Protesters hissing antigay slurs and death threats through bullhorns. Armed police officers as escorts to the performance hall. Headlines in publications around the world.
The Boston Gay Men’s Chorus was stunned when that was the reception it received in Wroclaw, Poland, in 2005 as part of its maiden European tour. And it could very well face a similarly hostile situation later this month when it makes history as the first gay chorus to tour the Middle East.
More than 100 members of the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus will perform five concerts in four cities from June 18-29, with stops in Israel (Tel Aviv, Ein Gedi, and Jerusalem) and Turkey (Istanbul). The group is already causing a stir in Istanbul, where the original venue canceled its concert amid a public outcry particularly upset that an openly gay ensemble would be performing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“It’s an area where there is conflict, misunderstanding, and intolerance,” said Craig Coogan, the chorus’s executive director. “And if there is any community that knows fear, misunderstanding, and intolerance, it’s the LGBT community.”
Coogan said the chorus, which will be singing mostly hits from Broadway musicals and contemporary pop music, had not yet secured a new venue in Istanbul, but he felt confident that it would happen, based on numerous offers and a broad show of solidarity among civic organizations there. He said the chorus will also participate in the city’s gay pride festivities and meet with Jewish, Muslim, and Palestinian cultural groups and artists throughout the tour.
“There are usually two reactions to our trip: ‘why?’ and ‘that’s cool,’ ” Coogan said. “People either get it or they’re very confused. The confusion is not ignorance. It’s a lack of understanding of why we would ever want to do something like this.”
Tori Bentkover, director of communications for the Consulate General of Israel to New England, said it took longer than expected for such a tour to happen, but it makes sense for Israel to be one of the host destinations.
“For Israel to be one of the first countries where this is happening is not surprising at all,” she said. “Tel Aviv is a city of diversity and coexistence, and their pride celebration is one of the grandest in the world.”
The courage to tour a region not especially known for its acceptance of gays and lesbians is right in line with the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus’s commitment to social justice; its mission has always been to educate as much as it entertains. Its leaders had considered more gay-friendly tour destinations, such as Cuba. But it was a tragedy close to home that strengthened the need to foster compassion for other cultures and religions on a more dramatic scale.
“The Boston Marathon bombing was a real-life example, right here in our backyard, of intolerance and terrorism, and that’s what this tour is responding to,” Coogan said. “We’re not equating the bombing with our decision to go to an Islamic country. We’re saying that the bombing made us realize we needed to go to a place where telling our stories is going to have an impact.”
“The whole impetus for this tour was for us to learn something about the Middle East, to open our eyes to the world,” said Reuben Reynolds, the chorus’s longtime music director. “The idea was that if you go somewhere and you get to know their people and you let them know something about you, you’ve broken down so many barriers instantly. And music has a way of doing that in a nonconfrontational manner.”
The tour’s repertoire is an exuberant mix of songs either written by gay artists or performed by gay icons. Selections from musicals (“Brotherhood of Man,” “Cabaret”) mingle alongside recent Top 40 hits from Madonna (“Ghosttown,” “Living for Love”) and Imagine Dragons (“On Top of the World”).
The centerpiece, though, is a new work that the chorus commissioned from composer Joshua Shank. “Peace” is a powerful invocation of the many ways that people seek and find that titular state of mind, with the lyrics sourced directly from chorus members, who were asked to complete the sentence, “I was at peace when . . . ” (The chorus will showcase some of its tour repertoire in a concert at Mechanics Hall in Worcester on June 7, and will premiere Shank’s song at its Symphony Hall performance on June 14, with actress and singer Laura Benanti as the afternoon’s special guest.)
“I think part of the role of our gay choruses is to continue to look for issues of homophobia not only here but beyond and to figure out how we can support other countries in their own struggle,” said Jane Ramseyer Miller, the artistic director of GALA Choruses, an international association of LGBT choruses. “So the timing for this tour is perfect. If we’re not uncomfortable, then we’re not singing in the right places.”
Founded in 1982, the Boston Gay Men’s Chorus is composed of about 175 singers both professional and amateur, ranging in age and ethnicity. Members have to pass an audition process, and it’s a demanding extracurricular activity. For the past several weeks, rehearsals have been brisk and rigorous under Reynolds’s firm direction. There’s choreography to finesse, lyrics to memorize, vowels to elongate.
After Monday’s run-through, members received cultural training on life in Israel, but the questions tended to be surprisingly mundane. The men mostly wanted answers to basic concerns any tourist has when venturing to a new country: Will their cellphones work? Are ATMs plentiful? Is the beach within walking distance from the hotel? There was a lone inquiry about security.
“The safety issue comes up over and over when we tell people about the trip, but we feel perfectly safe in going,” Reynolds said. “I’m not saying we’re foolhardy. Our tour company is quite tied in with all the local authorities to be able to watch and monitor this situation.”
Amanda Bauman, senior tour manager of ACFEA Tour Consultants Inc., has been planning and overseeing most of the chorus’s itinerary, from airfare and lodging to concert bookings and sightseeing.
“It became very clear from our initial conversation with Craig and Reuben that a tour of the UK or France wasn’t going to tick all the boxes,” she said. “It needed to be someplace where the chorus’s mission could be furthered. That led us to places that haven’t seen this before, and the Middle East kind of perked everyone up a little bit.”
Peter Crosby, who is going on the tour with his husband and fellow chorus member, David Chen, says conflicted feelings arose in early discussions.
“There are some members who have chosen not to come — and this is a very small number — but they’ve talked about whether we are taking sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by just going to Israel,” Crosby said.
“The message we want to bring has nothing to do with the politics of the region, but rather the stories that we’ve lived and want to tell,” Crosby added. “And we want to hear their stories, too.”