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    Life Lessons in the Alps

    By Dr. Tim Seelig–

    Last week I went to Switzerland. The trip brought up a plethora of life lessons that may sound trite, but all are applicable to what I experienced.

    • Never say never.
    • Time heals.
    • You can go home.
    • Don’t dwell on your failures.
    • Yay Karma. (I made that one up).

    During the trip, I had the absolute privilege of attending the European premiere of SFGMC’s new documentary, Gay Chorus Deep South, in Zurich, Switzerland. We were floating on clouds having traveled there directly from Tribeca in New York City where we won the Audience Documentary Favorite Award. But as much as I would love to tell you all about the documentary, this story is not about that. It was about a personal journey of mine—one that brought me to a place I never thought I would visit again in this lifetime: St. Gallen, Switzerland, 40 miles outside Zurich.

    41 years ago this month, May, 1978, I took a train to St. Gallen, smelling of equal parts desperation and determination. I was on an audition tour of opera houses across Europe, chasing my long-held dream. Allow me to go even farther back to briefly describe how that came to be.

    In the summer of 1969, between my senior year in high school and freshman year in college, Mom and Dad made it possible for me to see Europe by forming a tour group of friends and fellow Baptists to go with us. We got to go free as the tour “guides.” They both understood the importance of travel as a part of a good education. Hours after we left for Europe, our house burned down. It was arson. A story for another time. When we hit Salburg, Austria, I stood in front of the Mozarteum, the conservatory bearing none other than his name, and said, “I will study here someday.” Then we were off to the next country.

    Being a bit goal driven and stubborn, five years later, my wife and I headed to Salzburg. At the end of two years, having mastered German, because all the courses were, of course, taught in German, I graduated from the Mozarteum with the equivalent of a master’s degree. I had the most spectacular voice teacher, Frau Professor Kammersangerin Hanna Ludwig. She was amazing, and I felt incredibly lucky to have studied with her. Before I left, I was offered a job singing in Vienna, but Hanna said I wasn’t ready, I was too young and that I should go back to the states and continue my study. I trusted her and headed home to begin my doctorate.

    Sure enough, three years later, Hanna called. “There is the perfect position for you in Linz, Austria. They are looking for a Figaro and you’re perfect. You must get here!” We had no money. Along with school, we had created two children. I had financed most of my own education up to that point, so I did the unthinkable and asked my parents for a loan. Off I went, leaving Vicki and the two kids at home in Denton, Texas—all of this on a shoestring financially. It was crazy. Full-time jobs as opera singers are as difficult to get as a job playing in the NBA. I’d already done that. It was a big leap of faith. But I trusted Hanna that Linz, Austria, was waiting just for me and I would finally fulfill my dream of singing opera in Europe!

    I flew to Salzburg to brush up my audition pieces with Hanna. Then, I got on the train to Linz. It is stunningly beautiful. I walked to the opera house and warmed up in the bathroom on the 4th floor. (Bathrooms are great warm-up facilities). It was my turn.

    I entered the stage, gave my music to the accompanist and looked out on a dark theater. A voice from the dark welcomed me—in German, of course—and asked for my first piece. I sang a killer aria from The Marriage of Figaro, knowing that was what they were looking for. After that he asked for another aria and then another. I was thrilled. When I finished, he said, “Your voice is beautiful. Your acting is extraordinary. You would be perfect for the opening we have. Unfortunately, we filled that position last week. Danke.” I barely remember walking off the stage. I do remember returning to the 4th floor bathroom, locking the door and literally falling, weeping into the fetal position. I wept because of my folly. My selfishness. My family back home who had sacrificed everything so I could chase this dream.

    On the train back to Salzburg, I threw myself a fabulous pity party for one. Hanna was having none of it. When I got back to her home, she said, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Worse things will happen in your life. Get up and finish the audition tour we set up for you. Off you go!” The remainder of the audition trip through Austria, Germany and then Switzerland, I thought, “Whatever. I can’t change my flight home. I might as well sing for my Schnitzel.” St. Gallen was my last stop. Even though defeated and ready to go home, I sang my heart out knowing that it was probably the last time I would ever sing in Europe. They said, “Danke. Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” And I headed home, tail tucked firmly between my legs.

    That fall, 1979, I started my very first full-time university teaching job at Houston Baptist University. I had no more begun teaching than a telegram arrived. Lieber Herr Seelig. (stop) It is our pleasure to offer you the position of lead baritone in the Swiss National Opera in St. Gallen, Switzerland. (stop) Please respond. (stop).” All of that in German, of course, and no, dang it, I did not save it! I responded.

    What to do next? Well, I told the school I was leaving after one year and we spent the next 9 months preparing for a move to Europe. My next train ride to St. Gallen was a year later, 1980, armed with a contract with the Swiss National Opera, a wife and two kids, ages one and three, diapers, formula and heavy winter clothes (hard to find in Houston). I was ready to conquer the operatic world! I didn’t. St. Gallen represents both the pinnacle of and the end to my dream of singing opera. It was not for me on so many levels. My personality profile is the complete opposite of what it takes to be an opera singer. I was destined to be a teacher, and, who knew, a conductor. We came home in 1981. Once again, my tail tucked.

    Fast forward almost 40 years to my trip to St. Gallen last week. It was filled with emotions, as you can imagine. In that place, my operatic career came to an end. I had wonderful times with my kids in wonders of the Alps. But that was then and now is now.

    Riding that train, it was clear that I am a completely different man. I hope to post the whole story about Salzburg on my website soon. I cannot imagine what life would be today had I stayed in St. Gallen and in that career. I am grateful beyond words that it did not happen! Shortly thereafter, I came out. That story has been told! One year later, needing a job, someone told me there was a gay chorus (I had no idea that there was such a thing) in Dallas, looking for a conductor. I auditioned and got the job thinking, “This is not my passion, I’ll stay one year to pay child support.” I found out it was, indeed, my passion and stayed there 20 years and have been conducting LGBTQ+ choruses for 32 years.

    But here I was returning to watch a film in which I appear, with a chorus that I conduct as the star! I was there for a screening that was followed with a two-plus minute standing ovation from the audience—and the Swiss are not known for emotion such as that. In fact, people at the festival said it was the only standing ovation that they had ever seen. People were visibly moved. The screening was followed by a performance of the Zurich Gay Men’s Chorus, SCHMATZ. They were amazing.

    I took my third train ride “home” to exorcise some demons, to ponder my life over the last 40 years and to see quite clearly that I had made the right choice. Had I not left St. Gallen, I would never have come to the city I adore and my real dream job in San Francisco.

    Oh boy were some life lessons learned.

    Never say never. Upon leaving St. Gallen, I had said I would never return there.
    Time heals. The pain of the experience has been replaced with amazing, joyful memories.
    You can go home.
    Don’t dwell on the failures. It is not the successes in life that build character; it’s the failures and how you respond to them.
    Yay Karma. You do good things with your life and for people, live it in gratitude and, indeed, karma will return that good to you.

    Oh, life lessons in the Alps. Not a bad place to learn hard lessons. These are perhaps lessons for you as well. Face your opportunities with determination and excitement. Perhaps the same thing will happen to you.  I chose a path and pursued it with gusto. When it was not working out a friend said, “You chose one path when the road split. When you get down the end of your path and there is a dead end, how long are you going to beat your head against that brick wall before going back to the crossroads and taking the other path.” It’s exactly what I did and I’ve never looked back.

    Dr. Tim Seelig is the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus.