Nearly 30 years ago, I sang at the grave of an early victim of what we now know as AIDS. It seems so long ago. The 1980s took many friends -- including people in the opera world. A young soprano even died after contracting it from sex with her bisexual partner. Too many talented young men died just when they were coming into their own as performers. It affected all of us in the arts tremendously.
In 1991, when I felt that life was just a one-road tour, I met a gentleman named Bob on a flight to Europe. Our flights had merged, and I took the last open seat, a middle one.
I felt terrible for the folks in my row who thought they might be able to spread out. Bob was in jeans, a t-shirt and running shoes, and explained that he might fall asleep. But toward the end of the flight, we talked over a meal only to find that he was a priest and the director of a place called Alexian Brother's Bonaventure House in Chicago, where I then resided. It was a residence for people in the final stages of AIDS. I met him on a return flight, and felt called to do something. This was the beginning of "Jubilate," a benefit for this residence, featuring opera singers and other entertainers and eventually dance troupes.
In these early days, Bonaventure House was a solemn place. Many residents were gay men rejected by their families, and others were drug addicts and prostitutes of both genders and many ethnicities. All were dying. Death -- the great equalizer.
At the very first "Jubilate" in 1992, I had the baritone Will Parker come to sing some of the songs from the AIDS Quilt Songbook -- a moving collection of songs that he helped produce with a focus on the impending deaths or recent losses. Will was ill, yet he flew to Chicago alone. I am not sure how he performed as he was all too frail. His tuxedo was so large that I helped pin it on him. He so believed in his mission of the songbook.
He died only a few months later, but he and the other creators of the songbook and additional CD left quite a poignant legacy. "Jubilate" lasted for about 14 years. (We raised over one million dollars, thanks to the generosity of singers, actors and others who performed without a fee.)
Fast forward 20 years. Saturday afternoon, I was in the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City rehearsing with the other performers --singers, pianists and actors -- for the AIDS Quilt Songbook at 20, which was presented on World AIDS Day.
The evening includes many new works (with some of the original performers), which have a more hopeful theme as many people are now living and thriving in spite of having been HIV positive. The event is being sponsored by Sing For Hope -- a group I have mentioned in the past -- that has managed to, among other things, place pianos all over the city. Sing for Hope actively is involved with the medical community maintains that the power of song heals.
Bonaventure House and other places like it have changed the focus to help people with AIDS get healthy and then have occupational therapy so they can go back to society and make a life. Bonaventure House recently opened an apartment building on the south side of Chicago where people live after "graduating" from Bonaventure House.
The youth today do not know the fear that enveloped the population all those years ago, although they should still be educated, aware and careful. HIV/AIDS is still here.
There are miracles happening from small organizations. Sing For Hope began as a small group started by two beautiful, talented opera singers -- Camille Zamora and Monica Yunis. It is now a powerhouse. (Both Monica and Camille are also performing).
There are only a handful of Alexian Brothers, unlike the Trappists and the other Catholic orders. They are men that, in the Middle Ages, helped during the great plague when no one else would.
Even with their small numbers, these dedicated brothers have managed to build an amazing medical center in suburban Chicago, and create Bonaventure House and it's sister residence.
Today at rehearsal, on the stage where Abraham Lincoln spoke, I thought of Lincoln's words displayed in the lobby:
"Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it."
On this World AIDS Day, we have much to sing about. Maybe one day it will be solely a happy song. In the meantime we sing the good fight.