Forte: 20 years of song, dance and the joy of male voices
by DREW ROWSOME -
"There's nothing like 30 or 40 guys in tuxedo going down Church Street to get attention," says Vince J Ciarlo describing the men of Forte Toronto's Gay Men's Chorus heading to a show. "And there are a lot of pretty boys in the choir."
Ciarlo has been part of Forte for 14 of its 20 years and is excited about the events surrounding this significant anniversary. There is a celebration for family, friends and soon-to-be friends with "speeches, performances of significant songs," says Ciarlo before adding with relish, "And then it's a party." The Greatest - 20th Anniversary Concert is closer to Pride when Forte traditionally presents one of its annual extravaganzas.
There are currently 66 men in the choir with auditions in September and January. "Or," says Ciarlo, auditions can be arranged "if someone really can't wait. And if they seem like they'll fit in. We try to keep even numbers among the sections but there are strong voices we just don't want to lose them." Auditions are not as gruelling as when Ciarlo first auditioned in front of the entire choir. "Now, it's not as hardcore and in front of some of the Forte executives. Can you carry a tune? Do you have rhythm so you can clap at the right place? You sing a song of your own choice and then the music director Edward Connell puts you through exercises, most people don't know if they are a bass or a tenor." Then they are asked to sing a song, "Usually 'Over the Rainbow' because it has a big range and some tricky intervals."
There is an initiation rite mysteriously called "Who's the Forte virgin?" that Ciarlo skips over despite persistent questioning. And after the final concert of the year, there is a ritual where the now full-fledged members receive their Forte pin.
Musical director Connell comes from a classical background so Forte has added some liturgical material and the basic mix of pop, Broadway and jazz has also been pumped up with some gospel and choral numbers. "A lot of the young guys are coming in with the Glee idea," says Ciarlo. "They are making it into more of a show." Over two decades there have been surprisingly few Showgirls moments and no soloist has tumbled down a flight of stairs. However Ciarlo does admit that one gig with four microphones of which only one worked, lead to a spirited competition and near fisticuffs.
As well as their own productions - "Christmas is more traditional, the spring is more fun, and with the cabarets you can sing whatever you want, break out of that wall of sound," says Ciarlo - Forte does corporate gigs, weddings, memorial services and has sung the anthems for the Blue Jays and the Raptors, "But not the Maple Leafs. Yet," says Ciarlo. And the most emotional and poignant event of their schedule, The AIDS Vigil, this year on Saturday, June 20.
"The show that was most significant to me," says Ciarlo, "was my first spring concert, Steam Heat. It was a history of how the bathhouse raids lead to Pride. The narrator was based on George Hislop, who was still alive then, and the writers did their research and added our own stories. The songs were picked from '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s and concluded with 'I Know Where I've Been' with the lyrics 'black of my skin' replaced with 'black as sin.' It's become an anthem for Forte. I'd just come out a year or two before and it was so moving that some of the choir could only mouth the words."
Of course Ciarlo also fondly remembers his first solo, "You'll Never Walk Alone." He's also "taken sabbaticals" because of work commitments, but keeps being drawn back by the power of singing with a group of men. And just because of the men. "It's a good place to look for love," he says before adding, "but possibly not in the long term. I've seen the romances, the heartbreaks . . . heard of the sex. There are a lot of rumours. And stories." Stories he sadly refuses to relate.
"Our new membership director Nick Green [Dancing Queen, Hackerlove] organizes lots of socials. We rehearse two and a half hours every Monday and lots of the boys go for drinks after, but you sit next to the same people every week and you don't get to really know them until you go to the monthly socials: movies, bowling, dinners, karaoke . . . and other activities." Ciarlo won't specify the other activities but the word "gay" in Forte's moniker is a clue.
When there was a Toronto Gay Chorus, Forte was just Forte and there was resistance to renaming Forte the "Toronto Gay Men's Chorus." Ciarlo says that his friends wondered why they needed the word "gay" as it was already pretty obvious "in the presentation, the choreography. We had a referendum where we voted and it was a tight race, we lost a few members because of it." Ironically shortly after that Forte added it's first non-gay member. "He was an Australian actor who came to Toronto with wife and child in tow," says Ciarlo. "He wanted to expand his vocal abilities and said, 'Where better to properly learn than in a gay choir?'"
Forte Turns 20! is on Sat, June 3 at the 519, 519 Church St.
The Greatest - 20th Anniversary Concert is on Fri, June 16 at Trinity-St Paul's United Church, 427 Bloor St W. fortechorus.com