On August 1, Robert Stumpf became Artistic Director of the 80-member Gateway Men’s Chorus (an A&E PNC Project Grant recipient), whose mission is to affirm and promote gay culture and acceptance through excellence in musical performance and education.
Stumpf, a Midwest native, served as the assistant conductor for the Minneapolis-based Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus. Prior to that, he taught at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois, where he was Director of Bands, conducted the Singing Saints and taught courses in music theory, music education and applied music.
Happenings caught up with Stumpf to talk to him about his new position, the future of the Gateway Men’s Chorus (GMC) and how he is adjusting to his new home. His first concert with GMC will be Make the Yuletide Gay, on Dec 11 and 12 at St. Stanislaus Church, 1413 N 20th Street.
Why were you interested in the job of artistic director of the Gateway Men’s Chorus?
Part of it was the opportunity to take the helm of a substantial, well-known artistic organization. It has some national name recognition within the GALA (Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses) community, being probably the 12th or 13th largest in the country. Only the real big boys are bigger than us – San Francisco, LA, Twin Cities, Washington DC, Heartland (Kansas City), Atlanta. The other thing was the mission-oriented nature of the organization of which I wanted to be a part.
Let’s talk about mission. A big part of the mission of Gateway Men’s Chorus is to affirm and promote gay culture and acceptance through excellence in musical performance and education. How do you plan to embrace and expand that mission?
We are looking to increase the musical quality of the organization. We need to figure out what our singers know and don’t know. We also want to embrace singers who don’t have a lot of training or experience but have a lot of desire and passion – we want to help them grow and develop their skills.
What about educational outreach?
We’re starting new educational community engagement activities. Through the KERR Foundation, we have a grant to develop a program in which we take a production of the very well known children’s book, Oliver Button is a Sissy, (composer Alan Shorter’s musical work of Tomie de Paola’s children’s fable), to perform for youth. It’s essentially an anti-bullying and diversity awareness campaign about a little boy’s strugglesto express himself and become a star. We will be presenting a musical theater production and following it up with a workshop.
What are your long-term goals for the GMC?
There’s a three-year strategic plan that we’re in the midst of right now. My personal goal is that within seven years, I’d like the chorus to be up over 100 members. Within 10 years, I want us to be in top echelon of GALA choruses in the country.
Any plans to expand the season from three concerts to more?
No, we plan to solidify the three we have. We’re committed to polishing our three performances a year and really blowing our audiences out of the water.
There is no question the Gateway Men’s Chorus has a strong audience. Do you feel the need to expand that audience and if so, how will you do that?
We want to expand our audiences. One thing I’m implementing is a series of preview concerts. A week before our main-stage shows, we will go into the community and perform a benefit concert. In December, we will be singing a benefit concert at the Ferguson Public Library with 100 percent of funds donated going to the library.
How has performing in a gay men’s choir changed since the inception of the Gateway Men’s Chorus in 1988?
Of course I wasn’t here then, but I will tell you that you can walk into a chorus rehearsal on a Monday night and see men of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. Some even drive an hour or more to get to rehearsal. People have stereotypes about what gay men look like but the range of gentlemen in this group is diverse and varied. That said, we are working on increasing ethnic diversity within the chorus – and we’ve made some inroads – so that our chorus more accurately resembles our community-at-large.
Any other innovations you can tell us about?
I’ve implemented a three-minute share. During each rehearsal, a member of the chorus comes to the podium and for three minutes, shares what the chorus means to him – or his fondest chorus memory – or what drew him to the chorus, something along those lines. The voices here are heard as a group, but I want to give as many members as possible a chance to open up and allow everyone to get to know one another better.
Gateway Men’s Chorus is an Arts and Education Council 2015 PNC Project Grant recipient and a tenant in A&E’s arts incubator, the Centene Center for Arts and Education. For more information, visit GMCstl.org.