Within the emerging movement of community queer choirs, Cor Flammae has a distinct voice. There are many opportunities for queer people to sing together, but not many opportunities for audiences to listen to a professional queer ensemble perform queer content. Cor Flammae performs both modern and historical classical music with the aim of shifting the assumed perspective from a hetero-normative one to a queer one.
Sad Mag sat down with Missy Clarkson, who founded the ensemble with her wife Amelia Pitt-Brooke, and friend Madeline Hannan-Leith to talk about the choir, upcoming concerts, and re-queering the world of classical music.
Sad Mag: When and why did you start Cor Flammae?
Missy Clarkson: We came to the idea two years ago when we attended the Queer Arts Festival. There was a lesbian opera called “When the Sun Comes Out” by Leslie Uyeda. We are into classical music and opera subscribers. We didn’t know what was going to happen with lesbian opera. We didn’t necessarily have expectations. But it was amazing. It was sweeping and grand, poignant and lovely, and not too sad–sometimes queer work is very lament-y. Many of us are in ensembles in the city, and we wanted that for choir.
SM: It sounds like there was a niche that needed to be filled, and you found it.
MC: We were surprised with how much momentum it had. There are a lot of places for queer people to sing together in the city, but there aren’t a lot of places where an audience can experience classical music at a professional level with a queer ear.
SM: What can audiences expect from a performance?
MC: Last year, we introduced ourselves as quite secular. We chose secular works because there is baggage with queerness and organized religion. It can be an unsafe space for queer people. Because there is rich religious traditions to choral music–it was written to be performed in churches for the most part–it is an interesting genre for queer people to be exploring and doing professionally. This year, we didn’t want to miss out on having that conversation so we’re approaching the relationship between the sacred and the profane through a queer perspective in our performances. Queers have not necessarily felt welcome to choral music because of the religious traditions associated with it that have often labeled the queer body as profane, obscene, or unholy. We want to show our audience queer spirituality–all the composers we’re performing were/are queer and many were/are devout.
We’re producing two concerts. One of them is at the beautiful St. Andrew’s Wesley Church where we’re performing the music in the place for which it was written. Then we’re taking the same works and performing the next night in a social play space–a bath house essentially. It’s hat tipping the bathhouse tradition of queerness. Canada’s queer history started because of the bathhouse riots in Toronto. Where the United States had Stonewall in 1969, Canada had Operation Soap in 1981. Police officers raided bathhouses and arrested about three hundred queer men just for being queer. The public didn’t take well to that, and thousands of people took to the streets and marched the next day. It was first pride parade in Canada essentially. Cor Flammae is interested in how the listening experience changes when we perform choral music, historically deeply spiritual music, in the historically queer space of a sex club like Club 8×6.
SM: The audience gets to experience the music in a religiously charged space and a politically charged space.
MC: Totally. Obviously the acoustics are different in each space. And there’s going to be a dance party in the sex club after the performance so it’ll be a little different for that reason. [Laughs.]
SM: What are you most looking forward to about the upcoming set of concerts?
MC: Our outfits! They are a secret still.
SM: Don’t say any more about the outfits. It will be a teaser. Who has been your favourite historical composer to revive through Cor Flammae?
MC: There are so many composers that are hotly contested by scholars. [Franz] Schubert has been an interesting one for us because he was probably bisexual. He was hanging with lots of ladies, and probably hanging with lots of guys too. It’s a scandal to bring it up with any of the scholars. Really straight, traditional scholars are like, “No, not my Schubert.” We’ve also rediscovered Ethel Smyth, who was known for opera choruses. She was friends with [Johannes] Brahms, and she also had a complicated relationship with Virginia Woolf. She was loud, proud, a suffragette, and an out lesbian. She was rich so that made it easier for her to be all over. She had privilege that afforded her opportunity. She got to spread her works around, and make out with everybody. [Laughs.]
We also work with living queer composers. Classical music celebrates the past more often so new works don’t get traction. People want to hear things they have heard before. They want to hear Beethoven’s Ninth [Choral Symphony]. New music is less sellable. Cor Flammae can combine these two worlds. We can celebrate the past and connect it to the present.
SM: How does your experience in Cor Flammae compare to your experience in other ensembles?
MC: It’s illuminating. The first time we got together as an ensemble after our auditions was at our photo shoot. We had oranges and brandy and hung out for hours getting makeup and hair done. There was comfort and understanding immediately. That’s translated to this year. We had our photo shoot a few weeks ago, and we were all half-naked. I don’t get half-naked in front of just anybody. The queerness factor causes that comfort and connection, and that relates to the music as well. People have said, “Oh, I didn’t know this person was queer or that person was queer.” It’s not mentioned elsewhere. When we were researching [Gian Carlo] Menotti’s “The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore” to perform last year, we found queerness wasn’t mentioned in the scholarship. There’s a unicorn in it so it’s pretty gay already, but it’s the story of a weird guy in a castle who dares to parade around with his unicorn. It was written in 1956. It’s a very queer narrative. Any research we did seemed like it was grasping at heteronormative straws when the guy is clearly gay. Doing Menotti has been illuminating. Benjamin Britton has been illuminating. The way I listen to music has changed so that’s what I want to give our audiences.
SM: What music are you listening to right now?
MC: Personally, I mostly listen to music I’m going to perform so I can get it in my ear. We always make a playlist for our singers because we have limited rehearsals. We have seventy-five minutes of music in our upcoming concerts, and to build it up to the level it needs to be at, we have to work hard. I have to stay pretty focused with what I listen to. If I need to clean my ears out though, it’s almost always Beyoncé.
SM: Do you have a comment you would offer to queer performers of classical music? Maybe people who don’t live in the city or don’t know about a queer ensemble.
MC: This has been so freeing for us. We’re trying to be as visible as possible because visibility is a powerful tool in helping other people feel less alone. I’ve sung in choirs that are probably 30 per cent queer but don’t identify as a queer choir. Because of the connection in Cor Flammae, we feel less alone. My wife grew up in a musical family–her father was a choral conductor and her mother sang in choirs, but the women were taught to sing this and the men were taught to sing that. A women would have to wear a muumuu, and she could not wear a suit when she was more comfortable in a suit. We want to be visible so that everyone feels invited, even if they are not here. We’re pretty prevalent online, and we hope that we’re reaching people.
SM: You spoke earlier about the instant comfort and understanding your ensemble felt when you got together for your first photo shoot–that says it all. How has Cor Flammae affected your own queerness?
MC: It’s helped me articulate my own queerness. I’ve always identified as a chorister. I call myself a queerister now. It’s actually a thirteenth-century word that used to mean chorister. I feel like I’m different things that don’t necessarily intersect, and this ensemble helped with the intersection.
Cor Flammae’s concert set FALLEN ANGELS: Sacred + Profane Works will be at St. Andrew’s Wesley Church on July 17th, 2015 at 8pm and Club 8×6 on July 18th, 2015. Tickets go on sale June 1st 2015 at 10am. For more information, visit Cor Flammae’s webiste or subscribe to their mailing list.