Chicago’s Artemis Singers celebrate Pride, women’s rights milestones in ‘sparkling’ concert
Chicago Pride celebrations will hit a high note on Saturday as the Artemis Singers bring their biannual concert program to the First Unitarian Church in Hyde Park. This year’s concert in particular resonates for Chicago’s long-standing lesbian feminist choir (which marks 40 years in 2020), joining in the larger commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the landmark Stonewall uprising, the 50th anniversary of the Chicago Pride Parade and the centennial of women’s right to vote.
“It’s incredible to see how far we’ve come,” says one of the chorus’ co-directors and former treasurer Midge Stocker, who has been a member for 29 years. As part of the larger Sister Singers Network, the Artemis Singers (inspired by the Greek goddess Artemis, a symbol of independence) is one of the founding members of the national network that comprises all-women and feminist choirs in about 30 cities; in 2008, the group was inducted into the City of Chicago’s Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
“We were founded at a time when perspectives on gay and lesbian folks were changing,” adds Stocker, “and at a time when being out was a very different thing from what it is now.”
Celebrating the historical progress while also being keenly aware of how much work still needs to be done to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community is part of the theme of the Artemis Singers’ latest concert program. Titled “We Sing What Sparkles,” the performance focuses on the theme of interconnectedness.
“Certainly in this time, there’s a lot of division between groups, a lot of anger and many differences of opinion that have led to violence and led to strife, and one of the things we wanted to focus on was not what is different about all us, but what is similar,” explains 25-year member Ruth Clark, second soprano as well as an artistic director and marketing manager for the nonprofit chorus, adding, “When we talk about what sparkles, we mean the sparks that are formed between people, the energy that is positive between and among humans. Focusing on that is how we will get through this time of difficulty.”
Like all Artemis Singers concerts, this program will include songs music written or arranged exclusively by women as well as original pieces crafted by members. For Saturday’s performance the set list includes the world premiere of the “Lesbian Feminist Boogie” by chorus member Allison Downing as well as more recognized works like Andra Day’s inspiring hit song, “Rise Up.” There will also be a rendition of “What Happens When a Woman” by Chicago-based vocal trio Artemisia, which Stocker says will be dedicated to newly inaugurated Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “The lyric continues ‘what happens when a woman takes power,’ and it signifies how much we have to celebrate with her taking office.”
Adds Clark, “One of the things we talk about for our 40th anniversary next year is to maybe try to make some appearances with the mayor, or make alliances with her team to figure out where we can assist in education, in performances, whatever we can do to advance her agenda items.”
The Artemis Singers has always had a bit of an activist side, she adds. “Back in 2013 we sang at a rally in Springfield for the marriage equality bill. A very short time later we were at Governor Pat Quinn’s signing ceremony for that bill.”
There have been a number of other memorable performances over the years, says Clark, such as appearing at the AIDS Foundation of Chicago gala in 1987 featuring Angela Lansbury and Oprah at the Chicago Theatre with a mission of raising funds for AIDS research, as well as performing at Gay Games in Chicago. Stocker adds her most memorable was in 2001, performing Diane Benjamin’s “Where I Live: A Breast Cancer Oratorio” to benefit for the Lesbian Community Cancer Project.
“Artemis is a very community-based organization,” Stocker says, “our connection to the women’s community in Chicago has strong and deep roots and ones that we hope we can grow.”
Today the Artemis Singers group boasts roughly 27 members with a range of ages and racial makeup; the volunteer collective participates in all aspects of running the operation, whether it’s artistic direction, musical direction, technical production, public relations, accounting or marketing.
“It’s really a family,” says Stocker, noting the non-audition singing group hosts open rehearsals in the fall at the start of the new season. “All you have to do is be able to carry a tune to join us but beyond that we really have a wide variety of people. Some are composers, some are professional musicians and some folks just like to sing with us weekly. Skill development is a big thing for us too, we teach each other as we go along.”
Clark adds, “As we go into our 40th year, we are trying to be focused on outreach and figuring out how we can best serve our community as well as the community that doesn’t know who we are but who we think might benefit from knowing more about us, our experience and what we bring to the table.”
Selena Fragassi is a local freelance writer.