Meet Tim Seelig :: Gay chorus guru

by M. M. Adjarian

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday November 15, 2010


Musician Tim Seelig has easily packed the achievements of several lifetimes into one. He's earned four degrees, including two masters-one of which came from the prestigious Mozarteum in Salzburg, Austria-and a doctorate; published five books on music education; founded two highly regarded singing groups, The Women's Chorus of Dallas and Resounding Harmony; and served for 20 years as full-time conductor of the world-famous Dallas-based gay men's chorus, the Turtle Creek Chorale. And at 59, he's far from done.

Just this past week it was announced that following an extensive search, San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus has announced that effective January 1, 2011, Seelig will take the podium as the ensemble's next Artistic Director and Conductor.

Vance George, conductor Emeritus of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, said about the appointment: "Tim is a truly gifted conductor. Audiences can expect great things and his contribution to the cultural life of our city is keenly anticipated."

"The Chorus has been a source of inspiration for me personally and professionally for twenty-five years and to be given this opportunity to contribute to its future growth is truly the pinnacle of my years in choral music," Seelig added. "I am deeply grateful and humbled."

But success hasn't come easy-or without cost. Born into a devoutly Southern Baptist family, Seelig lived the straight life "someone else had written for me" while quietly struggling with his homosexuality. By the time he came out in 1986, he had two children and jobs as a professor at Houston Baptist University and as a music minister at a prominent church-all of which he lost, along with most of his personal assets.

Yet this profoundly painful time proved to be Seelig's defining moment. Bankrupt, he left Houston for Dallas and took a job as conductor of a small men's choir called the Turtle Creek Chorale. At the time, the TCC, which had been founded in 1980, existed in its own kind of closet. While it was well known that gay men made up the membership, the TCC itself didn't publicize the fact. Dallas was, after all, the heart of the Bible belt. It was enough that they could come together undisturbed and earn a modicum of respect doing what they loved.

During its first seven years, the chorus held its own. When Seelig assumed the conductorship in 1987, however, the group had fallen upon financial hard times. "I was down and out and the chorus was down and out," he recalls. "It was the perfect match." By 1989, Seelig made good on his pledge to do "whatever it [took]" to make the group solvent again. Better still, it was starting to perform with the elegantly flamboyant grace that has since become its trademark.

From that point on, membership increased exponentially and the TCC garnered more acclaim than it ever dreamed possible. But the AIDS crisis took its toll on the Chorale. And Seelig, who was no longer part of the church, found himself in the position of using his background in ministry to "[take] care of people's emotional needs" for over a decade as TCC members mourned the death of 140 vocalists.

The recognition Seelig and the Chorale received also allowed the group to take greater, more open pride in being a gay organization. In 1994, they and their struggles to cope with the grief brought about by the AIDS epidemic were featured in Ginny Martin's PBS documentary, After Goodbye: An AIDS Story, which won 12 major awards including an Emmy. Seelig and the TCC were also featured in Martin's 2005 follow-up documentary, The Power of Harmony, which focused on the new post-AIDS issues-most notably, gay marriage and adoption-facing surviving members of the TCC.

Seelig retired from conducting the Turtle Creek Choral in 2007. But ever in-demand as he had become, he was soon chosen to serve as the first Artistic Director of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA). He was also appointed the Director of the Art for Peace and Justice program-a position he still holds-at the Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, the world's largest GLBT church. In 2008, he founded Resounding Harmony, a mixed chorus that exists solely to raise money for local and national non-profit organizations. And recently, he began a three-month stint as the guest conductor of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles (GMCLA). Seelig was in a rare moment of semi-repose between projects when he shared the story of his extraordinary and inspiring journey with me.

Why music?

EDGE: What initially drew you to music made you decide to pursue a career in that field?

Tim Seelig: My mother is a musician and singer. She didn't push me into music, but I was surrounded by it my entire life. I grew up in the church, in the south, so there was always music around. It was just a natural progression from being in church choir to school choir and ultimately as a major in college.

EDGE: How/why did you decide to seek some of your later training in Europe?

