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Perfect Harmony carries on 20-year musical mission

When Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus performs at the Stoughton Opera House on Feb. 6, it will be one more chance for the Madison-based, LGBT and LGBT-friendly choral group to carry on its musical missionary work in Wisconsin.

“We’ve been successful in bringing these programs to small towns and communities that don’t have a visible LGBT presence,” says artistic director Ken Forney, who also leads Milwaukee’s City of Festivals Men’s Chorus. “Success depends on who is on the ground in the community helping us, something other LGBT choruses in other parts of the country also have experienced.”

As far as the Stoughton Opera House date goes, all signs point to success. Forney says nearly half of the beautifully restored facility’s 495 seats had been sold a month before the performance and he expects more seats will fill by the performance date.

“We’re not complaining about that at all,” says Forney. “We hope it’s a sellout because it means we’re reaching out to new audiences and new people who haven’t heard us before.”

Sharing the LGBT message with communities around the state is something Perfect Harmony has done since its inception in 1996. Later this year the chorus will celebrate its 20th anniversary with its spring/summer concert and will embark on a yearlong schedule of celebratory activities.

Perfect Harmony is 40 voices strong and Forney expects the Stoughton date to feature about 30 of those performers. Roughly half of the chorus has been performing together for 10 years, with three members, including “sometimes-tenor” Forney, having been around since the chorus’s inception.

In addition to improving his own chorus’s stability, Forney says new choruses are forming every day thanks to a change in the way many people and communities have come to view gender diversity.

“The environment has changed so that this is something safer to do than it may have been in the past,” Forney says. “People under 30 have a different view of sexuality and gender than older people, growing up with fewer biases and more fluidity than previous generations. Many of us would have been afraid to be out in high school.”

Perfect Harmony’s mission has been to promote diversity, a strategy Forney says helps decide performance dates and locations and also guides the content of concerts.

“There is a certain psychology to selecting content and an emotional ebb and flow that I try and create,” says Forney, who also serves as music director for Bristol Lutheran Church in Sun Prairie. “Will the piece create a bridge between us and the people we’re singing for? Will it change their minds and open their eyes to biases against the LGBT community?”

Forney follows Perfect Harmony’s mission statement to create, enrich and transform the community through music when he programs a concert. By featuring familiar music, as well as pieces designed to make some audience members a little uncomfortable, the artistic director strives to address the chorus’s five value statements, one of which is to build bridges of understanding and acceptance among diverse communities through music.

The Stoughton program will be no different, featuring familiar and unfamiliar choral works, show tunes and material that may seem a more politically charged.

Eric Clapton’s “Change the World” and “Make Them Hear You” from Ragtime will share the stage with the less familiar, but more dynamic “Ave Maria” by Franz Biebl and “Ubi Caritas” by Ole Gjello, both of which Forney describes as “truly amazing music arranged for TTBB (two tenors, baritone and bass) choruses.”

The chorus also will perform “If and When” and “Folksong” from Naked Man, the 1995 song cycle that chronicles the devastation of AIDS on members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Perfect Harmony performed the entire work in 2001 and 2013, Forney says.

“This is an important piece of LGBT music,” Forney explains. “By bringing music specifically about an LGBT experience to the show we can share that experience with new people, hopefully exposing them to who we are and why we exist.”

The strategy remains part and parcel of the group’s mission to expand horizons and build bridges, one shared with other LGBT choruses nationwide.

Forney’s group and its members will be able to trade tales and share war stories with other choruses attending the Gala Choruses 2016 Festival at the Denver Performing Arts Center this coming July. In addition to participating in musical performances and social opportunities, attending choruses also have raised money to bring LGBT choruses from other countries to the festival, including a first-ever appearance of an LGBT chorus from China.

“The LGBT movement is new to China, where it is still very much like America in the 1950s,” says Forney. “The chorus has 75 members, of which only about 20 are comfortable singing in public (there) because they are afraid of discrimination and losing their jobs.”

The United States boasts a much freer environment for LGBT community members, but Forney warns that there is much more work to do.

“Progress has been uneven, even in the U.S.,” he says. “Travel 30 miles outside of Milwaukee or Madison and you will not be in as friendly a place.”

Stoughton, located a little less than 20 miles southeast of Madison, is one more steppingstone along what Forney hopes will be Perfect Harmony’s continuously successful journey. 

ON STAGE

Perfect Harmony Men’s Chorus will perform Feb. 6 at 3 p.m. at the Stoughton Opera House, 381 E. Main St., Stoughton. For tickets call 608-877-4400.

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