When the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington, DC (GMCW) named Thea Kano as its artistic director in 2014, she for one was pleasantly surprised and humbled, even after having spent the previous decade as its associate music director. For one, she was the first woman ever to be offered the role, and a straight woman at that.
“The first few rehearsals working with them, I thought, ‘this is wild, being the only self-identifying woman in the room,’ but now I don’t even think about it,” Kano says. “Gender never even crosses my mind.”
Under Kano’s leadership and guidance, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington has prospered, both in performance and outreach.
“I have been an ally of the LBGTQ+ community since I was a kid, growing up in the San Francisco Bay area,” she says. “My mother was a firm social justice advocate and instilled that in me. So, it makes sense that I would be working for an arts organization that is a social justice organization as well.”
“We still we want our celebration to be fitting for this occasion — big, bold and beautiful, especially since we are all celebrating at home this year,” Kano says.
District Fray spoke with Kano about the group’s milestone, her work with the group and how arts conquer all.
Distract Fray: What do you find rewarding about your position?
Thea Kano: Having been here 17 years now with the members of the chorus, it’s been an education about the LGBTQ+ experience, and every day I’m learning something, which is a wonderful and humbling experience. I consider myself so fortunate and it’s not fair I get to make a living having so much fun. I love my job.
What LGBTQ+ milestone and fight for equal rights are you most proud of?
We were at the Supreme Court during the announcement of marriage equality, and I get goosebumps still every time I talk about that. We broke into the National Anthem and it took on a whole new meaning as we sang it. I remember that final cutoff while looking at the U.S. flag and knew this was one of the bigger steps.
Where did your interest in music come from?
My parents are big patrons of the arts and certainly encouraged me towards the arts at an early age, starting with piano lessons, as well as ballet classes. I eventually joined the chorus in my high school and was a conducting major undergrad and for grad school.
What brought you to the D.C. area?
I came to D.C. for this job. Initially, I was associate conductor for 10 years and then seven years ago, I applied for the position of artistic director, and here I am. Between the time I graduated and coming here, I was teaching high school choral music and musical theatre.
What were the challenges of leading the GMCW during the pandemic this past year?
Singing is one of the most dangerous things you can do during this pandemic. When one sings, you are taking a big breath in, so you are taking in that much more air into your body and expelling air. We are not able to be together yet, so we have been rehearsing via Zoom since last spring. It never crossed our minds to not sing and continue to raise our voice for equality. The number of singers has been about the same as they are when we’re in person. We as the leaders cannot hear the singers, and they themselves can only hear themselves and the piano. It’s a much different experience when you’re not hearing the harmonies in a big room.
What’s on tap for the group’s spring fundraiser this year?
We did not picture this. We had hoped to be at the Kennedy Center, but we have moved our celebration to the small screen. We wanted to talk about the shoulders upon which we stand — the giants who came before us and paved the way to a lot of the wonderful things that have happened for the movement.
On June 5, the group presents “GMCW Turns 40.” What can we expect there?
We are including a production reel that looks back at highlights over the last 40 years. We’ve done book musicals, production numbers with fabulous costumes, and that will be a fun thing for our patrons to see. We can see how much we’ve grown as an organization. Additionally, we will be peppering in the show some pictures and videos from over the years. In preparation for the show, we are learning the song “From Now On” from “The Greatest Showman.” We met in groups of 15 or 20 in various locations throughout the city, and I and some staff members would video them lip-synching to a recording of them singing, six feet apart of course. It was the first time that we were back together, the first time I have been able to conduct. There was so much joy on our singers’ faces.
Why is this group so special?
The opportunity to make a difference in one’s life with the beauty of singing and the beauty of our message of quality and justice for all people is a gift.
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