Tim Seelig: When I was a teenager, we didn't have a lot of money. My dad was a administrative minister and mom a music teacher-but they realized the importance of an good education and travel, so they took me to Europe as a teenager. When I was about 16 years old, we were traveling through Salzburg, Austria, and I thought, "This is a beautiful place and I want to study here someday." And I saw this place called the Mozarteum, which was the conservatory near where Mozart did a lot of his composing. And I said, 'I want to study here.' I never forgot that day, so eight years later at the age of 24, I decided I was going to go do that [study at the Mozarteum]. I wanted to be an opera singer. So basically, what people do if they really are serious about becoming an opera singer is go to Europe. So I traveled with my wife at that time to Salzburg, Austria and began my serious studies. That's how the first move to Europe happened.

EDGE: You began as a singer, but have since branched out into conducting and teaching. How were you able to diversify?

Tim Seelig: When majoring in vocal performance in undergraduate and graduate school, my minor was always conducting. I had grown up in choirs, I had grown up in the church, and so even though my stated goal was to become an opera singer, I had always studied conducting as a sidebar. When I finally made it back to Europe the second time to be a full-time opera singer, I had finally gotten my big break in Switzerland. I moved twice to Europe once to study and then I went back to sing opera. Only then, I realized that this was not was I was supposed to be doing. I was not happy: the whole thing was all wrong. And so I came back home and started teaching college.

And then the life switch really came. It was a big enough life altering experience to come home from my life-long dream of singing the opera to teach at a university, but then I came out. After coming out, there was a job in Dallas, Texas with a male chorus-a gay men's chorus called the Turtle Creek Chorale. It was a small choir at that time, about 37-38 guys. I needed a job. They needed a conductor. So I thought, "Well, I know how to conduct. I'll go do that and see how it works out." I wasn't sure at the beginning if that was what I was supposed to be doing, but pretty quickly realized that indeed it had been a circuitous path, but that's really where I was supposed to be. And that's when I began full-time conducting with the Turtle Creek Chorale.

Thrown to the curb

EDGE: You've described your parents 'professional Baptists.' How did your background as a member of that church influence you?

Tim Seelig: Part of my success comes from what I learned in the church. What I learned from the church is that music is not just an end, but a means to an end. When I came out and no longer was involved in the church but became involved in GLBT music, I realized that it wasn't much different. We use our music to empower people, we use our music to heal people, we use our music to calm and to soothe. And so it wasn't all that much different, it just didn't have a religious connotation to it. So I feel very fortunate to have learned from that experience the use of music, or what I feel is the use of music. Now on the flip side of the coin, I also learned from having grown up as a Southern Baptist [about] the evils of exclusionary religion. And so when I came out, [I] was thrown to curb, thrown under the bus, chewed up and spit out by the Baptist Church, I knew then that this was something I would never do the rest of my life. In fact, it's been quite the opposite. Whatever I did for the rest of my life would be to use music to embrace people, not exclude them.

EDGE: You're also the Director of Art for Peace and Justice. How did you get involved with that organization and how does it relate to your work as a musician?

Tim Seelig: I had conducted the Turtle Creek Chorale, which is one of the premiere gay men's choruses in the world, for twenty years and had founded the Women's Chorus of Dallas, which I had conducted on and off for twelve years, so I had been the founder and involved for that many years with the lesbian chorus. [I was] also teaching at Southern Methodist University and doing other things. And when I decided that twenty years was a nice round number with the Turtle Creek Chorale and that I needed to pursue other things and that they needed to pursue other things, I stepped down.

Then a long-time friend, Michael Piazza, who was the senior pastor at the Cathedral of Hope, heard that I was stepping down from the Chorale. And he immediately called and said, "I have started a non-profit called Hope for Peace and Justice and I would love nothing more than to have you come work with me and develop the program called Art for Peace and Justice-it can be anything you want it to be." What an opportunity that was! And so I was able to use my contacts and connections in the music world, but also to broaden that to theatre, visual art, dance-we pretty much had a little bit of everything in the arts under the auspices of Hope for Peace and Justice. So that's been everything from Maya Angelou's 80th birthday celebration to Corpus Christi the play, to the most recent "Gay"ther Homecoming [which featured GLBT gospel artists from all over the US]. So it's been an amazing thing for the last three years to be able stretch beyond just choral music. And to do the same thing I was doing, but on a broader scale.

