MUSE, Cincinnati’s women’s chorus, presents Brave Happy Love this weekend with guest performers Diverse City, the area’s first chorus for LGBTQ youth and their allies. It’s a fitting way for Rhonda Juliano, MUSE’s new artistic director, to conclude her first season.
Although Juliano has conducted two previous concerts, Brave Happy Love is the first MUSE program to have her stamp. Working with MUSE’s Musical Excellence Committee, Juliano came up with a set list reflecting concerns about same-sex marriage, adoption and difficulties faced by transgender people. “Those issues have been at the forefront of our conversations,” she says.
One issue resonates deeply. In Seattle in 2002, Juliano founded Diverse Harmony, the country’s first GSA (Gay/Straight Alliance) youth choir.
“I was teaching high school music and drama in Seattle and I asked the gay and lesbian kids if they felt safe in school,” Juliano says. “Their responses — especially from the boys — were that in the choir room, they were [safe], but in the halls, not so much. That’s why I started Diverse Harmony. I did it for the kids.”
Twelve years later, there are now eight active LGBTQ youth choirs including the latest addition, Cincinnati’s Diverse City. Founder Lindsey Deaton says that Juliano played a key role in moving the project forward.
“I was in a deep hole in November,” Deaton says. “I’d been a Catholic church musician for over 20 years and when I went through transition in May of last year, it was impossible to continue a public ministry position. Someone suggested I reach out to Rhonda [Juliano], we met, and I started recruiting in February.”
Deaton did massive footwork: creating a Facebook page and website, speaking to local GSAs throughout the city, attending the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) prom and meeting one-on-one with potential singers, most of whom are boys.
Deaton hopes to have more students enrolled in the summer camp going on now through Friday, culminating with the MUSE concerts, where Diverse City and MUSE will do a mash-up of Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” and Katy Perry’s “Roar,” arranged by Deaton.
MUSE’s program is a mix of Broadway, songs by Brandi Carlile, Holly Near and Pharrell Williams (guess what song that is) and the premiere of “When I Was a Boy,” a commissioned work from the trans perspective by Florida-based performer, arranger and composer Evyn Surrency.
The commission grew out of Juliano’s friendship with Surrency, who was going through transition, and discussions MUSE had with trans members of its Fifth Section (non-singing members of the MUSE family), volunteers who assist with administration, stage management and marketing.
“There are so many individuals struggling with who they are and where they belong,” Juliano says, tearing up.
“We have no idea the kinds of difficulties they face. It’s important — and wonderful to bring this awareness to our audience.”
That commitment to social justice and bringing those issues to audiences contributed to Juliano’s appointment as the successor to MUSE founder and 30-year artistic director Dr. Catherine Roma. It’s a move Juliano could not have conceived two years ago.
A longtime resident of Seattle, Juliano was assistant conductor of the Seattle Women’s Choir and had a full-time church job. Her partner Pat Bussard, whom she officially married in May 2013, was a prominent executive at Seattle Children’s Hospital and together they had four adult daughters.
At the 2012 Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA) event in Denver, a former Seattle Women’s Choir member who sings with MUSE encouraged Juliano to apply. “When I thought about it, my first thought was, ‘Cincinnati? Where’s Cincinnati?’ ” But she had heard MUSE many times and knew Catherine Roma from GALA and other conferences.
After moving to Cincinnati in July, Juliano worked with Roma, a process that contributed to what she says has been a smooth transition.
“I give kudos to MUSE for being so conscientious about how difficult the transition would be and for creating a structure to facilitate it,” she says.
Juliano is also director of music ministries at Mt. Washington Presbyterian Church. Despite culture and weather shock, Juliano loves Cincinnati. And she’s got next season planned. Stay tuned.
MUSE and DIVERSE CITY perform Brave Happy Love Saturday and Sunday at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, 108 W. Central Parkway, Over-the-Rhine. Tickets and more info: musechoir.org.