Collaboration and Compassion: Darrell Christie and Grahame Renyk on ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’

A choir in the middle of rehearsal. There are three rows of people all reading sheet music.
The Isabel Voices in rehearsal. Photo by Bernard Clark.

The following conversation deals with themes of violence, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. If you are seeking community and support, a list of local 2SLGBTQIA+ resources is available at the bottom of this page. If you are in immediate distress, Telephone Aid Line Kingston (TALK) is a confidential, anonymous, and non-judgmental volunteer-based support service. 

When I learned that Darrell Christie was starting a new ensemble, I was intrigued, and I was doubly intrigued when I saw Matthew Shepard’s name in the season announcement. After nearly a decade away from choral singing, something about this confluence of elements—a former Cultural Studies classmate starting a new project and an iconic name in queer history appearing as the subject matter—nudged me to return to the choir kid life. 

The Isabel Voices (a new evolution of the Kingston Chamber Choir) is an organization that emphasizes collaboration and connection—and, actually, it doesn’t call itself a choir. Next week, Artistic Director Darrell Christie will lead the Isabel Voices in a performance of Considering Matthew Shepard, a three-part fusion oratorio by Craig Hella Johnson that examines the life, death, and enduring legacy of Matthew Shepard. 

The subject matter is intense, and while I’ve sung heavy material before, this process has felt different—there’s a strong emphasis on the way the singers care for one another. After a particularly emotional rehearsal, I sat down with Christie and our Theatrical Director, Grahame Renyk, to discuss the music, its impact, and how they hope to reach Kingston audiences with Considering Matthew Shepard.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Forming the Isabel Voices was an opportunity for Christie to reassess the conventions of choral music—to figure out which traditional elements are useful, and which are artifacts of a time gone by. “[Group singing] allows us to tell complex stories. It’s an interesting and dynamic art form. But sometimes it also perpetuates this idea of division, or exclusiveness, or a separation between audience and performer. The idea of having everybody dressed the same or looking the same—it can serve as a homogenizer. I’m far more interested in de-homogenizing, and letting people’s voices come to the surface.”

Retaining singers’ individuality is especially beneficial for a piece like Considering Matthew Shepard, which spans multiple genres and includes solos and small group numbers in a range of musical styles. “It allows a lot of character to come out in the music. One of the things that Grahame and I were talking about is this idea that we’re all collectively telling the story of Matthew, not necessarily as characters in a plot, but rather as voices that are a reflection of the event, and what happened afterwards.”

For those unfamiliar with Matthew Shepard’s story, here’s the short version: In 1998, 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, an openly gay university student, was beaten and left to die near Laramie, Wyoming. The news of his murder spread rapidly, and public response led to massive shifts in the discourse around hate crimes, including the eventual signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009. His legacy has since spawned numerous artistic responses, including Johnson’s oratorio.

“It becomes one of those stories that gets passed down,” says Renyk. “The concept becomes larger, and almost starts to move towards that myth, legend, parable, fable space in a story that takes on a cultural role.”

Although Matthew’s death is critical to the narrative, Considering Matthew Shepard does not dwell on that part of his story. “It’s not a dramatization of the event,” Renyk emphasizes. “It’s the story that emerges as a consequence of the event. And the significance that that story has had in changing people’s attitudes, or in revealing the consequences of hate, or in breeding a certain amount of compassion and empathy.”

When I think back to high school music class, the word ‘oratorio’ comes to me with a hazy definition: it’s like an opera, but in a church. It’s not a word I’ve often seen applied to contemporary music, and I’m curious about how Matthew’s story fits into this sacred form. Christie, of course, has answers: “It’s taking this musical idea of an oratorio—it’s built within a structure that is meant to be reminiscent of an actual sacred service, particularly the way that it’s broken up with spoken words, which are referred to as reflections and recitations… It’s not just a piece of music that has a religious connotation. There are so many emotions, and conflicting emotions, that play out within that structure.”

“Fragments of the piece are referred to as the Passion,” Renyk notes. “The idea of the Passion of the Christ figure is about the suffering—that they held the suffering for all of us. There’s a channeling of that suffering and a cleansing of that suffering and a carrying of that suffering, at its most extreme form, and through that, everybody else who still has to live an everyday life can understand what it is to carry a bit of that suffering… Putting Matthew in that position—that notion that Matthew’s suffering itself carries a great significance and is a carrying of suffering for so many who suffer those consequences of hate—provides a kind of way forward.”

Christie and Renyk feel strongly that Considering Matthew Shepard is an important piece to program today. “The story of Matthew resulted in the signing into legislation some very significant steps forward in terms of galvanizing hate crime legislation in the US,” says Christie, “and we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of that. 25 years later, the world has changed a lot for gay people, in terms of safety—not around the world, but certainly in Canada. As a gay man, I feel that I’m able to go about my life in ways that I don’t feel afraid very often. 

