Renowned conductor, singer, teacher, and author of the recently-published autobiography, Tale of Two Tims: Big Ol’ Baptist, Big Ol’ Gay, Dr. Tim Seelig, is the Artistic Director and Conductor of the San Francisco’s Gay Men Chorus (SFGMC) and the National LGBTQ Center for the Arts. Bold and inspiring, Dr. Seelig has served, throughout the roller coaster highs and lows of his life—and continues to serve—as an example of honesty and integrity, of the courage to be true to one’s self and live an authentic life, and of the willingness to sacrifice for that authenticity. He took the time to share with us his thoughts about overcoming obstacles as well as about his work and creative ways of adapting to this era of virtual performance.
Your autobiography was published this past June. It takes such immense courage to do what you did: coming out at 35 and losing so much to be true to yourself and create a life that is authentically yours. How would you encourage those who fear owning their true selves in every aspect of their lives to conquer those fears and embrace what you called the “liberating change?”
Everyone has his/her/their own proverbial high dive in life. As a child, that was perhaps the scariest thing imaginable. When you finally got up the courage to climb the ladder and jump – probably as a result of jeering friends or cousins – you realized you didn’t die. You rose out of that water triumphant. The first thought was, “I want to do it again!” The statement “You can’t die from jumping off a high dive” became your new truth. It’s the same with every large obstacle in life. Coming out is hard. Being true to yourself is hard. Especially in a world beset with fake truth. But, when you conquer those fears, you’ll find yourself more prepared for the next challenge. And, it won’t hurt so bad to be knocked down. Never borrow trouble from the future. We have enough right here in the present. One important fact is you can’t see what’s on the other side of that obstacle. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be an obstacle at all. One day, you’ll actually look forward to finding out! So, my question is “What is your high dive?” Start by climbing the first step of the ladder. And, never look down!
How are you keeping the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus motivated and engaged during these times?
We are really trying to focus on Who We Are as opposed to What We Do. The What We Do has largely been taken away – for now. We Zoom all the time! We have our normal weekly “rehearsal” even Monday night. Since we can’t actually rehearse, since there is no platform where I can hear multiple voices singing at the same time, we do other things. We work on important things such as vocal technique and musicianship to make sure we are prepared. But we also have lots of other Zooms that allow the singers to gather in smaller groups – as they did B.C., Before COVID. Such things as Meditation, Game Night, Movie Night, Cooking Class, Fitness. And of course we are still “singing” on virtual choir videos for 4 “concerts” this year and every week for SFGMC TV.
What unique artistic dimensions, sensibilities, and perceptions do you feel that LGBTQ choruses bring to singing and performance?
The night this chorus was born, it came out of that room at a junior high school with activism at the center of its music making. This was demonstrated in the courage the chorus showed by choosing the name “San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus,” instead of the runner up, “Men About Town.” From that moment on, this chorus has led the worldwide movement of LGBTQ choruses that now span the globe. We believe we have twins: Music and Mission. We nurture them equally. We also believe that our music changes hearts and minds everywhere we go (even the internet). LGBTQ choruses hold a very special place in their communities. We have learned so much from our 2nd pandemic. Many of us were singing, and conducting, through the first one, the AIDS pandemic. They are alike and oh, so different. But what we learned is now evidenced in what we do. We encourage, uplift, educate and, yes, challenge the norm. Our parent organization, GALA Choruses, has a statement. Every time a GALA Chorus takes the stage, it makes a political statement. And that statement of courage and equality has never been so important.
As you are conducting LGBTQ choruses throughout your second pandemic in 35 years, please tell us more about what you have learned during the first pandemic that serves you in dealing with the current one.
The AIDS pandemic began with a great deal of fear. One of the biggest of those was the fear that you could contract AIDS from touching someone who had it. It’s been the same with COVID. In both, we learned that touching is not the major factor in transmission, if at all. That fear has subsided as it did in the 80’s. There are stark differences. The first and most glaring is the government’s response. In the 80’s AIDS was ignored by the mainstream. After all, it only affected and infected “those” people. And, people were dying all over the world. COVID has the world’s attention. Everyone is rushing toward a vaccine – in less than a year. We do not have a vaccine for HIV 40 years later. The other stark contrast is in the way we are able to treat each other. During the AIDS pandemic, we mourned together. We sang together. We held each other and sat by our dying brothers in hospital rooms. Today, we do not get to do that. I believe it is part of why the 200,000+ deaths seem so unrealistic. Because we have not seen their funerals.
What new opportunities can digital performance offer performers and audiences?
The performers are challenged. They are forced to sing at home, by themselves, recording only their voices to contribute to an editor who then makes it into a choir. It’s not pretty. Or fun. That said, there is some excitement in hearing/seeing the final product when there were no rehearsals along the way for them to experience what the whole sounds like. For audiences, they get SFGMC on demand. They can have our music any time and any place. No, it is not the same as being in a packed concert hall. That experience cannot be duplicated in the comfort of your own home. SFGMC has stretched out into content that includes interviews with everyone from Kristin Chenoweth to Chasten Buttigieg. From Billy Porter to our Attorney General. We’ve also been introducing a singer a week. All of this is on SFGMC TV through www.sfgmc.org
You set a Guinness World Record for conducting the longest choral concert—20 hours! What repertoire did you select for those 20 hours? How did you manage to get through them?
This idea began as a running Marathon to raise money for the chorus. No one wanted to run. So, I came up with the idea of a singing Marathon. The Guinness folks had never done such a thing, so rules were made up – by them. We could not repeat a song in a time-span of 4 hours. So, we went through our repertoire from past concerts and put together 4 different color notebooks – each with one hour of music in it. These were placed under the chairs of the singers. We had well over 100 singers. They were allowed a 15-minute break each hour, but the music was not allowed to stop for longer than 30-seconds or we would be disqualified. You could also not just fill in with Happy Birthday or a drinking song! We began at midnight on a Friday night and ended triumphantly just after 8pm. We also did 4 complete wardrobe changes in the 20+ hours. And we raised a lot of money, too!
The Metropolitan Opera has recently announced that it will remain closed for the entire 2020-21 season, as will other performing arts organizations. What are your plans to keep the torches of singing and performance burning in the next year?
We, too, have announced an entirely virtual season. It is our hope to gather again in person in the summer of 2021. As mentioned, we continue to create content weekly. We are most fortunate to be able to maintain a staff at around 50% of pre-COVID size. We hope to be ready to ramp up as soon as things improve. To add to the difficulties, we bought a stunning art deco 4-story building in San Francisco, inaugurated the National Queer Arts Center in January of this year and closed it two months later.
Looking back at your brave, bold, and creative roller coaster of a life, is there anything you wish you had done differently? If today’s Tim could travel back in time and advise the adolescent Tim, what would he tell him?
What a wonderful question. Yes, absolutely. Could I travel back to adolescent Tim, I would tell him to embrace the wholeness and uniqueness of young Tim. I would have encouraged him to be his own person, even in the midst of a pretty rigid Southern Baptist upbringing. I would have told him it was OK to go to a “secular” university. I would have told him to forge his own path and not one others laid out for him. I would tell him that his gifts, demonstrated at a very early age, would carry him throughout his life. I would also have told him to listen to his elementary school teachers, every one of whom marked him down for “Acts without Thinking “ and “Talks too Much.”
Any words of encouragement for your fellow performing artists and artistic administrators?
Dearest arts family. This will end. Our art will survive and thrive. Take this “fermata” as an opportunity to learn about yourself. Figure out what things were not important after all. We will come out of this better people and better artists.