colors of Winter Crystal Jubilee concerts in December, 2012. Governor Hassan’s commendation was read at the We Got That Swing! Crystal Jubilee concerts in May, 2013. NHGMC also received written proclamations from the mayors of Portsmouth, Nashua, Manchester, and Concord.
In the distant past, however, seeking anniversary proclamations from New Hampshire public officials became a bit of a struggle. In 2003, for its 5th anniversary, NHGMC reached out to Mr. Lynch’s predecessor, Governor Craig Benson, in hopes of receiving a written commendation for NHGMC for their Spring 2003 concert series, Take Five. After Mr. Benson’s office reportedly had no intention of issuing any written recognition, due to his reluctance to recognize by name a gay organization, his office finally agreed, but only after it received inquiries from The Concord Monitor, which at the time ran a major story on the controversy. And instead of a commendation, Governor Benson offered a more lackluster citation. But his citation never once mentioned the name, New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus. Instead, it cited the Manchester Performing Arts Association, though the chorus said it had asked for recognition of NHGMC, not the MPAA. At the time, then state representative and minority whip, Ray Buckley (D-Manchester) told the Monitor: “It’s not the MPAA anniversary. It’s the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus, and that’s the way the citation should read.” Even the way the citation itself was delivered became controversial. As the Monitor reported it: “In another unconventional twist, an apparent representative of Benson’s office delivered the original citation to [chorus representative Micheil] MacCutcheon’s apartment complex by hand … The citation was not in an envelope and did not include any additional correspondence, according to MacCutcheon. He said the man drove away without identifying himself or speaking to MacCutcheon.”
By contrast that same year, Manchester Mayor Robert A. Baines drew up an elaborate proclamation for NHGMC’s fifth anniversary ― some say in part because of Governor Benson’s reticence ― that declared April 27, 2003, as “New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus Day” in the City of Manchester.
Social fun and enduring traditions
The fun, the friendships, and the socializing are big reasons why so many in the NHGMC family stick around year after year. And many Chorus traditions have sprung from the social camaraderie.
The group’s most enduring social tradition happens regularly on rehearsal nights at the Puritan Backroom Restaurant, Manchester. After Tuesday night rehearsals, throughout the chorus’s existence, many of the guys have ventured out to the Backroom for a post-rehearsal drink, a bite to eat, and a tall order of camaraderie. It’s a special place where they’ve shared personal stories, their ups, their downs, good laughs, and good cries – a place where they’ve lent an ear or a shoulder to lean on, where they’ve confided in each other as brothers.
The guys are a big favorite of the Backroom staff. They’re like weekly celebrities, says Backroom waitress, Kathy Bennett, who has happily waited on these late-night gatherings for about 14 years. Waitressing at the Backroom since 1982, Bennett has certainly become one of the biggest honorary members of their Chorus.
“I love it when my boys come down on Tuesday nights, and I’m heartbroken when they don’t! My Tuesday nights really aren’t the same without them,” says Bennett. “I have so much fun. I love everybody in the Chorus. I love it when they sing for me here. They perform quite well here! Tony in the kitchen regularly asks me, ‘Are the boys here yet?’ He knows when they’re here when I put in my order. He can tell by the order.”
Bennett added, “It’s just all-out fun when they’re here. I get to know their stories so well. I get to know all their personalities…”
Bennett has attended a few of the concerts and owns a few Chorus CDs. “The concerts are great! I love their sound!” She plans on attending more concerts. What does the chorus mean to her? “The guys make my night every Tuesday night. Some of the girls here, I think, are jealous just because I’m assigned to their tables! You know, I’d rather wait on these guys than twelve women any day! The guys are more polite and more fun … For the most part, the guys have pretty much stayed the same over the years, though some have come and gone. And I think it’s wonderful that the Chorus has been around and singing now for fifteen years.”
In the last few years, the Chorus guys have also popped into Doogie’s Bar and Grill in Manchester after rehearsals. Ray and Ed, the owners of Doogie’s, are loyal NHGMC supporters. In recent years, Doogie’s has hosted Chorus holiday parties and annual meetings.
Speaking of yet another fun tradition, after every concert the guys traditionally go out to eat at a local restaurant in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth, Nashua, Keene, or wherever they perform. And, just as they break out in song on rehearsal nights for Kathy Bennett at the Puritan Backroom, these celebratory banquets typically end with the guys serenading the wait staff – much to the delight and applause of the everyone in the restaurant.
