‘No Choice But Love’: A tenor’s double CD calls for LBGTQI+ liberation
Tenor Eric Ferring

“It gets better…much, much better.” Such are the opening lyrics heard on tenor Eric Ferring’s CD No Choice But Love: Songs of the LGBTQ+ Community.

They appear in the song “Hold On,” the first of four titles in a 2011 cycle called Love Remained by American composer Ben Moore (b. 1960). On this opener to the double CD release, the lyrics derive from “a 2010 speech by Fort Worth city councilman Joel Burns—not only encouragement to bullied young people that ‘it gets better,’ but also Burns’s on coming out. ‘He was very brave,’ says Moore. ‘He knew the speech would be broadcast online, but he realized it could make a big difference in the world.’”

This helpful explanation comes from program notes by Roger Pines accessible by a QR code in the CD packaging, providing informative background on the composers and the individual songs. Quite a few of them on the 90-minute recording (on two discs) require such background to fully understand what they mean and why they are included in the album, although what I found missing were the lyrics. It’s often hard enough even in one’s own language to discern every word that is sung, much less in other languages, and here we have quite a bit of French, Spanish, and Danish.

The Moore set continues with three equally inspirational numbers dating from a period, during Barack Obama’s presidency, when public figures, including B.O. himself, participated in a widely diffused campaign urging young people possibly contemplating suicide to “hold on” because life does get better as a person who feels “different” if you can just get through these hard high school years and start moving out into the world. The second song is a recollection by Randy Robert Potts, evangelist Oral Roberts’s grandson, about his “Uncle Ronnie,” who took his own life when Randy was only seven. Suicide, tragically, was for many in those years believed to be the only escape from torment.

After an emotional “coming out” song with a text by baritone Michael Kelly, to whom the cycle was dedicated and who gave it its premiere, Moore concludes with the text of San Francisco City Council member Harvey Milk saying, “You have to give them hope.” With his election, young people had to know that they can come out, be accepted, and succeed. “Moore’s goal [Roger Pines again] was to create a song with an anthemic quality…. Milk was like the Martin Luther King of the gay rights movement. I wanted something to honor him, juxtaposed with the passion of the speech.”

I was unaware that Spanish composer Manuel de Falla (1876-1946) was gay, although closeted. After Franco triumphed in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), he went into exile in Argentina. Both of his songs here involve parents, the first a mother with her daughter, the second a mother praying to Jesus that her son not become a soldier. Here’s an example of where printed or digital texts, respectively by Antonio de Trueba and Gregorio Antonio Sierra, would have been useful. Curiously, from a composer so iconically identified with music of a profoundly Spanish character, I found these two “art songs” almost devoid of such flavor.

Jake Heggie (b. 1961) enjoys the reputation of being one of contemporary America’s most prolific and most produced opera composers, with such achievements as Moby-Dick, Great Scott, Three Decembers, and Dead Man Walking. In addition, he has written close to 300 songs. In his 2008 cycle of four songs, Friendly Persuasions: Homage to Poulenc, one gay composer honors another, setting texts by composer/librettist/songwriter Gene Scheer about some of the French composer Francis Poulenc’s (1899–1963) friendships.

In the first, “a dialogue based on correspondence between Poulenc and harpsichordist Wanda Landowska” (Pines), she is impatiently waiting for him to complete the new concerto he’s promised her. As she urges him to “explore his true feelings in his music,” he admits to her his continuing infatuation with “Richard” (pronounced Ree-SHAR in French), an old lover from the 1920s. Landowska herself later had a “partner” in Denise Restout, who edited and translated the keyboard artist’s writings on music. The second song, with a text in both English and French, pays respect to baritone Pierre Bernac, Poulenc’s lover who premiered many of his songs. The third song rhapsodizes over the all-too-youthful death of Raymonde Linossier, whom Poulenc once sought to marry. The final song plays tribute to Heggie’s Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, with whom Poulenc shared a true brotherly love. This song is set during the time of the German occupation of Paris during WWII when Éluard joined the underground Communist Party and was active in the Resistance.

Francis Poulenc and Wanda Landowska, 1930 (Bibliothèque National de France), public domain.

Disc 1 ends with Poulenc’s nine-song cycle Tel Jour, Telle Nuit from 1937, “inspired in large part by Éluard’s passion for his second wife.” The title can be translated “As the day, so the night” or “Such a day, such a night.” As I listened to these songs, varying in length from the shortest at 0:40 to the longest at 2:51, not understanding the French, and not being motivated enough to search the Internet for possible translations, I had to wonder whether the more than 13 minutes devoted to these songs, just because the composer was gay, could really be justified here. After all, Ferring—and his accompanist Madeline Slettedahl, who is also identified as belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community—state in their introduction:

“Discovering the essence of an album is one of the hardest, most riveting parts of building a recording project. What do we as artists want to say? What do we need to say? What does this album say about who we are and where we fit (or don’t fit)? How can we use this platform to highlight and address inequalities and injustices in our industry and world? These are the questions that we considered, studied, and debated while developing the concept for this album and the repertoire that followed.”

John Singer Sargent, Portrait of Ethel Smyth, 1901.

Dame Ethel Smyth (1858–1944), overcoming heaps of scorn for a female composer, was the very model of an activist lesbian suffragist for her day, suffering arrest and two months in prison for her beliefs. Her 1913 song “On the Road,” set to a text by passionate working-class feminist and anti-fascist Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, is a call for freedom at any cost and opens disc 2. Smyth’s “The March of the Women” from almost the same period (1911) became the anthem of the women’s suffrage movement and is perhaps her best-known composition. “On the Road” is a brilliant, and musically more sophisticated companion to that piece, and Ferring/Slettedahl can be congratulated for uncovering it. Smyth holds a distinction in American musical history, as her one-act Der Wald (The Forest), performed at the Metropolitan Opera in 1903, was the only opera by a woman composer to be staged there until 2016.

