“Last night the chorus was really, really, really starting to polish it,” Thea Kano says.
The artistic director of the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington was referring to a rehearsal of “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” part of the group’s upcoming tribute to Dolly Parton. “Some of our songs are upbeat and fun and all that,” Kano says. “Others, such as this one, are more choral and really show off the range of our singing — both with our technique and our dynamics.”
“My Tennessee Mountain Home” has proven to be challenging for the group to get right — and in ways going beyond simply mastering the technical aspects of the vocals and arrangement.
Since they started rehearsing the show in March, Kano has had several singers approach her with how emotionally difficult the song is to perform, especially “given all that’s going on — anti-LGBTQ/trans laws and drag queen bans.”
The ugly, hateful reality of contemporary politics and culture in the state is hard to square with the distorted, rose-tinted view painted by Parton’s romanticized lyrics, playing up Tennessee’s natural beauty and the friendly, folksiness of residents.
Some members of the chorus struggled with the idea of singing it at all, and saying anything positive about Tennessee. “It’d be really easy to say ‘f-you’ to Tennessee and Florida, and leave it at that,” Kano says. Instead, the chorus will pursue “really a very artful way of addressing [the issues].”
During between-song banter from the stage, two chorus members originally from Tennessee will be “talking about…how important it is that we sing for the queer community in Tennessee. There are a lot of great people in Tennessee doing the hard work.”
Furthermore, another chorus member with “a drag queen following [is] going to actually come on stage and conduct the audience in a verse of that song. By doing things like this, we are saying, ‘We have community there, too, and it’s important that we all fight for what is just’ — equal rights for all in every state across the nation and the world.”
Another song part of the Dolly program serves as a subtle reminder that anti-LGBTQ headwinds are not just confined to the South or conservative red states. “Rainbowland,” co-written by and recorded with Miley Cyrus, Parton’s goddaughter, who identifies as queer and gender fluid, is “all about living together under one big rainbow,” Kano says. The affirming and inclusive song “is an example of [Parton] saying, ‘I stand [with] the spectrum of people the rainbow represents.'”
It’s a sweet, seemingly innocuous sentiment — yet one deemed too controversial by school officials in Wisconsin, who earlier this year forbade a choir teacher at one school from allowing students to perform it.
Despite this, the song’s message is classic Dolly, winking and nodding and hinting at the 77-year-old legend’s diverse fandom and widespread appeal. “It’s across the board, and I’m even going to say across the aisle, that she is appreciated and loved,” Kano says.
Out of a canon of well over 2,000 possible songs, the concert highlights 18, including six that Parton didn’t write but made famous — a surprising list that includes Parton standards like “Here You Come Again” and “Islands In The Stream.”
“We have some soloists, we have some cute cowboys, we’ve got some high-kicking dancers,” Kano says of the concert.
The program includes performances by all of the chorus’s small ensembles, including GenOUT, Seasons of Love, Rock Creek Singers, Potomac Fever, and 17th Street Dance. While the icon herself won’t be on hand, her team is aware of the tribute. “We did get, from her manager, a ‘good luck, break a leg’ message, which was lovely,” Kano says.
With Dolly, Kano closes out her 19th season with the chorus, including her initial years as associate conductor. Although not yet announced, the forthcoming 2023-2024 season — which will be Kano’s 10th as artistic director — will offer at least two innovative, visual art-inspired programs quite unlike anything before from the chorus.
A first-ever “immersion experience” concert is planned as next year’s spring show, a novel concept sparked by a recent museum-hopping sojourn Kano took while in Paris. “I was inspired spending a lot of time in museums, moving from one room to another, and enjoying the freedom of sitting and enjoying a room, or a particular painting, for as long as I wanted to, [then] walking to the next room and be like, ‘Meh,’ and keep walking. And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this with the music?'”
Kano intends it to be “a moveable feast,” and one presented in partnership with the Atlas Performing Arts Center. “We’re going to have ensembles in four or five different spaces, including the lobby, and the audience will actually move from space to space” as they enjoy and experience the music and performances.
The anchor for next season is Portraits, a project marking the organization’s return to the Kennedy Center for the first time since 2016 — and three years after the planned 40th anniversary extravaganza was canceled by COVID. Commissioned in 2020, Portraits marks “the first time we are incorporating visual art into the entire program,” Kano says. Through collaborations with commissioned artists, composers, and choreographers will come an all-new, multi-genre work envisioned as “a nine-movement oratorio” that will showcase a “vibrant spectrum of sexual, gender, racial, ethnic, and cultural identities.”
Kano is every bit as enthusiastic and inspired by the work now as ever, remaining a dogged and devoted progressive champion.
“I’ve seen a lot of growth, maturity, change,” says Kano of her two decades with the group. “It’s very humbling to still be with this incredible organization all these years later.”
Dolly will be performed on Saturday, June 3, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, June 4, at 3 p.m. at the Lincoln Theatre, 1215 U St. NW. Tickets are $25 to $65. Visit www.gmcw.org or call 202-293-1548.
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