Tampa – Una Voce: A Florida Men’s Chorale will make history June 12-13 with the Florida premiere of “I Am Harvey Milk,” words and music by Andrew Lippa.
Tom Barker, Una Voce managing director, describes the performance as “a dramatic musical composition that truly celebrates making political change by being who you are.”
Not only is the performance important because it is the Florida premiere, but also because Una Voce is one of the first groups allowed to perform it outside of the five largest gay men’s choruses Lippa designated to perform the piece. Additionally, the chorale will be performing with an 18-piece orchestra, their largest collaboration to date.
“When you combine 35 voices with three incredible soloists and an 18-piece orchestra, it will be something Tampa Bay hasn’t seen before,” said Barker. These three soloists include Chris Romeo in the role of Harvey Milk; Ruthie Nelson as various female roles; and Hari-Krishna Koipallil as young Harvey.
“Chris has the dramatic skills to bring a role like this to life,” said Artistic Director Joseph Caulkins. “I don’t know anyone else who could do it like he can.”
“I’ve never been part of a gay men’s chorus before,” said Romeo. “There is a diverse age range of gentlemen. It’s amazing to see there are older men who are so comfortable with themselves, especially considering some were alive during Harvey Milk’s lifetime and may have gone through some of the same struggles. They are good role models for the younger generations.”
The feeling is mutual; Caulkins says the level of trust and respect between Romeo and the group has led to a lot of free flowing music.
However, securing the performance was not an easy task. Barker said the board had to go through a lot of negotiation in convincing Lippa to let them perform it. “This is Andrew Lippa’s baby,” explained Barker. “He wants to protect it just like any piece of art and make sure it’s done in a first-class way.”
According to Barker, Una Voce’s biggest motivating factor in bringing “I Am Harvey Milk” to the area was to give back to the community. “We really are following our mission and vision of changing lives one song at a time,” Barker saiod.
“We have the first opportunity to tell this story with this music to our community,” Caulkins said. “I’m of a generation that didn’t really know Harvey Milk’s story. The closest connection was that I saw Sean Penn in a movie. A lot of people—even gay people who you would assume know a lot about him—don’t know the story, especially those 40 and younger. It’s a powerful one that needs to be told.”
The performance combines Harvey Milk’s life story with the richness of San Francisco culture, running the gamut from Harvey listening to opera and disco as a boy, to his work as the first elected gay man and his pursuit to pass LGBT protections in San Francisco. Romeo says it is important to highlight how fun his life was and not focus on just the tragedy.
“There is a piece called ‘San Francisco’ that really talks about being lost and trying to find home,” Caulkins said. “It’s not just about going to San Francisco, but being comfortable with your own sexuality and who you are as a person. A number of guys in the chorus who were in San Francisco at the same time Harvey Milk was there have been to the places we’re singing about, so it’s a very personal story for them.”
“I Am Harvey Milk” will honor both LGBT and human rights heroes. Some featured heroes include Nelson Mandela, Gloria Steinem, Larry Kramer, and Keith Herring. The chorale will also perform “Wanting Memories,” a song to honor everyday heroes such as firemen and teachers who help change society as well as protect and serve. Caulkins hopes audiences can see monumental changes in both gay and human rights since Harvey Milk was in office.
Caulkins says he is most excited about the finale, which will begin with Harvey Milk’s speech “Pirate of the Silence” encouraging people to come out and escape the silence.
“It’s like a snowball rolling down the hill, gaining momentum and intensity,” Caulkins said. “I can’t think of a more dramatic conclusion to an event. If you’re going to come to one Una Voce concert in your lifetime, it’s this one.”
The event will also feature a special guest appearance: Harvey Milk’s nephew, Stuart Milk. Stuart, a world renowned LGBT and human rights activist, will attend Friday night’s performance to kick off the event.
The show will be presented on June 12 at The Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg and June 13 at the USF Concert Hall in Tampa. Both shows begin at 8 p.m. For tickets, visit Una-Voce.org.