The Heartland Men’s Chorus begins its 29th season with a new artistic director, one who has local roots.
The chorus’ new leader, Dustin Cates, 34, is a native of South Kansas City, Mo. He graduated from Ruskin High School and earned his bachelor’s degree from the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. His master’s degree is from Baker University in Baldwin City, Kan.
Cates replaces Joseph P. Nadeau, who held the position for 15 years before leaving to lead the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles.
“The guys are extremely supportive,” Cates said of the chorus members. “They really are just ready to do the next thing, and I think that’s certainly attributed to the leadership of Joe [Nadeau>. I wouldn’t be able to take it where I want to take it if he didn’t do such a great job.”
After Nadeau announced his resignation in July 2013, a committee assembled by the HMC board of directors conducted a national search. Cates was offered the position in April.
Cates has 11 years of experience as a local high school choral director, most recently as director of choral activities at Olathe East High School.
But he wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the HMC. During the interim period after Nadeau’s departure, Cates was invited to guest-conduct last spring’s concert of I Am Harvey Milk.
“I loved teaching, but once I got the opportunity to guest-conduct — I got to know the guys and their stories, and it was so much more of a powerful family unit than I thought it was,” Cates said. “So I thought this is something I could really get into.”
Comparing his Olathe East job to his new position, Cates said that both had similar concert schedules, but that the HMC concerts were more thematic.
The Heartland Men’s Chorus job also has a social justice component to it that attracted him.
“One of the reasons I really loved being a teacher is that I have an opportunity to have an impact on kids’ lives,” said Cates. “So the tradeoff was, now I had an opportunity to make an impact on the community, whether that’s the music community or the gay community — showing people that we’re not much different.”
Cates and his husband, Raymond, a pediatrician, were legally married in New York, and for the last three years, they have been parents to their adoptive son, Emmaus.
For the spring concert, Cates has designed a theme about families.
“Marriage equality and gay adoption — those sorts of things are something that we’re actually addressing in this season with our concert that happens in March. We’re doing a concert called Modern Family, so we’re … going to be addressing the changing face of the American family.”
The concert loosely borrows its title from the similarly named TV show, and although it won’t follow the show’s plotlines, it will mirror the messages of equality and togetherness.
“Hopefully, we’re going to include some interviews of gay families and tell the story of many of the guys who have gone to the extremes of getting married and having children, or coming out, and in some cases the chorus is the only family of some of those guys, which was one of the stories which powerfully pulled me to them,” Cates said.
For the HMC’s holiday concert, Kansas City Christmas, the chorus will showcase the abundant musical talent in the Kansas City area. The concert’s title is derived from the song “Christmas in Kansas City,” written by the Kansas City native Brad Millison, a song that receives frequent play on local radio stations during the holiday season.
“We’re going to be collaborating with lots of local performers and contributing some music from some Kansas City composers,” Cates said. “We have five or six really important, prolific choral composers that live here in our city.”
“Also, local soprano Sarah Tannehill is going to sing, and then we’re going to feature some of the cast of Late Night [Theatre”> performers and do a spoof of Frozen. We’re going to sing with some drag performers — Genewa Stanwyck and De De DeVille. We’re definitely collaborative.”
Kansas City Christmas will be performed Dec. 5-7 at the Folly Theater, 1020 Central St., Kansas City, Mo.
The Heartland Men’s Chorus will conclude its season in June with a concert called A Little Bit Wicked, featuring a compilation of songs from composer Stephen Schwartz.
“We’ll sing songs from Wicked and Pippin, Godspell and some of his other things,” Cates said. “The concert closes with a piece called ‘Testimony,’ which is taken from the works of the It Gets Better Project. It has not been sung in the Midwest before, so we’ll perform that.”
Cates is also excited about something new from the chorus that will happen in February. The Big Gay Thing will be an audience-participation, sing-along concert. The location is still being determined, but it will be at a smaller venue than the Folly, he said.
“It will likely be an ensemble of 50 members of the chorus, and the audience sings along, and we do big gay iconic songs, pop songs, and that kind of stuff,” he said. “Certainly a more relaxed format, where people can have drinks and sort of have more fun and sing at the same time.”
In addition to the four shows scheduled for his debut season, Cates has an October deadline to finalize the planning of next year’s concerts. He downplays the amount of work he has in store with a laugh, though, and instead credits the men in his chorus for their dedication and hard work.
“On the singer side of it, it’s not for the faint of heart. It’s a big commitment. While the rehearsal just happens just once a week, it goes from 7 to 10 [p.m.”>, with only a 20-minute break in between,” Cates said. Some of the chorus members attend additional sectional rehearsals immediately after completing a day’s work at their full-time jobs, he said.
“We have fun, we laugh, and we enjoy ourselves, and in some, we cry,” Cates said. “This season we’re working really hard to give them an opportunity at the end of the rehearsal to stand up and say why they are in the chorus and what it means to them.
“Some of their stories are so moving. Some of them have said that one of the greatest joys in life [has”> been singing in the chorus. The chorus means a lot to them, and so that commitment doesn’t seem as hefty because they enjoy it so much.”