The steamy streets of Hanoi awake queer echoes of last year’s Pacific Pride Choir tour to Poland and Germany. French-inspired Gothic cathedrals and art deco architecture squeezed in cracks be tween ancient strangler figs, ancient temples with peeling paint, and so many shops, lit with neon, framed with banks of moto.Mel and I are learning what it’s like to be tourists in Hanoi. We missed this step for our first tour, visiting Berlin, Krakow and Poland for the first time along with many of our choristers.
If you’d told me, back in July 2014 (where I stood backstage at a medieval hall in Tallinn, a middle-aged Polish GP hanging onto my arm while her teenage daughter died from embarrassment), that we’d be in Hanoi with that GP's mission not four years later, I don’t know what I would have thought.
Tallinn in summer was crowded, and spectacular. We were there with Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir, on our last stop before the World Choir Games in Riga. Our free concert in Tallinn was packed with both locals and tourists. During the concert, I spotted one woman nodding and applauding everything with emphatic enthusiasm. ‘Lesbian,’ I thought.
But she wasn’t. Her name was Edyta, and she was on holidays from Poland with her daughter. They’d chanced to see us advertised that day and came along; because Edyta’s daughter was gay. Edyta found her way backstage to meet me, held my arm with both hands, tugging it for emphasis, as she poured out their story: they were from a border town in Poland; her daughter was a lesbian, fourteen years old; one of the teachers at her Catholic school called her a ‘thing’; Edyta was the only GP in her town who would see queer people in her clinic. ’You have to come to Poland,’ she kept saying, ‘you are needed in Poland. You have to come to Poland.’
I didn’t know what to say. I gave her the choir’s contact details (we never heard from her), and tried to explain that SGLC couldn’t travel all that often but I would tell everyone what she said. That night, in our hotel room, I asked Mel what we were going to do - I met Edyta for all of five minutes but I couldn’t dismiss her request. Like most community choirs, SGLC only travels every five years or so, and it’s a big cost for members, and a monumental effort for the committee. Even if everyone wanted the choir’s next tour to return to Europe, how long would it take us?
I can’t remember at what point in the tour Mel and I hatched our crazy scheme - that we’d form a choir built from the members of local LGBTQI+ choirs who wanted to travel more often, and take them to places where LGBTQI+ people struggled to gain recognition.I do know that, on our last night in Riga, we had dinner with Oliver Scofield from KIconcerts, and laid our idea down in front of him. I think we expected him to tell us we were dreaming.
He didn’t. And Pacific Pride Choir was born, before we’d left Latvia. It sounds naff, but I have a kind of ‘promise ring’ on my middle right-hand finger, bought in Latvia, which I wore to remind me to keep my commitment to Edyta.
And we did. We worked on our proposal, Mel and I and KIconcerts, until it was ready to float with our market: the network of LGTBQI+ choirs in Australia and New Zealand. The first stop was our own choir, Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir, which I directed and for which Mel volunteered as event manager and stage manager for years. If the SGLC committee said no, we would have let it drop. We’d planned Pacific Pride Choir to supplement the work of our own local LGBTQI+ choirs, not to compete with them.
I remember my nerves at the committee meeting in which I laid out the plan: what PPC was; plans for our first tour to Europe in July 2017; our second tour to Southeast Asia in 2019; our intention to tour biennially in the odd years (avoiding the major European and American choral festivals, which many choirs liked to attend); to alternate long distance destinations with closer ones; and our intention to stick to July, a time when we knew SGLC often had a quieter schedule as many people took a break after the first major concert. July was also (and remains) the only time I could manage lengthy travel, for personal reasons.
Bless that committee - not only did they fully support the plan as a great opportunity for choir members who wanted to travel more often than SGLC could schedule, some of them said they wanted to come with us. (And one did, and has signed up again for 2019!) I left the committee meeting with the warm fuzzies, and an in principal agreement that our two choirs would avoid travel in the same year as each other. That was the beginning.
Any producer will tell you a new project brings heartache, stress, and the constant fear of failure. Also, that that fear of failure isn’t a fear for your professional reputation - it’s the fear one of your dreams will die. Although back in 2014, I wasn’t planning to leave SGLC, I knew I couldn’t stay forever. But the love of using art for social justice that SGLC had given us both was fierce. It would need an outlet. Pacific Pride Choir would be our way of continuing the work that had been one of my greatest passions with SGLC: outreach beyond the LGBTQI+ community.
We carried our fear for that dream first time around, when we had 12 people registered for the tour, the deadline passed, and we extended it. We kept breathing and hoping as the second deadline hit, we had 25 people, and KIconcerts said, ‘we’re doing this anyway’. Three months later, at the final deadline, we had 50 people. So, in July 2017, we really did live the dream, as they say.
It’s raining now in Hanoi. The people passing on their moto have helmets and multi-coloured ponchos. We’re somewhere between the nightmare and dream - chasing numbers, living in faith (not easy for two atheists). But this time the dream is right in front of us. If I put my hand out past the balcony, I’ll feel it on my skin. Hanoi, here we are, and here we come.