Last weekend, I traipsed into London to catch the very last day of the Gay Icons exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. The Gallery had asked ten gay, public figures to choose six of their own icons – heroes or people, either straight or gay, who influenced or somehow had an impact on forming who they are in the present day. The selectors' choices were widely diverse, ranging from life-partners and family members to Virginia Woolf to The Village People. I gazed at portraits of people with life stories both familiar and completely unknown to me, moved by their tales of courage, strength, intellect, innovation, integrity, pride, and, at times, tragedy. About halfway through I noticed that in the middle of it all was a table stocked with silver and white cards asking us to write about someone we considered to be an iconic figure. It got me thinking about who I would have chosen as icons. I found it difficult to choose just six, and I found myself wondering exactly what an icon was to me. Was it a famous person or group whose image was ubiquitous who I looked up to? Was it a personal hero who inspired me? I began to wonder if there was a difference.
At times, some people debate with me the purpose of being on Facebook, Tweeting, and having a blog, and question my decision to open myself up to a seeming lack of privacy. I always reply to those people that I only share what it is that I wish to – I, like any blogger or person on Facebook, is as open as I choose to be. Funnily enough, I almost hit one of those boundaries when thinking about this post. While ruminating about the Gay Icons exhibit and thinking about blogging about it, I found myself incredibly shy and self-conscious about revealing who I consider to be important and influential to me, and it has, as a result, taken me a long time to draft this. I thought it was a strange time for my sense of privacy to kick in. Regardless, here are few of the people, a sampling of my own personal heroes that I look up to, that I would have chosen.
Rosemary Russell – Rosie was the first voice teacher that I worked with for an extended period of time – from the ages of 16-22. Over those six years, she not only taught me the basics of singing, but also fostered the love of music that she saw in me. During my study with her, I hungrily chewed through a vast amount of repertoire, from songs to oratorio arias to opera. From her, I learned what it is to be a musician – not just a singer, and how technique and expression serve each other. One of the most valuable lessons she ever taught me was that there are many ways to make a career in music, and that not any one of them is less honorable or less successful than the other. She inspired in me the courage to pursue this passion of mine full-throttle. The lessons she gave me continue to teach me to this day, and I suspect for many years to come. Many times over have I had a moment in which I think to myself, "oh yeah…that's what she was talking about…" She passed away in the fall of 2005, and I have missed her greatly ever since.
Dan Savage – Not only have I been entertained by his column Savage Love as well as many of his books for many years, but I've found inspiration in both the advice he gives and in those varied people who seek it. Listening to his podcast and reading his column, I've learned that both diversity and acceptance are beautiful things to be celebrated enjoyed, and in doing so, our lives will be richer. Also, I greatly admire his political activism and very vocal criticism of the government's denial of our civil rights as gay people. There is great strength and pragmatism in his message to his audience, whether it be listeners seeking sex and relationship advice or viewers of CNN hoping to catch the latest debate on gay politics.
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears – Britten's biography was the very first biography of a composer that I had ever read . I found myself fascinated by the story of his and Pears' lifelong relationship – a partnership that was not only a personal one but also artistic and creative one. Such total synthesis of two lives is a goal I think that most couples aspire to, and to see it achieved in a gay couple makes it doubly moving. Their story, coupled with their incredible artistic output have inspired in me not only a great love for Britten's music, but also the drive to always keep pushing ahead musically and artistically.
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson – During my first year in the HGO studio, I was quite busy with many small assignments on stage. On one of the few nights I had off and to myself that first season, I sat down on my couch and put in a tape of the Glyndebourne production of Theodora and found myself transfixed as I watched Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's Irene. I couldn't tear my eyes away as I was hypnotized by her total commitment and her earthy musicality – every note poised with energy and direction. She quickly became one of my favorite singers to listen to. I've striven for that kind of commitment in my own music-making ever since.
Martin Katz – I first met Martin at the University of Michigan as a freshman at the School of Music when working with one of his Master's students. During my time at Michigan, I worked with him through many of his students, sang under his baton in my first performances of Fenton, and studied with him in two of his song classes. The most important lesson I learned from Martin was the relationship between text and music, and how both feed each other - and how powerful the combination of the two really can be when we dig deep as performers. He, along with Rosie, nurtured my love of songs and recital repertoire, and really taught me how to perform them. I have always been grateful to him for it.
Brendon Watson, Jennifer Erb-Downward, Erin Marie Williams, Leah Plunkett, Tory Dicarlo, and Josh Cowen – These six people are the people who have been my closest friends since my days in High School in Ann Arbor. Our friendships were deepened and cemented shortly after I came out of the closet at 15 or 16, and they have supported me at just about every major moment in my life. Each one of them is incredibly successful, accomplished, driven, intellectual, open, thoughtful, loving, caring, insightful, and incredible fun. It is from them that I have learned how to really listen and what the true meaning of friendship is.
Erin Marie Williams and Brendon Watson