“But the same can’t be said for other members of the queer community, and Grahame and I are talking particularly about queer people of colour and trans folks, who are continually suffering under hate and non-support and discrimination, and are still fighting for a basic level of human rights. So in our contemporary context today, yes, there’s been progress in some areas… But there are so many folks who are still having to fight for their rights. And I think the story is a reminder of that.”

Renyk considers how optics have influenced the proliferation of Matthew’s story. “He is young, he’s boyish-looking, he’s small, he’s blond… ‘Palatable’, I think, is the right word for it. There’s a benefit to the palatability of Matthew, because the impact of the story needs to be mainstream. But there’s also downsides to it. Things that are hidden or erased or ignored—Lord knows the number of trans folks, trans women of colour in particular, who’ve been murdered. Even right around that time [of Shepard’s murder], there were significant hate crimes and murders in cities all over North America.

“To me, the greatest danger is the illusion that the problem is solved. That progress has been made, and therefore the problem is solved. But there is historically a lack of visibility for some of the most heinous elements of violence perpetrated, and there’s still so much hate. And now it’s flaring up again, and being used as a tool for galvanizing movements by finding someone to hate. The most current legislation we’re seeing in Canada relates to the idea of parents’ rights… How do you parent kids? And how do you, as an educator, grapple with kids who need to find spaces for their gender identities that are not aligned with their home life? The ideal world is that the parents and the educators should be able to work together on that. And that’s not the case. There’s a complex network of things there. But it gets reconfigured as the classic ‘save our children’ trope… You go through history, and movements are galvanized around, clutching around the threat to children. Matthew, almost being a child who was harmed, really subverted a lot of that attempt to paint the sort of ‘gay monster’ as something other than, essentially, a child. 

“Of course, we know that Matthew is, like the rest of us, more complex. Which I think has troubled some folks, because it seems to complicate the narrative. Whereas I think it actually makes the narrative more palatable to me. Because I also was messy when I was in my 20s. Of course, we all were.”

As we gear up to perform this nuanced and emotionally involved piece of music, I’ve been impressed with Christie and Renyk’s compassionate, people-first approach to the rehearsal process. “It’s still a group singing piece,” says Renyk, “but with some staging. It fits with what the Isabel Voices are doing, which is to preserve that group singing experience, but deconstruct some of the formality that can come in with the structures of performing—especially in classical music, to be honest. And me, I’m much campier by spirit. I’m allergic to formality. 

“Formality and propriety and manners, and the ‘correct’ way to do things, have historically been weaponized against queer folks. You’re told what’s improper, you know, ‘You’re fine to be gay, just don’t throw it in my face,’ ‘Well, you don’t need to be kissing on television,’ or ‘I don’t know why I need to see two men holding hands down the street.’ Those are framed under propriety and formality, but are, in fact, deeply harmful. Formal structures can reinforce the sense that propriety is the utmost important thing. And then it leaves propriety—which is not necessarily a bad thing—in a space where people can weaponize it.

“What’s been nice about the Isabel Voices is there’s a lot of deconstructing of that formality to make it a more welcoming place. And that’s, I think, a really exciting thing.”

In the interest of facilitating a welcoming place for all concert attendees, an art exhibition, Queer Pleasures, will appear in the Isabel lobby alongside the performance on February 16th. Curated by GHY Cheung, this companion piece to Considering Matthew Shepard will showcase five artists’ responses to the theme of “queer pleasure” as a means of challenging one-dimensional framings of queer life as tragedy. Meanwhile, the concert itself will include projections by Hill Werth, the visual artist behind the Hate Has No Home Here campaign in Kingston. 

Darrell Christie is the Artistic Director of the Isabel Voices. Grahame Renyk is the Theatrical Director of the Isabel Voices’ upcoming performance of ‘Considering Matthew Shepard’, which takes place on Friday, February 16th at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. Tickets and more information can be found here

To learn more about Matthew Shepard, visit the Matthew Shepard Foundation

If you are seeking local 2SLGBTQIA+ support and community resources, Queen’s University’s Human Rights and Equity Office has a Queer-Positive Spaces Resource (both university-affiliated and community-based), and Kingston Pride has a Community Resources page

If you are in distress, Telephone Aid Line Kingston (TALK) is a confidential, anonymous, and non-judgmental volunteer-based support service available at (613)-544-1771 from 6pm to 2am. If it is outside their hours of operation and you are in crisis, please call the AMHS-KFLA 24-hour crisis line at 613-544-4229.

This article was edited on February 9th, 2024.