A couple of years ago, I wrote the following:
Twenty five years ago (or thereabouts) I remember attending the National Choral Championships in Wagga Wagga. Although it sounds fairly tame, the championship organisers found themselves the subject of national media interest, as they asked the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir to change their name to the “Eastern Suburbs Choir” (or something like that). The SGLC refused, and went on to win the championships that year in the community choir section.
A year later, they were back in Wagga Wagga. This time around, I was also involved in the National Choral Championships as host for the afternoon session (while the main host took a break). This time around the SGLC didn’t win, sadly. But there was still a lot of joy in seeing them compete. Vividly, I remember the choir invited members of the Riverina Gay and Lesbian Social & Support Group back to a restaurant to join with them in a joyous celebration of song. I also did a report on the event for “The World Today” on ABC Radio, though sadly it’s not in the archives. If you have a copy of the report, I’d love you to get in touch, as it remains a treasured part of my own broadcast history.
Guess what? As I was going through a box of old cassette tapes last night, I made a wonderful discovery: a tape labelled simply, “G&L Choir in Wagga”.
I knew instantly it was a recording from my time as the presenter of the Morning Show on ABC Radio there, and reporting on the success of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir at the National Choral Championships.
Their performance back in 1992 was not without controversy, as the Wagga Wagga “Daily Advertiser” recalled a couple of years ago.
A CONTENTIOUS gay choir that made national headlines after winning a Wagga championship in 1992 will return to the Riverina as a sign of changing times. The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir (SGLC) will grace the city for the first time in 24 years after it was embroiled in controversy with organisers calling for the choir to rename in 1992.
It was nice to see “The Daily Advertiser” report positively on the choir, because back in the early 1990s, that newspaper ran a very strong campaign against the local LGBTIQ community, under the leadership of Editor, Michael McCormack, who has gone on to become the Deputy Prime Minister, and who now says, he no longer holds the views he espoused back then.
There were two items on the cassette. One was a locally produced story reporting on the championships, which was very much for local consumption. The other was an item when played nationally on ABC Radio’s “The World Today”.
SINGING : There’s a place for us, somewhere a place for us
JO : From West Side Story, Somewhere by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir. The issue was, though, whether Wagga might be that place because, earlier this year, the organisers of the championships had asked the choir to consider changing its name to the “Eastern Suburbs G&L Choir”. The organisers feared a backlash from the local community and from other competitors. Wagga was also the place which, twelve months ago, had called on the state government to stop funding the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras (which it doesn’t). But the choir chose not to change its name, to compete on its own terms, and with that, political implications…
Choir Secretary (unsure name): Because everytime someone stands up and says ‘I’m gay and lesbian’ it’s a brave act and when seventy people get up and say it and sing it, and win a competition, it’s really wonderful.
JO: Given that earlier adverse publicity about the choir coming to Wagga, was there ever any trepidation about coming to Wagga?
Choir Member (name unsure): Well, we didn’t quite know what to expect when we got here. In fact, when we got off the train and onto the bus, that was that. But yeah, we had second thoughts and stuff, and so winning in the face of that is even sweeter.
JO: The Gay & Lesbian Choir took first place in the Community Choir section, fighting off six others. With it, political and artistic kudos.
Stephen Schaefer (SS): Were competing tonight in the mainstream, nationally, with other mainstream choirs, and as a gay and lesbian choir, we won. I think that’s really important for the community.
JO: Steven, artistically, what is the significance of this?
SS: Musically, it means the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir, which is a group of totally untrained and unauditioned singers, most of whom just can’t read music at all can meet the challenge, can discover something they love sharing and communicating with their friends and the wider community, and perform to an Australian class standard.
JO: After Wagga, what next?
SS: We’ve been invited to sing at the Fifth National AIDS Conference closing dinner, which is a very exciting and prestigious event, and we’re proud to be part of that. We’ll probably mount another concert early next year as part of the Mardi Gras, and we’re planning to release a CD. International touring is not yet crossed off the agenda. Getting the choir to Wagga was a major undertaking, so New York of London is a bit further off, I think.
