Take a chance on the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus this week — they’re presenting ExtrABBAganza, a show devoted to the campy ’70s and early ’80s classics of Swedish Pop group ABBA. It’s also the chance to hear a larger, improved ensemble under the direction of their (relatively) new artistic director, Dr. Casey Hayes.
“It’s just so much fun, it’s out of control,” Hayes sighs in mock exasperation. “It will be a pretty outrageous performance — and we’re singing the music extremely well.”
What’s your favorite ABBA tune? “Super Trouper?” “The Winner Takes it All?” “Fernando?” And let us not forget the iconic “Dancing Queen.” They’re all there in this performance package originally created for the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in 1997. The show features plenty of what Hayes calls “choralography,” as well as a dance troupe from Lakota East and West High Schools.
“You’ll see everything from country line dancing to disco,” Hayes laughs. “The dancers performed at our holiday concert in December and they had such a great time that they wanted to come back.” (Their teacher is one of the chorus members, and he’s choreographing “Fernando” and “Dancing Queen.”)
While gay men’s choruses frequently perform Pop music, especially ABBA’s, Hayes insists that it’s more than belting out the vocal lines.
“They really hate it that I stop them all the time,” he sighs again and then brightens up. “But the guys are ready for it and they’re off book — meaning they’re not using their music — much sooner than they’ve ever been.”
CMC was founded in 1991, the male counterpart to MUSE, Cincinnati’s Women’s Chorus. One of CMC’s early supporters was MUSE Artistic Director Catherine Roma, who continued to advocate for CMC during their search for a new artistic director.
“Cathy Roma is the reason I’m here,” Hayes says. “We ran into each other at a conference and she suggested I apply for the job.”
Hayes, who heads the choral department at Franklin College, south of Indianapolis, was lukewarm at first.
“I didn’t know where Cincinnati was,” he admits.
But he soon found out and couldn’t be more enthusiastic, commuting to Cincinnati from Franklin once a week. “I absolutely love it! Talk about a city that sings. Vocal music is everywhere and that’s unusual, especially in a city this size,” he says.
Hayes’ vast range of experience includes serving as chair of the Creative Arts Department for NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, where he earned his Ph.D in music education, focusing on outreach to GLBT choruses. Hayes served as music director for the New York Gay Men’s Chorus and in 2007 he founded the Gay Men’s Chorus of Manhattan, a community chorus presenting concerts to benefit needy nonprofits. Hayes joined the Franklin College faculty in 2009.
One of his first priorities was enlarging CMC’s membership and improving the group’s musicianship, and he’s understandably proud of the accomplishments in just more than a year.
“When I took over, there were about 33 members and now we have 64 singers. We had a limited number of younger guys and this year, about 30 percent are under 30,” Hayes says.
“They’re infinitely better as singers and performers,” he continues. “Regardless of what they sing, it has to be at a high level because if you’re not sounding good, no one will come to hear you.”
Now that GLBT choruses are not a rarity, Hayes’ goal for CMC is for audiences to think first and foremost that they’re a really amazing chorus, and then that they’re a gay men’s chorus or gay supportive.
He believes the performance has to be flawless and points to MUSE as a role model. “MUSE is out there, setting a high standard for us and everyone else,” he says.
Marketing is another top priority for Hayes, and he insists on putting CMC’s mission first and foremost. “We’re very vocal — because I am — that we’re a chorus of gay men and straight supporters. I want the chorus to be a key player in Cincinnati’s GLBT community,” he says.
Chorus member Chris Kelly heads up marketing initiatives, which include a new logo and a revamped website. “Chris works at P&G and has a wonderful skill set,” Hayes says. “We are utilizing every platform we can to put ourselves out there.”
Hayes is an outspoken activist for the GLBT communities, and has been a long-time board member of the International Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA).
“I’m a huge gay advocate,” he asserts. “My dissertation was on GLBT music and outreach education, so my concerts are very historic and very poignant.”
“My guys are very dedicated to our mission and that’s crucial, especially when so many choruses are getting away from that,” he continues. “They really believe in it. And they’re working incredibly hard to achieve the musical excellence we’re striving for.”
Hayes’ commitment to the local GLBT community includes participating in Pride Week activities, putting it out there in the new branding campaign and creating programs that inspire and entertain. He says CMC’s mission statement is a continual inspiration: “Through our music, we strive for excellence; support and nurture our members; entertain our audiences; and work for justice, harmony and inclusion between the gay community and the community at large.”
The World Choir Games provided CMC with numerous opportunities to be more visible — and audible to hundreds of Greater Cincinnati residents, not to mention the out-of-town visitors. “I was schlepping my guys all over Cincinnati during the games,” he laughs. “And we all loved it.”
Hayes has ambitious plans for CMC’s future seasons. CMC’s June concert will showcase songs that have defined the GLBT’s fight for equal rights over the past decades. But April is all about ABBA.
CMC presents EXTRABBAGANZA April 6-7 at SCPA’s Mayerson Theater. Tickets: cincinnatimenschorus.org.