Photo of Andrew Lippa (right) by Walter Kurtz
This summer is filled with the stories of significant gay men's lives set to music. Newly commissioned works premiered at Opera Theatre of St. Louis and the Santa Fe Opera that focused on the tragedies inherent in the narratives of boxer Emile Griffith and Oscar Wilde. And now Harvey Milk, a 20th-century legend whose life has already become a symbol and the stuff of Hollywood, is also getting a choral tribute.
Andrew Lippa, the creative mind behind The Addams Family and The Wild Party, along with the Broadway-bound Big Fish, has created an oratorio commissioned by the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus as part of the Harvey Milk 2013, a 35th anniversary concert. Tim Seelig, the conductor of the SFGMC, originally approached Lippa to write a five-minute piece, but Lippa felt inspired when he got the original query and called up Seelig with a counter office.
"This was the gift I was asking for and I didn't realize. Suddenly it came in some form in that email from Tim," Lippa explains. "I thought, I can't just write a five-minute piece. I have too much to say inside me. I called him up and told him I wanted to write a full expression of what the life and experiences of Harvey Milk meant to me."
The SFGMC agreed to the proposal and the result premieres this week: Lippa has composed an inspirational, emotional 55-minute oratorio, a piece for choral voices. Lippa will peform the Harvey Milk role (the first time he's written something that he's performed himself), and it includes a female voice and character, which will be performed by soprano Laura Benanti. "She's the feminine energy, the mother, the sister, other women in his life," Lippa says.
Just don't expect a musical or theatrical experience. "It's not a biography, it's a series of snapshots, based on the idea of his time in office, and a prologue of what he might have felt like when he was a child," Lippa says. "I'm mostly concerned with how something feels; I'm concerned and interested in the emotional life of ideas, big ideas, not polemic, but in emotion."
Spanning pain, joy, and the struggle of being a gay man in the world, this may be one of Lippa's most personal works and something we'll be hearing about for some time to come.
Performances June 26-28. The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus opening night gala takes place Thursday, June 27. Tickets ($25-$60) for all performances of Harvey Milk 2013 are available at SFGMC.org or through City Box Office at 415-392-4400.
Watch a behind the scenes video below.