Thanks to One Voice Chorus, the Calgary Gay History Project recently hosted a live presentation on the history of Calgary’s first LGBTQ2 chorus, the Rocky Mountain Singers. At a well-attended zoom event on April 19th, former choristers shared poignant memories and together we created a history narrative of the choir.
Attendees then spent an extra hour visiting and are even considering a reunion concert—if we Calgarians are so lucky! This is the first of several blog posts recounting some of the history we uncovered as part of this commissioned research project.
The Rocky Mountain Singers (RMS), 1989-2002, became an important focus of artistic expression in Calgary’s LGBTQ2 community. We conducted interviews with 12 former members; everyone expressed very fond and cherished memories of RMS. The chorus actively built and strengthened the LGBTQ2 community in Calgary and through their participation choristers created enduring friendships that have lasted into the present.
RMS had a well-known public presence and performed regularly; they were musical ambassadors for many gay community organizations including Calgary Pride. The chorus participated actively in the growing gay choral movement of the 1990s and represented both Calgary and Canada at the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) Festivals. RMS paved the way for future LGBTQ2 choral organizations in the city, including the contemporary Calgary Men’s Chorus and One Voice Chorus.
Luke Shwart, an RMS founder, recounted his memories of the origins of the choir.
“When my Vancouver Men’s Chorus buddy Dan Worsley insisted that I attend the 1989 GALA Chorus Festival in Seattle, I had no idea what to expect. But, countless individuals will tell you how GALA Festivals have a powerful way of transforming people through music. Imagine a world of black and white suddenly turned to colour; or the sound of a vinyl record turned into the experience of a concert. Everything was like before, but different, better, filled with promise. It happened to me. GALA demonstrated that the world is filled with gay people who love to sing. I realized that people like that lived in my city and province too.
I made a few decisions on the flight home from Seattle:
1.To attend the next GALA festival, in Denver in 1992
2.To attend with a chorus from Calgary, because that was the only possible way to have a better experience than I had in Seattle.
3.The choir’s name would be Rocky Mountain Singers.
I spent the summer networking, and met Karl Siegfried – who was trying to get a group of Calgary singers to go to Gay Games in Vancouver in 1990. We joined forces, and recognized that we had a few small problems – neither of us could conduct or play piano, other than the two of us we didn’t have any other singers, and if we ever did find some, we didn’t have any music, nor a place to practise.
We worked hard, and one by one resolved the issues. On October 3, 1989, at the MCC (Unitarian) Church on 16th Avenue NW, eight singers joined together with our first music director Bill Bradley—who conducted from the piano, and we started learning Christmas music. The choir grew from those humble beginnings.”
Michael Wright remembers that their very first concert was at Columbia House, a seniors’ residence in Bridgeland, noting, “they were a pretty generous audience.”
Suzanne Dextraze went to an RMS Christmas concert in 1989 at the Unitarian church and immediately felt the need to join: “I thought it was so cool and I wanted to sing there too.”
The choir was incorporated as a non-profit society on January 23, 1990. By then, they had found a critical mass of singers and a purpose. 1990 would prove a crucible year for RMS as they sorted through issues of gender, being open about their sexual orientation, AIDS, and the Gay Games—all to be explored in the next RMS history post.