Crystal meth use among gay men may seem an odd impetus for a work of choral music, but that didn't stop the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus from commissioning one.
Two years ago, a member of the Twin Cities Gay Men's Chorus, a well-respected teacher, was arrested for theft. It came out later that he stole to support a crystal-meth habit. This began discussions in the chorus that led to this weekend's premiere of "Through a Glass Darkly," a 45-minute oratorio about three men affected by crystal meth, commissioned from New York-based composer Michael Shaieb.
"When we began talking about it, it turned out that most of the younger men in the chorus know someone who was addicted," said director Stan Hill.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that meth use is more prevalent among gay men than among the general population, and that using it correlates to riskier sexual behaviors.
"We decided that we wanted to get people talking," Hill said. "Back in the 1980s, we sat and watched as the community died around us [of AIDS]. Our music then was reactionary. With this devastation hitting the community, we wanted to be proactive."
Shaieb found out about the opportunity from the American Composers Forum. "My first reaction was that it was a really dumb idea," he said. "But I sent them my tapes, some choral stuff, but also club electronic tracks. I decided that if they could relate to this, then I could do it."
More than a public service announcement
The chorus was clear that it wanted a predominantly choral work. "But I never wanted the piece to be an anti-meth PSA," Shaieb said. "As an audience member, I want to connect with a piece, and the only way to do that is through characters."
So Shaieb tells the story of three young men: Sebastian, a successful stock trader addicted to crystal meth; Zack, his partner, waiting at home, and Billy, a boy he meets at a club and turns on to meth. But the focus remains very much on the men's chorus. "They act as a Greek chorus," he said, "putting the more immediate story in a broader context."
Hill describes the music as "infectious. It really captures the hard-driven music of the club scene." The diverse score includes "some ethereal a cappella music and an accurate picture of Sebastian's descent into the maelstrom."
"I was amazed at the amount of insight and sensitivity [Shaieb] has," said chorus member Justin Scharr, who plays Billy and is himself in recovery from crystal-meth addiction. "He hits home in all the most debilitating aspects. I have been all three people in the show and it's amazing that he was able to capture all three facets."
The chorus is not trying to solve the problem, Hill said, but is providing resources. A curriculum for high school and college students is being prepared that will be circulated with a DVD of the performance filmed by Twin Cities Public Television, which also agreed to air the concert in prime time.
Local businessman and longtime chorus supporter Alan Braun, himself sober for 24 years, underwrote the commission to the tune of six figures. "When asked to support the commission, I gave the same blank stare that people have been giving me when I describe the project," Braun said. "I was leery until I heard the music. Michael Shaieb hit it out of the park. I couldn't believe that he was not in recovery."
The first half of the program is much lighter, exploring the nature of friendships and the idea that we create our own families. It includes music from Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Simon and Garfunkel and Abba.
Hill admits that this is not the most commercial project that TCGMC has ever undertaken. But he felt it was worth the risk, showing the chorus' commitment to its mission, "building community through music."
William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis writer.