The two sides of falling in love with Heartland Men’s Chorus

Kellie Houx | KC Studio

Heartland Men's ChorusIn major cities across Europe such as London, Paris and Berlin during the 1920s and the first couple of years of the 1930s, gay culture boomed. Cabarets popped up and the bawdy nightlife hit an all-time high. Then in just a few years the Nazi regime took the raucous gay culture of pre-war Berlin and made illegal. These two seemingly incongruous topics make up the two halves of Heartland Men’s Chorus spring show, Falling in Love Again. The shows are at 8 p.m. March 23 and 4 p.m. March 24 at the Folly Theater.

Dr. Joe Nadeau, artistic director of Heartland Men’s Chorus since 1998, calls Falling in Love Again a dramatic presentation. “It’s more of an event than a concert. Many people think of the history of the gay civil rights movement with the Stonewall riots in 1969 or Harvey Milk in 1978. Decades before in Berlin, Paris and London, there was a thriving gay community. This concert offers two parts; first that pre-1933 gay world of Berlin with the bawdy, gender-bending world with some very suggestive material that demonstrates the excitement before the Holocaust. Then in 1933, it’s like the whole gay community got shut down. That will be the second half of the show. It will be looking at reclaiming and finding love in your life.” Nadeau says the first half will have music from shows such as Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Three Penny Opera. Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again” will be part of the show as will “The Lavender Song” (“Das Lila Lied”), a cabaret song written in 1920 that is often considered one of the first gay anthems.

Act II features the Midwest premiere of Jake Heggie’s For a Look or a Touch, a stirring tale of two lovers sent to the Nazi concentration camps — one who is exterminated and one who lives to recount a love lost and unspoken. Guest baritone Morgan Smith and actor Kip Niven join HMC to present this moving tribute to the power of love in the midst of devastating circumstances. Two Berlin teens, Manfred Lewin and Gad Beck, loved each other before Lewin and his family were arrested by the Nazis. Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer took Lewin’s entries in the tiny journal he wrote as a gift to Beck. Lewin and his family died in Auschwitz; Beck survived and lived in Berlin until his death in late June 2012 at the age of 88. In Look, cast as a staged song-cycle, Lewin’s ghost, sung by Smith, forever 19, visits the elderly Beck, played by Niven, asking him to revisit memories he’s kept buried. Lewin’s songs are interspersed with Beck’s spoken narration.

Niven has been a fan of the Heartland Men’s Chorus for years. He also met Nadeau when Nadeau was the music director at his daughter’s middle school. “We became friends. Joe knew I was an actor and that I started a group called E.A.R.Th (Equity Actors’ Readers’ Theatre). We rehearsed next door to the Women’s Chorus, which Joe directs, and he reached out to me in August of last year. Any actor would be interested in this, but it has particular resonance for me. I am liberal in my politics, particularly social issues. When people wield hatred against those who are not alike, it becomes a touch point for me.”

Niven says he looks forward to giving voice to Beck and his plight for Kansas City audiences. “Leading to World War II, Berlin was in its heyday of indulgence and then the world turned on itself to be one of the most terrifying times in history. Certainly being a Jew, gay, or gypsy was not tolerated. Not quite a direct parallel, but the journal of Lewin to Beck personalizes a greater story. It’s similar to those who read Anne Frank. It’s difficult to wrap your mind around 6 million people when the story can be brought closer with two people or a family like the Franks. It seems more approachable to understand the loss, pain and survivor guilt.”

Niven says he wants audiences to listen to the story and hear the humanity. “People were indeed slaughtered for their uniqueness.” Nadeau saw the first performance of For a Look in Seattle. “It’s a life-changing concert with healing and power. We are offering the Kansas City premiere that takes our vision to heart. We aim to provide enlightening and empowering stage. People will learn of Paragraph 175 which became part of the Nazi code which allowed persecution for an inappropriate look or touch. The chorus comes in about a third the way in as victims during the Holocaust. It’s quite amazing. When I experienced the show, the audience didn’t know what to do at the end. There was this silence because it’s so heart-wrenching.”

The estimates of gays killed is somewhere around 15,000. “When people were released, it was considered a crime and people who were gay just didn’t talk about it,” Nadeau says. “As society becomes more diverse and accepting, the lesson we learn from history, as long as there is another group called they or them and whether those lines are divided because of the color of their skin, gender, religion, sexuality or more, whatever that definition is, we need to not repeat what the Germans did to the Jews, the gays and other minorities to dehumanize them. It’s not about them, but about us and that we must respect differences and honor our sameness.”

In conjunction with Falling in Love Again, HMC co-presents the art exhibit Nazi Persecution of Homosexuals 1933-1945, on loan from the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Admission is free and the exhibit will be open to the public runs through April 10. The display will be in the Dean’s Gallery, 800 E. 51st, at Miller Nichols Library on the University of Missouri-Kansas City. This exhibit is presented by The University of Missouri-Kansas City in partnership with The Kansas City Museum. The exhibition is sponsored by the UMKC Division of Diversity, Access and Equality, and the Gay and Lesbian Archive of Mid-America.