Nearly two decades ago, a group of 30 like-minded men took the stage, their shared dream of forming a choral ensemble realized after much preparation. From that first concert in December 1986, the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC) has increased its numbers, and matured in its presentation, while managing to retain a feeling of camaraderie and community.
Among those initial choristers was Frank Woltkamp, the longest continually active member of HMC. As part of the group’s recent twentieth anniversary celebration, Frank symbolically stepped out to begin A Homecoming by himself, singing Barry Manilow’s One Voice. The remainder of the chorus members gradually joined him, until the climactic conclusion of the concert, where all former HMC members present were invited on stage to sing the final number, One World.
Artistic Director Joseph Nadeau designed the song list for the celebratory June event around audience suggestions of best-loved tunes that the Chorus had sung over the years. From these Nadeau constructed a narrative musical evolution that mirrored the organization’s growth over the years.
Over those years, the Chorus has reached audiences in a number of area venues. Although the home stage of the Heartland Men’s Chorus is the Folly Theatre, the voices of its members have joined together at churches, nightclubs, and parks and stages across the Midwest, the nation, and Europe. Membership has grown steadily to a current roster of around 130 men.
Chorus members come from a variety of backgrounds. Their vocal talents and experiences run the gamut from the professionally trained to those whose only previous audience had consisted of a showerhead and a bar of soap. Yet it’s clear from conversations with members that each of them has a sense of individual ownership; each member acts as a steward in his own way, regardless of his reason for joining: social interaction, a means of coming out, love of music, or a special kind of activism.
Members bring not only their voices to the Chorus, but often other talents. For example, 14-year member Mike Sigler donates his fundraising and financing expertise. And even though his debut (which he refers to as his “gaybut”) featured men brandishing red feather boas, he feels strongly that HMC performances transmit a positive image of gay men that makes the Chorus a deserving recipient of both praise and financial support.
One reason for the Chorus’s fundraising and concern for fiscal health is the quadrennial festivals of the GALA Choruses (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses, Inc.) and other group travel. On an international tour in 2002, veteran Chorus member Steve Dodge recalls a hauntingly peaceful performance in the American Cathedral in Paris. As Somewhere Over the Rainbow filled the nave, he caught sight of the Kansas and Missouri state flags among the banners that ringed the interior space, and an ineffable sensation overtook him.
Three concerts per year is standard for Heartland Men’s Chorus: holiday, spring, and summer. Joe Nadeau plans well ahead—often three to five years. Interstitial appearances at events like Pride are quite common. To capture the sounds and memories of the group’s art and musicianship, as well as to help finance the Chorus, HMC regularly sells compact discs of its performances. The next CD is set for an autumn 2007 release.
In 1998, under the direction of Reuben Reynolds III, the Chorus received a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) award for outstanding achievement as an arts organization and for its highly visible presence in the Kansas City gay and lesbian community. This visibility is the result of an institutional coming-out process.
Although it is well-known as a gay men’s chorus by those familiar with the organization, there was for a time great debate about whether or not to include “Gay” in the name of the group. Now well established as a brand, the Heartland name might still evoke an air of ambiguity to some—such as Mr. Nadeau’s former employer, St. Agnes Catholic Church (see editorial on page 4) — but to anyone who looks beyond that august name, there lies a longstanding and respected member of GALA Choruses.
One advantage to belonging to GALA is that member choruses often share original commissioned or arranged works. HMC joined other GALA Choruses in commissioning Oliver Button Is a Sissy, a musical based on a Tomie dePaola book. The performance of Oliver Button was especially meaningful to Rick Fisher, as it was the first time his family members were in a Heartland audience.
Rick is the Executive Director of HMC, overseeing its day-to-day operation. HeartLight, referred to as the fifth section—the first four being bass, baritone, and first and second tenors—is a group of volunteers that helps out with such things as refreshments, mailings, support at performances, and selling CDs.
One Chorus performance that stands out for many was All God’s Children. All God’s Children was more than a performance; it was a catharsis. Along with music, members’ stories of how organized religion had affected their lives as gay men were read. The emcee for the event was Rev. Mel White, former ghostwriter for Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. All God’s Children was performed the weekend before Kansans overwhelmingly voted to ban gay marriage. The coincidence of these two events left a profound mark on all those involved.
A similar feeling of shared exile is said to have been felt during Joseph Nadeau’s last mass as music director at St. Agnes. Evoking an admonition to return to emulating Jesus, Joe sang “God Help the Outcasts,” his last performance in that parish. As the Heartland Men’s Chorus moves into its third decade, its members remain willing to reach out, uplift, and help heal all God’s children, outcast or not.
Special thanks to Paul Backer, whose brief history helped form this piece.

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