From AIDS activism to marriage equality and gay pride: Dennis Coleman reflects on 35 years with the Seattle Men’s Chorus, and the need to hand leadership to a new generation.
Not long after arriving at Dennis Coleman’s Capitol Hill residence, I hold up a copy of the new Seattle Men’s Chorus brochure announcing his final concert as its artistic director after 35 years.
“I actually like it,” he said.
Clearly, Dennis Coleman is not one of those people who will have to be pried off the doorknob on his way out. He is retiring because — just as he can hear a voice out of tune — he hears the rest of his life calling.
Coleman, 67, has served longer than any artistic director of a Seattle-area arts organization of its size or larger, according to the book “Classical Seattle” by arts critic Melinda Bargreen.
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He has seen the chorus grow from 35 men to 10 times that number. He helped with the formation of Seattle Women’s Chorus in 2002. The two choirs combined, with more than 700 voices, make up the largest community chorus organization in North America, and the largest LGBT-identified men’s and women’s choruses in the world.
In that sense, Coleman is leaving a very large, lyrical legacy.
“Our goal at the beginning was to put as big a public face (as possible) on the gay community,” Coleman said.
When Coleman first saw the chorus perform in 1980, he wasn’t even sure it was a gay chorus. A year later, after being fired as musical director of a local church, Coleman was hired as the chorus’ substitute conductor, then became its artistic director.
“My skill set, creating this family, has been so important during these three decades,” he said. “Through political movements, AIDS and marriage equality … It just seems like we did it.”
These days, Coleman is seeing the transgender community find its place and its voice.
“All these things coming up,” he said. “The younger generation speaks a language I don’t understand. Let them take it.”
His replacement, Paul Caldwell, seems the perfect successor. He will come to Seattle from Chicago, where he is conductor of the Youth Choral Theater of Chicago, the Windy City Gay Chorus and Windy City Treble Quire.
“It’s exactly the right time,” Coleman said, “and Paul is exactly the right person.”
More than once during my visit with Coleman, the front door opened and a friend walked in, said hello and gave Olive the rescue dog a scratch or two, not realizing they were interrupting an interview. Coleman didn’t mind, though, and neither did I. It told me something about this place, and this man. The community he has built not only in the city but in this little corner of Capitol Hill.
Some 20 years ago, Coleman and a group of friends bought every apartment in the complex, even closed on the same day. They dine together, party together and take care of each other. It means more all the time.
Coleman has no plans to leave this place, but has travel plans that start right after the chorus’ last concert in July.
A lake in Wisconsin. A cruise around Ireland. The balloon festival in Albuquerque.
And Christmas — Christmas! — will be spent far from the Seattle area, where the Men’s Chorus typically performs eight concerts for 15,000 people, including one at the Westlake Center tree lighting.
“I was responsible for a lot of Christmases around here,” Coleman said. “Christmas in Seattle was kind of my job.”
It’s time to make some holiday memories of his own.
This December, Coleman will travel to Vienna, Salzburg and Munich. The Christmas Markets in Prague. The Czech Republic for New Year’s.
“I was never able to do that,” Coleman said.
Leaving the Men’s Chorus will also allow Coleman to expand his role at the First Congregational Church of Bellevue, where he holds the enviable title of “Minister of Music and Arts.”
“I love it there,” he said, adding that at that very moment, a new organ was being installed in the church new sanctuary.
Coleman will also have time for gardening, dinner parties and seeing friends.
“I haven’t been to a movie in …,” he said, his words trailing off. “I just want to reconnect with old friends and make some new ones.”
How the chorus feels about that, well, Coleman can see it in members’ faces during rehearsals.
“I don’t go to that place,” he said of the inevitable sadness, “because once one of them sees my lip quiver, it’s like the first kid who vomits on the school bus. They all follow.”
You laugh at the analogy, but still sigh. It’s the end of something important.
“In the beginning, it was ‘We’re here, we’re queer,’ then AIDS hit,” Coleman said. “So we organized and joined forces with the women for all the initiatives and votes. That helped us later when we were fighting for our civil rights.
“But it’s clear to them and it’s clear to me that I am getting run down.”
Coleman’s last performance with the chorus will be next month at the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses Festival in Denver.
The last song he will direct: “Raise You Up” from “Kinky Boots.”
Once I was afraid, but then you came along.
Put your faith in me and I was challenged to be strong.
When I lost my way, you were there to see me through.
The lyrics are fitting. Coleman made a place for a lot of people in Seattle who felt alienated and silenced, and gave them voice and strength.
“It is an anchor,” he said of the chorus. “A social and spiritual kind of focal point for the community. We understand who we are and have celebrated that together.”