Four single piano notes broke the silence in the Unitarian Universalist Church sanctuary, where 40 people gathered Tuesday night to rehearse for their upcoming concert. They were soon followed by the soft entry of baritone voices.
“I walk to the fence with beauty before me,” the group sang, the alto and soprano singers gradually fading in.
The Bloomington Chamber Singers was referring to the fence which 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was tied to before being beaten and left to die in one of the most horrific LGBTQ hate crimes in history. The group is in the midst of preparing its two-hour choral piece honoring Shepard, which it has been rehearsing since January and will perform 7:30 p.m. May 2 and 3 at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.
The piece, “Considering Matthew Shepard '' by Craig Hella Johnson, explores the perspectives of Shepard, his family, mourners, homophobic protesters and even the fence that would later become an iconic symbol of the tragedy. Though it’s purely metaphorical, personifying the fence is one of the many ways the music helps people process what happened, production manager Abby Henkel said.
“It helps us think he wasn’t alone, to think that the fence was holding him, cradling him and listening to him,” Henkel said.
The lyrics have a powerful effect on everyone who listens to them, Henkel said. She said one of her fellow choir members was so moved by Shepard's story that she recently left her Catholic church because it didn’t support gay people.
“It’s not really music you can hear and not have feelings about,” Henkel said. “I expect it’s going to raise a lot of questions in people’s hearts.”
The music is a collection of different genres, including classical, gospel, country, yodeling and show tunes, Henkel said. As a gay person, Henkel said the music is especially meaningful.
“I was 12 when he was killed, but that could’ve been me,” Henkel said. “I think that if you’re gay, the story is really close to you.”
Graduate student John Buchanan will sing a solo from the perspective of Matthew Shepard as a child during the song “Ordinary Boy,” the lyrics of which are compiled from Shepard’s diary entries. He said that planning a show with such upsetting subject matter can be taxing, but the positivity Shepard exuded in his life is one thing that keeps him and the rest of the choir motivated.
“The positivity of how amazing he was when he was with us, we use those pieces of positivity to keep going,” Buchanan said. “It’s inspiring that we get to share such a powerful message.”
Gerry Sousa, who has directed the Bloomington Chamber Singers for 35 years, said he studied the lyrics so much in the process of rehearsing the show that he now feels he knew Shepard personally. But many people either don’t remember or never learned Shepard’s story, he said.
He said he hopes the performance will remind audience members why it’s important to acknowledge unjust events in history, so they're not repeated.
“They’ll realize they have a responsibility and will feel energized to change things,” Sousa said. “I would hope people want to come and know about this because it gives us hope at a time where we need hope.”
Though the concert will be in remembrance of a profoundly sad incident, Sousa said the main takeaways should be positive. The music sends a message that people can unite to make change and reminds them that beauty and pain are interconnected, he said.
“It means we have to experience pain to also experience joy,” Sousa said. “We have to experience loss to appreciate love.”
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