Choir Secretary (unsure name): And I think we’ll actually aim to go to the Gay Games in New York in two years time. And I would also like to see the choir go to the Australian Gay Games which I understand is in Melbourne, the January long weekend next year. I think we’ll be there.
SS: Well that’s a good thing, because we’re part of an ever-widening, very active community in all areas. It’s just fantastic that gay and lesbian people are everywhere, and are living and functioning, funnily enough, and enjoying it, and starting to say ‘hey, we’re here’…
JO: And celebrating, as we can hear.
Song: One hand, one heart, there’s a place for us Somewhere.
And this was the item which played locally on ABC Radio in Wagga, which was very much about the success and challenges for the community itself, as the competition gained further national exposure.
JO: Both artistically, and in terms of popularity, the National Choral Championships are undergoing rapid growth and rapid change, and will expand in coming years, according to one of the judges, Adrian Wintle.
Adrian Wintle (AW): We started very modestly, as you’re aware in 1990 with seven choirs actually entering, and it’s been pretty much a slow moving thing, but it’s starting to spread around, the word of these championships, and as people get to hear about it, and realise it is the richest choral event in Australia, we expect to see even more entries next year.
JO: In terms of quality of performance, where to from where, do you expect to attract better choirs from Australia?
AW: We’re all acutely aware, the judicators, that there are squillions of choirs out there in the wilderness, and we would hope that some of the cathedral choirs, for instance, the collegiate choirs, the university choirs, might see fit to come to Wagga. We also held a think-tank session on the Sunday morning after the event, and we as a committee, gleaned from that various things that will help run the championships in the future including, possibly, the subsidisation of choirs coming in, if we’re to gain sufficient sponsorship to cover the basic travel costs, because we are conscious that Wagga being siutated as it is, represents expenditure of a high order for groups coming in from abroad.
JO: But there was also high praise for the choirs which won from the audience…
Voice Over: The first prize for the male and female choir goes to the Melbourne Chorus of Sweet Adelines.
JO: But Adrian Wintle is fast to point out that it’s artistic merit not just popularity that assures a choir of a win.
AW: There’s a yardstick you apply according to the capabilities, the inherent capabilities of a choir. If you’re judging in a community choir section you can’t expect the attainment of that community choir to rival that of a professional or a sub-professional, advanced chamber choir. And the set works reflect that sort of division, if you like. But within the perceived limits of a particular section you look for excellence.
JO: One of the big surprises was the win by the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir. Crowded earlier this year in a controversy – they were asked to change their name to the “Eastern Suburbs G&L Choir” – the secretary of the choir feels proud of their achievement, to have won first place in the Community Choir section.
Choir Secretary (unsure name): We also got the positive reception from the Wagga people, who were the organisers of the Choral Championships. They were very pleased that we were here; they were very pleased that we won. And that was from the Wagga people, who organised the championships. And that was just terrific to just be accepted for who we are by the people. The other choirs thought we were terrific. In fact we’ve got some here tonight celebrating with us, and we’ve just got a tremendous response from people, in fact better than we expected.
JO: So where to from now? Adrian Wintle believes the championships will grow, attracting bigger and better choirs…
AW: Overall, I think it speaks of an expansion. We as a committee have to be ready to cope with that. We have to be sensitive to the requirement of these choirs coming in, to offer them the prospect of reasonable accommodation, and for that, we need the assistance of the Motelier’s Association, which support us already. We have to ensure they have adequate rehearsal space when they get here. There was a thing that was floated at the “Fintac” session concerning the use of churches which led to a suggestion, perhaps, we should have a category for church choirs. And all this sort of material from around and aired suggests that we’re on the bring of a choral music explosion.
It was an absolute joy to discover the cassette and to hear the audio all over again. When I went looking in the official ABC archives a couple of years ago, the audio wasn’t there. It hadn’t been digitised. But now it has been, and it’s going into the archives, which is excellent.
PS: If you can help with the names of some of the people I spoke to, I’d really appreciate it.