ONSTAGE Holcombe Waller does “total theater.” The Portland artist-composer approaches music in terms of ritual, history, art, movement, and conceptual ideas, creating a spectacle that offers ceremony and catharsis.

His latest piece is an interesting twist on that immersive style: He’s bringing an all-ability community choir to Grace Cathedral, in partnership with YBCA, for his Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Rite, Fri/16 and Sat/17. The piece is dedicated to those who suffered persecution throughout history due to their sexual orientation or gender expression, and is drawn from Waller’s extensive research and community collaboration. Don’t expect a staid evening of Gregorian chants, however.  

“The Requiem is modeled after a Medieval requiem commemorative mass, with a Latin text intended to pray for the peaceful repose of the souls of the dead,” Waller told me over the phone during a break in rehearsals. “But it spans a lot of musical styles: liturgical as well as contemporary classical, and it draws on musical theater and pop music pretty shamelessly and joyously. It’s intended not only to be delivered in full ceremony, but also to reimagine what that ceremony might be in this entirely queer-centered alternate world.” 

“It’s not campy, although there are streamers,” he adds with a laugh. “Mostly it stays within the boundaries of the Latin mass while turning it inside out. It’s as if the queer leadership that has been at the heart of the church for millennia were actually out of the closet, and had been creating these ceremonies the whole time.”

That inversion of the requiem mass leads to some interesting juxtapositions and reinterpretations. “I mashup up the traditional Latin text with other passages from the Bible and queer-relevant texts,” including writings from Oakland poet Marvin K White. 

“All of the elements of high mass are in there, like a big procession, a big choir, church organ, readings, and a sermon. It’s just that we free ourselves from the somewhat more traditional expectations of what church looks and feels like. Because for many LGBTQ people, that part of their past, that religious upbringing, didn’t feel right at all—usually because the churches their families were involved with weren’t LGBTQ-affirming. So in order to create an experience that feels more fresh, that feels very queer, we stepped pretty far away from the traditional interpretation of the elements of the Catholic ceremony, while sticking with the overall form.”

Holcombe Waller leading a group of September workshop attendees prior to the November premiere of Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Ritein San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, September 2018. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Brittney Valdez.

The Requiem came about through a collaboration with the dean of the Episcopalian cathedral in Portland, where it has previously been performed, and also through a lot of discussion between Waller and Angela Mattox, the former artistic director for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. They created a community engagement process that involved a year of choral workshops in Portland, and a lot of the music and ceremony was devised through that process. 

“The inspiration goes back to the institutional support of Prop 8 from the Catholic and Mormon churches,” Waller said. “It pissed me off. Whenever biblical literalists point to the Bible to excuse and explain any of their bigoted and hateful behavior, it’s such a farce. These texts were never intended to justify anyone’s hate or discrimination. So I thought an intervention into institutional religious space would be an interesting artistic gesture. The form of the requiem mass seemed ripe for the picking because it’s something that became a concert form in the 20th century. It migrated away from the church. I thought, well, we can migrate it back, and in doing that apply a highly theatrical construct that affirms queerness.

“No religious ceremony ever needed to be anti-LGBTQ. That was a cultural construct that used religion as a device towards its own ends,” Waller continued. “One of the points the piece tries to make is that a cultural practice of ceremony does not have to be like that. A lot of the participants in this piece aren’t religious, and a lot of them are. It’s a very interesting mix, and the way that we interpret the language in the libretto that’s been drawn from the Bible is much more open-ended. The project has this uncanny balance between being very much High Church, and totally unlike anything anyone familiar with church would have experienced to this date.”

Honoring queer and trans lives that have been lost seems especially poignant, with the current administration’s attacks on transgender identity and a spike in hate crimes since Trump was elected president. (International Transgender Day of Remembrance is November 20.)  

“I’ve been an out gay artist since the 1990s,” Waller said. “And I can tell you it freaked me out over the last five or six years when, after marriage equality, arts and human rights foundations began sidelining LGBTQ issues in this way that indicated a certain satisfaction with where that had arrived, like ‘OK we’re done.’ It alarmed me because backtreading is always right around the corner—and is now thoroughly upon us. There are many areas including gender and race that are being critically threatened by this hateful Republican regime. But LGBTQ is the low-hanging fruit to attack, to rally their base. And even if they are only doing it to rally a base of ignorant support, it still produces actual hate, actual violence, actual injustice.

“That’s why it’s more important than ever that we are culturally exploring how to spread a message of love and peace and tolerance and equity. Not just for the LGBTQ community, but for the most marginalized voices within the LGBTQ community. This is something the project has focused on, and as we’ve gathered as a group, it’s become clear that all of us are feeling a great support from each other at a time when all of these awful things are happening.

“Catharsis for the audience is on the table, but we’re also focusing on the peaceful repose of the persecuted, and the relationship the past can have with the present. The agitation of their souls can reflect the oppressed present.”

Requiem Mass: A Queer Divine Rite
Fri/16 and Sat/17
7:30pm, $16.50-$36.50
Grace Cathedral, SF
More info here