I’d heard music by Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962), but I wasn’t aware that she is, according to Roger Pines, “highly visible among America’s most prominent LGBTQ+ musicians.” Ferring sings her setting of “Lilacs,” adapted from an earlier version for baritone and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s 1865 free-verse elegy to Abraham Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” The sexuality of Lincoln himself has often been questioned, but that is not at issue here. Pines calls this composition an “evocation of a greatly loved, lost comrade,” a phenomenon queer people experience as much as anyone else, as those who lived through the AIDS holocaust certainly remember.

Composer Willie Lee Alexander III (b. 1992) is a new name to me. “[A]s a gay Mixed African-Mexican-American man,” our annotator tells us, “[h]e strives to tell the stories of Black men in America, through his blending of contemporary styles with his own classical background.” His contribution to this CD is “Sure on This Shining Night” (2021), derived from a larger poetic work by James Agee. Here he meets “an older man walking through the woods at night and remembering the life he’s lived—both the hardest points and the triumphant ones.” Perhaps we can hear it as the man’s final ruminations in life. From this lovely setting, it would be hard to identify the composer ethnically—and of course, there’s no requirement for that—but I wonder if Alexander is best represented by a three-minute art song.

Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen

Mexican American transgender composer Mari Esabel Valverde (b. 1987) has been widely commissioned for choral music and has been featured at the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses Festival. In “To Digte af Tove Ditlevsen” she sets two poems by Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen, whose troubled life ended with suicide in 1976. “Valverde calls these poems ‘brutally honest,’ writes Roger Pines. “Few poets have described a heart’s myriad responses with more moving simplicity than Ditlevsen in ‘tag mit hjerte’ (‘Then Take My Heart’)…. The picture painted in Ditlevsen’s “Mit hjerte er blevet borte” (“My Heart Has Gone Missing”) is devastating: a wall built around the heart of the singer, who is unable to find the heart when the wall comes down.”

I can’t vouch for Fringe’s Danish pronunciation—perhaps he is of Danish descent? But again, without lyrics to follow, it’s hard to evaluate these songs or the reason they’re here.

There’s much in the output of British composer Benjamin Britten (1913–1976) that attests not only to his homosexuality but also to his lifelong partnership, romantic and artistic, with tenor Peter Pears, who frequently premiered his works. Canticle I, “My Beloved is Mine” (1947), one of five so-named pieces that are spiritual without being liturgical, appears “as close as anything in Britten’s oeuvre to a public declaration of his love for Pears.”

Tenor Peter Pears in Britten’s pacifist opera ‘Owen Wingrave,’ 1971 (public domain)

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon (b. 1956) is one of our most widely acknowledged creators of opera, art song, and musical theater. His opera The Grapes of Wrath, which I was fortunate enough to see in St. Louis some seasons back, is an American masterwork that deserves much wider audiences. As he observed “in an interview for The Journal of Singing”—Pines tells us— “poetry is the deepest way I order my universe…when I set poems to music, it’s almost like I’m healing a rift in myself.” He’s represented on No Choice But Love by two settings of Langston Hughes poems. “Prayer” asks God “Which way to go?”—a question that must tear at the hearts of many young people today, not only in terms of sexual and gender identity but career, faith, and political orientation as well. By contrast, “Joy” celebrates the sight of a girl “driving the butcher’s cart in the arms of the butcher boy”—two young, obviously working-class kids in delirious communion to which they, not just the educated elite, are entitled in life. Although left unstated, Hughes was generally assumed to be homosexual.

Disc 2 ends with the title song, which Ferring commissioned from Ben Moore, whom we last heard at the beginning of disc 1. The poem is “by a fellow tenor, Jamaican American Terrence Chin-Loy, a close friend of both Ferring and Slettedahl,” Pines writes. “Moore saw that Chin-Loy was strongly rebuking ‘everything that is designed to beat down gay people, and the feeling that LGBTQ+ love is somehow unnatural. Like every other gay person I’ve ever met, I was given negative messages when I was young. It’s a process to fully accept yourself and see that what we are is natural. Nor is it a choice—it’s based on love.’” This track is an ecstatic celebration of the possibility of falling into love, and who’s not for that?

Eric Ferring has sung at opera houses and recital halls around the world, including The Met, the most revered company in the U.S. His voice is flexible and pure, expressive and natural without affect. No Choice But Love is not only well-intentioned but extremely well-sung, well-engineered, and well-designed, the absence of full texts notwithstanding. As indicated above, I am not sold on all of their choices of repertoire (Ferring and Slettedahl) for this CD. Many composers—including Marc Blitzstein, whose first biography I am proud to have written—have set Walt Whitman’s work, even some of his most erotic lyrics, and perhaps that’s a field Ferring might explore further. Ned Rorem’s enormous catalog of songs could also have been mined. Having said which, it is admirable that they chose to include two women composers and a transgender one, a number of contributors from abroad, and that he introduces some unfamiliar names (and the Danish language!) to the recorded world of vocal music. The word “community” is in the album title, and it’s a good reminder that through time and space and culture we all can share it.

Generous excerpts from the album, and from other performances, can be accessed on the tenor’s website.

We hope you appreciated this article. At People’s World, we believe news and information should be free and accessible to all, but we need your help. Our journalism is free of corporate influence and paywalls because we are totally reader-supported. Only you, our readers and supporters, make this possible. If you enjoy reading People’s World and the stories we bring you, please support our work by donating or becoming a monthly sustainer today. Thank you!


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.