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Queeristers set Queer Arts Festival ablaze

Cor Flammae
Photo Credit: belle ancell photography

There’s a new choir in town, and this one is bringing new meaning to a 13th century word describing a chorister: Queerister. With an abundance of choirs – great choirs - in Vancouver, it’s hard to imagine that there’s room for one more, but as the sold-out audience and multitude of scalpers showed us at Cor Flammae’s debut performance at the Queer Arts Festival in July, there’s a demand for this one.

Arguably one of Vancouver’s most fashionable choirs (just check out their recent photo shoot), Cor Flammae has tasked itself with a mission statement “to celebrate both queer composers and the talent and abilities of the classical singers in our community in order to create musical experiences that speak to queer audiences.” Inspired to start a queer choir after seeing the 2013 QAF premiere of When The Sun Comes Out, Canada’s first lesbian opera by Vancouver composer Leslie Uyeda, co-founders Missy Clarkson, Amelia Pitt-Brooke and Madeline Hannan-Leith have spent the last year building Cor Flammae from the ground up. “Artists want to make art that reflects their lives and their experiences,” Amelia explains, “Art is about translating experiences and talking about experiences through metaphor because they can’t be said.” Missy continues, “The story of the status quo is told time and time again, while the queer experiences of artists is erased through history, especially in the conservative realm of classical music.” Cor Flammae seeks to bridge this gap.

Just as each artist appearing with Cor Flammae identifies with the LGBTQ community, so does each composer featured on their program. Choral veteran and fellow queerister Bruce Hoffman elaborates, “This music is fabulous music… we are showing this music is also from the queer community and it’s informed, in some way, by that person’s queerness.” The program notes from the choir’s first performance contained a wealth of information on each composer selected for the program, and similarly, Cor Flammae’s website offers a beautifully designed resource on queer composers throughout history.

In its initial performance at the QAF this summer, Cor Flammae’s program was loaded with fiercely challenging works, and the choir tackled the repertoire head-on, shining in selections from Menotti’s The Unicorn, The Gorgon & The Manticore and in Benjamin Britten’s Advance Democracy. While not all of the works were equally well-performed and some of the programming decisions weren’t my favourite, the audience’s excitement and engagement with the choir was palpable and unwavering. The collective buzz amongst the audience created an atmosphere unlike any that I’ve experienced in a classical music setting – it felt like we were, as a whole, interacting with the music and the performers. As one of the singers said, “It felt like we broke the fourth wall before we even got there”. It was a rare treat.

It’s clear that Cor Flammae is no small undertaking, and every aspect of their first performance told the audience that when it comes to choral music, these singers take things very, very seriously. Missy and Amelia don’t know what’s next for Cor Flammae, so Vancouver choral enthusiasts will have to wait and see. In the meantime, I would advise signing up for the mailing list – if their first concert is any indication, you don’t want to miss the next one.

Missed Cor Flammae's concert but can't wait to hear them? You can listen to excerpts from their performance in this year's QAF here.

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