EDGE: You were conductor of Turtle Creek Chorale, the distinguished and respected Dallas-based gay men's chorus, from 1987 to 2007. What did that experience mean to you?

Tim Seelig: At the end of 20 years of conducting the Turtle Creek Chorale, I truly was able to say that if I did nothing else the rest of my life, I would feel completely fulfilled. Those twenty years were the most glorious and difficult years of my life. I arrived in 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis. Having just come from the Baptist church, I knew nothing about HIV and AIDS. It was a crash course. We serenaded, we sang so many memorial service, we watched people die in front of our eyes. In the early years, we were fortunate enough to do a PBS documentary on grief and recovery and hope, and that went on to win an Emmy, which was amazing. And so toward the end of my 20 years with the Turtle Creek Chorale, PBS came back and said, "Let's do a follow-up story-what's happening now?" We were able to do another documentary at that point that included gay marriage, adoption, and things that were just amazing that many years later. Through those 20 years, we had run the gamut from coming out of the closet in Dallas, Texas to just staking our claim as full citizens. And to have done that through music was amazing. So my experience of the chorale-we had worked really hard, we had traveled the world, recorded a lot-was as an amazing time of self-discovery for me as a gay man because I had just come out when I started. And it really culminated and wrapped around this final PBS documentary called The Power of Harmony. For me, it was a lifetime, a complete lifetime. I had no idea what was next. But things are exciting. I never knew that there would be even more challenges and even more opportunities.

EDGE: Tell me something about the larger gay choral movement and its place in/importance to the GLBT community.

Tim Seelig: When I stepped down from the Turtle Creek Chorale, in addition to being hired by Hope for Peace and Justice to do Art for Peace and Justice, my timing was just perfect. This is because the GALA Choruses (which is the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses) were looking to start a program for an Artistic Director-in-Residence. No one had ever filled that position. It had been in their strategic long-term plan for quite some time. And so when I stepped down from the Turtle Creek Chorale, I got a phone call from the National/International GALA Choruses that said, "Would you be interested in applying and starting our program as the Artistic Director-in-Residence for all gay choruses?" And I said, "Well, sure!"

So I applied, and was named the first-ever Artistic Director-in-Residence for GALA Choruses. It was a one-year appointment that lasted for two years. And that most wonderful thing about that was that I, in a two-year span, was able to visit almost 40 choruses-gay men's choruses, lesbian choruses, mixed choruses-every size, every shape, from the United States, Canada and the UK over those two years. And I was able to see how, in almost every instance, gay choral music is central to the fabric of the community in so many ways. I've already mentioned that the choruses have done their share of singing at memorial services. But even more than that, choruses have sung in the houses of state legislature, they've sung on the steps of City Hall, they've sung at adoptions and marriage ceremonies. It's been amazing! That the GLBT movement has its own music is truly significant. Over the now 30 plus years since the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus started the movement, we have actually composed an entire opus of music for the GLBT community that is just massive. So I would say that the gay choral movement is alive and well in almost every city in North America and in Europe.

EDGE: In The Power of Harmony, Ginny Martin's award-winning 2005 documentary on the Turtle Creek Chorale, it's very clear that the TCC itself is much more than a singing group. How do you see this as being so?

Tim Seelig: The constant balancing act for any GLBT organization-and especially a GLBT arts organization-is striking a balance between the hard work it takes to be a musical organization and the very intricate connection that we forge through being a choral organization but also being a social organization. There are a lot of members that join a GLBT choral group or band or orchestra because they're really looking for a social outlet. And then they discover that wow, it's a lot of work. And so the thing you find out pretty soon when you spend that much time with the group rehearsing and performing, which is a very intimate kind of experience, that they become your friends and they become your family and you end up with not many friends outside the group. You're there once or twice a week. You end up going to dinner with them. You find out about their lives, about what's going on with them. And so they become your friends and for so many people, the family they may have lost along the way.

