Cor Flammae is Vancouver’s summer chorus of classically trained, queer singers, currently in their second season of performing queer content, both historical and modern. The choir only has 8 or so rehearsals and only runs in the summer as the members are all involved in some of the many other high-calibre ensembles in the Greater Vancouver area. Members, or “queeristers” as they like to call themselves, have come from such vocal ensembles as Vancouver Cantata Singers, Chor Leoni, musica intima, Laudate Singers, Vancouver Peace Choir, Vancouver Chamber Choir, and Vancouver Opera. Performing in the off season is clearly a necessity with membership ranging from such a diverse pool, and as choir manager Missy Clarkson says, “that’s how we can poach singers from all these ensembles.”
How did the choir get started
Choir was not a very big part of the queer scene until relatively recently, and there seems to be a bit of a renaissance right now. Cor Flammae creative team members Missy Clarkson and Amelia Pitt-Brooke credit community queer ensembles such as Leadfoot, Queer as Funk, Tomboy Survival Guide, and Femme City Choir as helping to start this renaissance, but all of these are more community ensembles, and Missy and Amelia were inspired to have a queer choir that was at a more professional calibre and not a community ensemble. There had been an attempt to start a similar ensemble in the 1980s, but it never quite got off the ground.
A major impetus to start this new project of having highly trained queer musicians together came while part of the creative team of Cor Flammae were attending Leslie Uyeda’s queer opera WHEN THE SUN COMES OUT at the Queer Arts Festival. Missy and Amelia both stated they were struck by being in a room “full of classical music queers.” They both knew a lot of queers in classical music, but were not talking about that subject, and felt it was something that was missing from their choir experience. They knew they wanted to make queer art in their genre, choral music, so they took the idea of queer identity and paired it with classical music to create something that has never existed before. In a search, one cannot find any instance of a similar fully queer classical choir in Canada, or really anywhere.
What is the choir’s mandate
In addition to adding a much-needed conversation about being a queer classical musician, Cor Flammae strives to provide an opportunity for queer people to see themselves represented in classical music, helping to create connections that were previously absent. They also are trying to bring the genre of choral music to people who may not necessarily have access to it or know where to start, and are providing opportunities to showcase missing content as well as creating new works through commissions each year. By partnering with the Queer Arts Festival it puts the music on the same platform as contemporary visual art, which raises the profile of choral music with a wider audience.
A little history, current status, and a look to what’s coming up
In their 1st year, Cor Flammae specifically avoided any religious works, even staying away from secular music that had the word “god” in it, in order to avoid any potential baggage that some people may have been carrying with them after an unpleasant experience with their religion after coming out. This helped them to introduce the art form and sound of choral music to people who might be new to it but may have had a less-than-pleasant time after coming out. However, they recognize that you can’t talk about choral music without including religion, since the church is so steeped in the Western Classical tradition, so this year they have decided to do a Sacred and Profane concert – not just with repertoire choices, but also by having the same concert in two different venues, a church and a bath house. (Well, technically the 2nd venue is a social playhouse being made to look like a bath house) A church is of course a very traditional space for a choral concert, but again can be a difficult place for a performer or audience member to visit if they are someone who has been rejected by religion, and a bath house is very much not the type of place one would normally hear this type of music, but bath houses are steeped in queer history and are the location of some of the first gay rights protests in Canada after a series of police raids in Toronto in 1981. (for more detailed information look up Operation Soap) By juxtaposing the concert in these two different venues, they can see how that changes the experience of the music in different ways, and see how the context of the music changes.
Speaking of repertoire. Cor Flammae tries to incorporate historical works as best they can, while they also enjoying being able to bridge that to a living tradition by including contemporary composers, both recently composed works and commissioned works. This year’s conductor, (the choir operates on a guest conductor approach presently; a new conductor each year for each project, giving them a more project-based approach vs. a single artistic director’s vision), Stephen Smith actually taught a Queerness in Classical Music course at UBC in the mid 90s, and was a major source of information, both this year and last year, for doing research on more historical works that fit within the choir’s queer mandate. With these historical works, the choir is not trying to prove anything, or rewrite history in any way, but is merely taking suggestions and questions (or “queeries” as they like to call it) that have been raised, and are presenting the works through the lens of “what if this is true?” to see how the work can resonate in a different way.
In addition to being a unique ensemble by having a specific social mission, Cor Flammae also strives to allow a sense of individuality to shine through with the choir members on a visual esthetic. For example, they do not try to hide piercings or tattoos, but keep the performance outfits fairly “showy.” This also helps to avoid any gender issues associated with formal clothing, which can be a significant issue at a queer concert, and the outfits allow members to “be their full queer selves” on stage. Often striving for that unified ensemble sound to create a glorious aural experience comes at the expense of personal identity with uniforms, and this is not an ensemble that is at all interested in suppressing anyone’s sense of self. This is best seen in their visually stunning publicity photo shoots, which you can see on their website or facebook page.
Cor Flammae’s concert this year, FALLEN ANGELS: Sacred + Profane Works, is being held on Friday July 17 at St. Andrew’s Wesley in Vancouver, and on Saturday July 18 at the 8×6 Social Club in Vancouver.
For more information about the choir, and to get tickets, go to www.corflammae.com
Check them out on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter as well.