Dustin Cates, Heartland Men’s Chorus artistic director, redefines holiday tradition

Nick Spacek | The Pitch

Dustin Cates 1The Heartland Men’s Chorus has always aimed for what it refers to as a “non-traditional holiday tradition” at its annual December concert. As Kansas City’s premier gay men’s chorus, the group has plenty of room to fill that niche.

After the success of last year’s Kansas City Christmas, artistic director Dustin Cates wanted to solidify the annual program as a local tradition. To that end, he dug into the city’s history to create an ambience that reflected both the chorus and the city.

The Pitch spoke with Cates by phone about his role, the Heartland Men’s Chorus’ place in Kansas City, and establishing a new custom.

The Pitch: Tell me about how the Heartland Men’s Chorus embraces the “non-traditional” aspect of Christmas choral music.

Cates: For instance, we’re singing a series of songs from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols in the first half, which is a pretty legitimate piece of choral music with harp accompaniment. And then, in the second half, we’re singing a parody of “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas” called “I Want a Lumbersexual for Christmas.”

That’s one of the great things about Heartland Men’s Chorus: We really do try to do it all, and we try to do it all with as much excellence as we can. I think that this concert, in particular, is a really great example of that because our first half is a little more serious, legitimate choral music — if you like to call it that — and the second half is a little bit more irreverent, kind of fun, Hamburger Mary’s-style.

Trying to make something like Kansas City Christmas a new tradition in the 30th year of an organization seems like a really grand plan.

The original concept started because I had to put a season together, like, five minutes after they hired me [in 2014], and I was trying to come up with something for the holiday. Every year, the chorus would come up with a different slant on it. One year, they did Holiday Glee and did holiday music from the television show, and I think the last one before I got there was Baby, It’s Cold Outside, which was music about the weather and being cold. In general, it was always this blend of classics and zany, campy stuff. For a lot of our subscribers and supporters, it’s how they kick off the holiday season.

As I was thinking about what I would do the next year, I realized that Kansas City Christmas was probably the highest-selling holiday show they’d had in the history of the organization. We based a lot of the concert off Kansas City composers, and it explored what it was like to be in Kansas City during the holidays. I just thought that civic pride is at an all-time high. Last year’s holiday concert was a huge success, and given that they [the Kansas City Ballet and the Kansas City Symphony] do The Nutcracker and the Messiah year after year, there’s no reason that Heartland Men’s Chorus can’t brand their holiday concert.

I get the feeling that there’s always a delicate balance between giving people what they expect to hear and challenging yourself as an artist. How do you challenge yourself and the audience while maintaining that balance?

As an artist, there are certain sorts of traditional, standard, familiar pieces that you are drawn to because they’re a part of your experience or your heritage as a musician. The other side of the coin as an artist is that you really love to try and reinvent some of those ideas to make them new and relevant and interesting to all audiences — some that have heard the given piece before, some that have maybe never heard it before.

The Benjamin Britten piece is a great example. It’s not originally written for men’s chorus. The arrangement we’re singing was originally written for treble voices — so, a women’s chorus. That’s sort of a new take on it — that we’re, as a men’s chorus, singing it an octave down.

What were you doing prior to becoming the Heartland Men’s Chorus artistic director?

I spent 11 years teaching high school choir. I taught high school because I felt like I was really in there making a difference in those kids’ lives. As an openly gay guy with a husband and a kid, teaching in southern Johnson County — I mean, that’s a statement that I felt needed to be made.

As a lifelong Kansas Citian, I was always aware of Heartland Men’s Chorus, and I loved their brand of classics and really great choral singing but also that they could blow your mind with some campy, crazy, really fun songs. But I wasn’t really aware of the community advocacy that happened. Both internally, for the guys — I mean, some of those guys are 50 years old and divorced their wives, and their kids won’t speak to them. The only family they have is Heartland Men’s Chorus. On the other side of the coin is the advocacy the chorus does in the city for LGBT issues, which is huge. That part of the organization I wasn’t aware of before I had the opportunity to guest conduct.

The job posting came up, and I thought, “This is a full-time job? This is cool!” In addition to that, it allows me this free time to be a really great dad, whereas before that, I was spending the entire day and entire night sometimes as a high school choral director for the musical or contest or something like that.

I just say to the guys, “We just fell in love, and I can’t quit you guys. You decided to keep me.” It fell into place, and it feels good. I was putting together the playbill for the show, and I never thought, five years ago, that I would be putting in the credits of something I was doing “Lumbersexual No. 1” and “Lumbersexual No. 2,” but this is what I do now!