Choral conductor Dr Sarah Penicka-Smith recently co-founded Pacific Pride Choir with her wife Melanie Penicka-Smith. The choir has just returned from its first tour encompassing Berlin, Krakow and Warsaw, organized by KI Concerts. In ten days they rehearsed together for the first time, gave five performances, and enjoyed the extraordinary energy of the host choirs in each city.
Monday 10 July
Excited members of Pacific Pride Choir arrived at Sydney airport this evening, bound for Berlin. This was the first time that many of us had even met each other. Coming from most of Australia’s major cities as well as New Zealand and Germany, this scratch choir of unauditioned choristers welcomes all sexualities and genders. Our plan is first to rehearse and perform in a friendly city before heading off to a country where homosexuality is legalized but not fully recognized. As well as performing public concerts, the choir has organised to work in partnership with local LGBTQI organisations and individuals to help create visibility, solidarity and recognition through the uniting power of music.
Wednesday 12 July
In the morning the choir began rehearsing its mixed repertoire of music, including songs in Australian and New Zealand indigenous language, pop and Polish. Our rehearsal room on the top floor of the Park Inn on Alexanderplatz provides a breathtaking view across the entire city of Berlin. This afternoon we took a guided tour of this incredible city including the Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted under Nazism, a moving reminder that the world forgets the past at its peril.
Friday 14 July
Our first ever concert was held tonight at the historic Emmauskirche, in partnership with Berlin’s all-male queer choir, Rosa Cavaliere. They were a complete riot, especially their a cappella version of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. And the audience response to our own set was better than we could have ever hoped, following just three days of rehearsal. Afterwards we were invited to an after-party at an underground nightclub where Rosa Cavaliere’s music director, Katrin Schuler-Springorum, played bass in an all-female funk band.
Above, L to R: Choristers Lindsay and Alex singing with passion at the outreach concert for Rainbow Faith in Krakow; Pacific Pride Choir and Krakofonia join for a finale to our second concert in the Teatr Nowy; Antonio Fernandez, our accompanist.
Saturday 15 July
Today we travelled by coach from Berlin to Krakow, Poland. Poland, the inspiration for our tour, is one of the three worst countries to be gay in the European Union, according to the equal rights organization ILGA-Europe. The Roman Catholic Church is a major force in Polish society and politics. While homosexuality has never been illegal in Poland, the country constitutionally bans same-sex marriage and adoption, and refuses to recognize transgender people. The last two years has seen a concerning swing towards discrimination and away from recognition. There has also been a noticeable increase in anti-LGBTQI hate speech and violence. Most cases go unreported as it is often assumed that authorities will be unlikely to act.
Sunday 16 July
After a morning of sightseeing around the beautiful old town of Krakow, we met together to rehearse at the Teatr Nowy in the old Jewish quarter. Our concert partner here is Krakofonia, recently formed in 2014. To be out and gay in Poland is brave, let alone performing publicly in a queer choir. When their twelve members including director Julia Piotrowska arrived at the theatre, they were overwhelmed by the sheer size and diversity of our choir. Our presence really meant something to them, as it gave hope for their future. The concert was a huge success. We brought the house down with our own queer take on the traditional Polish folk song Szla Dzieweczka, and were applauded for our sterling effort pronouncing a very difficult language. However, it was our rendition of the powerful pop song Take Me To Church which really made an impact. The Irish singer-songwriter Hozier wrote the song in response to his frustration at the Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality, and it has become a kind of anthem amongst Poland’s youth. After the concert, members of both choirs celebrated together with a feast of pierogi (dumplings) and an impromptu sing-along which really cemented our friendship.
Monday 17 July
This evening we performed at Krakow’s Jewish Community Centre for a meeting of the local Rainbow Faith Group. The discussion that followed highlighted the conflict that members of the local gay community have in reconciling their personal lives with the constraints of official society. A fifteen year old boy was inspired by our presence to speak up bravely and eloquently about how isolated he felt. Others commented that while the public sphere was still conservative, privately they had received more support from family and friends than they could ever have hoped.
Wednesday 19 July
Our final night in Poland, and our travels have taken us to Warsaw to perform with local queer choir Chor Voces Gaudii at the prestigious Polish Radio studios. Australia’s Ambassador to Poland, Mr Paul Wojciechowski, welcomed performers and audience. Having formed only a few years ago, Voces Gaudii is still building its membership, but its eight current members performed beautifully under director Misha Cherniak. All week, the people of Warsaw have been protesting on the streets in their thousands about the government’s plans to take control of the appointment of the judiciary. The choir told us of their fear that their democracy is at risk and their repertoire of classic protest and peace songs was a perfect reflection of the concern that the Polish LGBTQI community has for its own future. Just by turning up and standing alongside them with our songs of hope and friendship, we trust that in some small way we have given them the encouragement to keep doing what they are doing.
Pacific Pride Choir aims to plan similar international tours every two years