There aren’t many female choral conductors, but Kathleen McGuire long ago managed to break into the male dominated field. Perhaps even more interesting, however, is what the Australian-born lesbian is now conducting: McGuire is the first-ever female conductor of the historic San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.
[She held the role for more than a decade before returning to Australia in 2013. Learn more about her at her website.]
“I once met an airline pilot in a bar who was a woman. And we thought, ‘What are the odds that a woman conductor and a woman airline pilot would meet in a bar, since there were only about five female conductors in Australia and maybe ten female airline pilots?'” McGuire says. “We decided the chances were very small.”
McGuire, who finished her doctorate in orchestral conducting at the University of Colorado shortly before taking the job last August, is well-qualified for the position with the chorus and has impressive conducting experience in Australia, England and the U.S. She also knew how gay chorus groups work since she had been conducting the Rainbow Chorus in Fort Collins, Colorado while working on her doctorate.
But how likely was she to get a job conducting the nation’s oldest gay men’s chorus? She applied, and so did eighteen other qualified conductors. She was among the final three invited to an in-person audition with the chorus.
No one in the chorus seemed to mind that the group’s fifth conductor in its 22-year history could be a woman. “They had apparently already dealt with that before I came along,” she says in her Australian accent softened by her time in England and the U.S. “I did say to them, ‘Are you sure this is what you want?'”
After she was chosen, the San Francisco community didn’t seem to mind either. “For the most part, they’ve been extremely supportive. We’ve only had one member of the public complain and they said they’d be coming to the concerts anyway,” she says.
The 30-something conductor says things may be changing in the gay mecca. “The large gay population in San Francisco is predominately male,” she says. “The women, who usually still make less money, tend to live in the East Bay where the housing is more affordable.” A new community center is being built, however, that organizers hope will help unify the community, and McGuire’s position with the chorus can’t hurt either.
With that new hope for unity comes a new direction for the chorus, too. While most of the audience has been other gay men, McGuire hopes to build a more diverse following for the group. To do that, she is making sure the chorus improves musically by exposing them a variety of musical styles, including classical, pop, show tunes and folk music. That makes the chorus more versatile and better musicians. “And if we can exhibit gay pride through the music, all the better,” she says.
Personally, McGuire is settling in to the city by the bay nicely. To her surprise, California has some varieties of Australian trees that remind her of her home country. She and her partner like water sports, too, which makes them even more at home among the Californians.
Philosophically, McGuire says she feels compelled to do the best she can and to lead others to do their best. “I believe if you have a talent, you have a responsibility to use it to the best of your ability,” she says.
Who would have thought that an Australian woman would take the helm at an American gay male institution? McGuire says her position with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus is proof that anyone can do anything they want.
“I would encourage women to set their goals and go for them – and do it with conviction – because at the end of the day you’ll like yourself more,” she says. “It makes for a more meaningful life.”