Those who’ve attended an NHGMC concert know they stand a good shot of winning the raffle for a beautiful homemade quilt! Throughout its history, the chorus has raffled a quilt at each concert venue. Most of these quilts, over the years, have been crafted by talented quilter and first tenor, David Sirota, who joined in 2003, as well as by second tenor, Rick Carkin and baritone Jerry Buxton. In the last few years, some of the chorus’s fans have also embraced the task. Longtime quilters, such as Portsmouth’s Alice Holding, Brentwood’s Karen Ellis, and Goffstown’s Tamara McShea, have donated their time and talent in making lovely quilts for the raffles.
The rehearsals themselves are also fun, laughter-filled gatherings – that is, in addition to very hard work. During every concert season the men are put through an extremely rigorous practice regimen, not only on Tuesday nights, but also at the many additional Saturday and Monday rehearsals to accommodate songs for special performances and simply to finetune their concert pieces.
Roberge believes that humor is an important ingredient for successful rehearsals: “It’s walking a fine line. As director, I need to determine how much time during rehearsals to work diligently and how much time to laugh and crack a few jokes. The last thing the guys want, after working hard all day in their own jobs, is to have the director harping on them all night long. I think we need to reach that happy medium, staying focused, working hard and enjoying it all at the same time.”
When it comes to fun and camaraderie, every member of NHGMC can tell you about his or her favorite Chorus moments over the years, about the special times they’ve experienced together with their beloved Chorus family. There are countless stories, such as singing songs on the monorail to and from the Walt Disney World parks during their 2004 Florida trip. Or taking a fun road trip to Boston in 2005 to perform for Boston Pride crowds in front of Faneuil Hall. Or singing with other men’s and women’s choruses. Or cheering up nursing home residents with song. Or watching the sun set from their VIP seats at Fisher Cats baseball games. Or singing love songs at weddings. Or bringing holiday cheer to Saturday night “strollers” out and about in Nashua. Or dancing in platform shoes at post-concert retro Disco parties thrown by Cioto. Or sharing childhood photos for their Singing the 70s 2009 Spring concerts. Or gazing in amazement at Roberge’s twenty-something Christmas trees and thousands of ornaments at his and Shepard’s annual Christmas party. Or surprising Sean Chadwick at his 30th birthday party. Or sharing fun moments in the long rehearsal carpools from/to Portsmouth. Or playing their traditional Yankee Swap at the chorus’s annual holiday party. So many good memories.
So that’s their untold story ― the origins and oral history of a Granite State treasure. It’s a story of a dream come true. It’s a story of hard work and proud accomplishment. Their first 15 years (now 18 years) have been a long, fun, and loving journey, but also a very challenging, obstacle-strewn rocky road. But now they’d like to think of themselves as no longer New Hampshire’s best-kept musical secret!
And what did NHGMC’s fifteenth birthday mean in the eyes of two of the founders, MacDonald and Bojko?
Says MacDonald, “Today the Chorus is excellent and much more professional. I’m very impressed with what Luc has done with it. They’ve got to be one of the best choruses in the state … It’s great that they have survived for 15 years and have thrived and grown. That says something about their direction and their spirit. They really are so professional now. They look and act like a professional chorus. They project a nice image to the public.”
Says Bojko, “I am very pleased the Chorus has reached 15 years. Knowing how difficult it is to get any group of gay men to agree on anything is a miracle in itself! But it seems like the Chorus has a deeper level of commitment. It seems there has been a solid number of men committed to making it work. I’m sure a lot of people have come and gone over the past 15 years ― some good, some not so good. But the fact that the Chorus is still here, I think, is amazing. The fact that it’s accepted by the governor, by the Fisher Cats, by the various orchestras and choruses in the arts community, by just about everyone, really says a lot about what the New Hampshire Gay Men’s Chorus means to this state.”
The guys have many more great stories to tell. But they want to tell you these stories in person when you attend their concerts or audition with Luc Roberge or volunteer for Carol Dullea’s support staff. Even at its ripe old age, this Chorus will welcome you with open arms and warmly embrace you as part of their musical family.
Brothers forever, best friends through it all … Brothers forever, best friends through it all.