’For A Look or A Touch’
Let me tell you a story...
The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus has a long tradition of making its Spring Concert an occasion for serious social comment, sandwiching more somber material in-between the festivities of its Christmas Concerts in December and its Pride performances in June.
Last year, the topic was gay teen suicide, in a show timed to keep the spotlight on the ongoing tragedy of gay kids killing themselves because they have been told, among other things, that Jesus doesn’t love them. The centerpiece of that show was Jay Kawarsky’s "Prayers for Bobby." (Bobby’s story is not just a bestselling book and a TV movie starring Sigourney Weaver: It’s also a deeply affecting suite of songs.)
A couple of years ago, we--okay, full disclosure, I am a Tenor 2 and a board member of the BGMC--we sang about marriage equality. In my opinion, the piece was a little strident, and the red and blue cardboard squares we waved around to depict the deep, polarizing divisions in this country over the issue of marriage for all served to confuse, rather than elucidate, the audience. (One reviewer complained about the cardboard squares not only when writing up that show, but also referenced it when reviewing the following year’s Spring Concert; ouch!) But the composition was also passionate, and its message was crucial.
Anyone with a family to value can understand what it means to want to protect that family. It took nineteen years for any state in this Union to catch up to the reality of families like mine; by the time my husband and I were able to marry in 2004, when Massachusetts became the first state to offer legal same-sex marriage, we had lived in three countries and two continents, all without the legal protections of matrimony. Not because we didn’t want to be married; not because we didn’t consider ourselves to be married; but rather, because we had been denied those rights and protections from day one of our life together. Saying our vows eight years ago was more than a blessed occasion, it was a tremendous relief.
But sometimes the needs of one’s family can catch a person up in powerful cross currents. That’s what happens in the story I want to tell you: The story of Manfred and Gad, two gay Jewish lovers caught up in the horrors of the Holocaust.
Manfred and Gad’s story is the centerpiece of this year’s Spring Concert. Though Gad devises a plan to free Manfred from the clutches of the uniformed madmen who have thrown nations into chaos, Manfred refuses to flee to safety. His family is still in custody; "I am the strong one," Manfred tells Gad.
"We never said goodbye," Gad recalls decades later, after the war, and after years of lingering shame during which gays liberated from the death camps were simply turned right back over to the authorities because under the notorious Paragraph 175 it was a crime to be queer.
The libretto is drawn from Manfred’s journal, which Gad saved. In Hegge’s adaptation, Manfred’s ghost, still youthful, appears to the aged Gad, who is finally able to express his outrage and grief; no one wanted to hear about it in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust.
Indeed, it was not until fairly recently that the story of the gays who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazi machine began to come to light; plays like "Bent" and historical fiction like the mystery novels of Rebecca Cantrell have blown layers of dust off a nearly forgotten history of monstrous cruelty and indelible suffering.
The BGMC and the Seattle Men’s Chorus jointly commissioned a work from composer Jake Heggie, who sets Manfred and Gad’s youthful love against a backdrop of sexy pre-war Berlin (we have four handsome dancers guesting for this sequence, along with a powerfully talented guest singer who plays the part of Manfred). But their time together, "when night was for more than sleep," is fleeting; the harsh faux morality of the Nazis consigns Gad and Manfred to indescribably anguish and suffering. In one passage, Manfred describes the torments visited on victims of the Nazis in a forest the rings with the cries of tortured prisoners--a "singing forest."
The name of the piece is "For A Look or A Touch," a title derived from a line spoken by Manfred, who observes that life in Nazi Germany was a time of terror, when "a look or a touch" could get a man thrown into the death camps. "Why?" Gad cries. "What have I done?"
That’s the question that resonates in the collective consciousness of the GLBT community, and in the heart of every gay, lesbian, bi, and trans individual. What have I done?--that my rights should be abrogated; that my family should face legal erasure? That frowning politicians and bellowing men of the cloth should speak of us as though our very existence were a plague, a threat, or a diabolical plot to snatch away religious liberties?
The simple answer is that we have done nothing other than to be here; to dare to breathe the same air and walk on the same land as those who have decided (and yes, it is a choice, unlike being gay) to hate and punish us. It’s telling when "religious liberties" have come to mean denying others the same rights that the Sanctified enjoy.
The Holocaust was a long time ago, but it should never be forgotten. "Should" is, however, not a word that always carries much weight. Just have a look at the current crop of Republican contenders for the White House falling over one another in a scramble to stake out their anti-gay positions. Gays were more or less left alone in the Weimar days; are our own recent civil rights advances truly a sign of progress, or will this patch of light on history’s road be fleeting?
"I don’t know that things ever get better," the BGMC’s music director, Reuben M. Reynolds told EDGE in a recent interview. "We keep trying."
So we do; just yesterday, New Hampshire lawmakers soundly rejected a cruel and cynical attempt to un-marry gay and lesbian families in the Granite State, and they did it on a bipartisan basis, a rare thing in today’s political climate. Washington State is set to allow marriage equality, and New Jersey would have it now if not for the veto of its anti-marriage equality governor. There is hope that maybe it really does get better, after all.
But hope springs from memory and the responsibility to keep the memories of lessons learned alive and vital. That’s why Manfred and Gad’s story is so important, even now, even in the midst of the modern world’s arc of progress. If you live in the Boston area, go and see this show. If you don’t, you can find Hegge’s work on an American Classics release. It’s on Spotify. It’s on iTunes. (I’d say it might even be in record stores, but are there any record stores left?)
Don’t get the wrong idea. This year’s Spring Concert isn’t a downer. There are plenty of pop gems (Two Adele hits! And a gorgeous selection from "Falsettoland!") and lots of Gershwin, energetically arranged by the Chorus’ own Chad Weirick. Check it out:
But the concert’s heart remains Heggie’s masterpiece, and it’s a heart throbbing with memory and tenderness.
"For A Look or a Touch" will be performed as part of "Love’s Voice," this year’s Spring Concert, taking place at Jordan Hall in Boston on Saturday, March 24, and Sunday, March 25. Both performances will be at 8:00 p.m. Tickets and more information available at www.bgmc.org