Charity work

EDGE: You do a great deal that weds your love of music with charity work. What led you to merge the two?

Tim Seelig: With the Turtle Creek Chorale and the Women's Chorus of Dallas, we did a lot of singing for various organizations around town. However, we certainly first and foremost had to make sure that our own organization was viable and financially stable. When I began with Resounding Harmony [another Dallas-based choral group] two years ago, I had seen an example in Minneapolis, actually, their mixed chorus called One Voice. They had taken an entire year, and for one whole year, everything that they did was a benefit. And so when starting the Resounding Harmony mixed community chorus in Dallas, I said to the founders, "I want to start a chorus where every single time we sing, it's a benefit for somebody." And because we were brand new and we didn't know any better, they said, "OK, sure-whatever you want." So we started two years ago, and every single time we have sung, it has been for somebody else. Not for ourselves. And it has been one of the most amazing experiences of my life to see the response of the singers and the response of the audience. It's such a beautiful marriage of using our music to raise awareness and funds for a variety of organizations. I think it's really key to where we are in America today.

EDGE: This fall, you are, among other things, serving as the guest conductor for the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. Tell me about this project-what will you be rehearsing with them and what do you hope to accomplish?

Tim Seelig: Because I have been freelancing for the last three years, I've had some wonderful opportunities, such as visiting almost 40 GALA choruses. A year ago, I was fortunate enough to guest conduct the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus in their spring concert, which was a 60s concert. If you can imagine being that near Haight-Ashbury with special guest Joan Baez. It was amazing to be in that place with it history, including Harvey Milk. So this year, the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus has found itself without a full-time conductor (they are looking for one now). And so they approached me to see if I would guest conduct the fall concerts or actually, starting in the fall and will conducting the holiday concerts. Each GALA chorus has its own flavor. And the LA Gay Men's Chorus, not surprisingly, is really great at the show part, the production value, because they live in Los Angeles. They've actually been on a load of television shows. They've been on Six Feet Under, they were on Friends, they've been doing a lot of television. And so it's going to be a really fun experience for me to do a holiday show in a real theatre. With the Turtle Creek Chorale, we sang in a symphony hall, not in a theatre. So I'll be conducting their rehearsal every Monday night for three months in preparation for their holiday concerts. They have three guest conductors this year, three completely different people. And I think it's going to be a really rich year for them while they search for a permanent Artistic Director. I bring to the table all my operatic vocal technique. That's sort of my thing. So I'll bring to them a lot of voice training. And I know they're looking forward to that and I'm looking forward to it as well. They already sing beautifully. I was at their concert in August at the amazing Walt Disney Hall and it was beautiful. So they're already a pretty well-tuned machine. So I'll just tweak here and there. And basically I'm going to have fun. That's what I'm thinking! So I don't have any real goal other than to help them in that interim period to kick ass.

EDGE: What projects do you have on tap for 2011?

Tim Seelig: I guess I have a couple of highlights in 2011. I'm going to be conducting for the first time at Lincoln Center in June, which is very exciting. We have a world premiere that Resounding Harmony will be doing here in Dallas at the Meyerson Symphony Center for the Children's Medical Center. Then in August, I will be the guest conductor for a GLBT choral festival. And in the fall, we are going to be doing another world premiere with the American Heart Association-we're going to turn this town [Dallas] red along with their national red campaign. So those are the things that are on tap right now. And of course, a second annual 'Gay'ther Homecoming.

Tim Seelig will guest conduct three holiday-themed performances of the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles. The shows, entitled 'Comfort and Joy,' will take place the afternoon and evening of December 18 and the afternoon of December 19 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. To purchase advance tickets, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles website. For more on Resounding visit the group's website. To read a press release about Seelig's SFGMC appointment, click here.

M. M. Adjarian is a Dallas-based freelance writer. She contributes to EDGE, the Dallas Voice, SheWired and Arts + Culture DFW and is a book reviewer for Kirkus.