On the first traveling tour as a gender-inclusive choir, the Penn Glee Club performed before audiences that included alumni in a Paris ballroom and passersby on the streets of Barcelona.
Since 1959, the Glee Club has undertaken a performance tour, alternating each year between international and domestic locations, in its unofficial role as “musical ambassador of the University,” says Daniel Carsello, who has served as Glee Club director for the past five years.
The pandemic cancelled tours in 2020 or 2021, says Carsello. “It was great to be able to share our music with people outside the Philadelphia community for the first time in a long time,” he says, “and I think the students really appreciated that, too.”
Fifty-four Glee Club members went on the trip, including 35 singers, seven band members, two accompanists, and nine on the technical crew traveling and touring for nearly two weeks. The trip was planned by rising senior Albert Johnston-Ramirez.
In April 2021, the all-male Glee Club choral group and the all-female Penn Sirens decided to merge, meaning that for the first year since its founding in 1862 the Glee Club includes singers of all genders and performs repertoire for soprano and alto voices, in addition to tenor and bass, and for all four voice parts. Women have been members of the Glee Club’s accompanist, band, and technical sections since 1993 but not as singing members.
Rising senior Rebecca Hennessy, a cognitive neuroscience major in the College of Arts and Sciences from Smithville, New Jersey, is the incoming president of the Glee Club, and the first female-identifying singer to be the president. Hennessy, a soprano, was on the board of the Sirens when the groups began the process of merging.
Hennessy succeeds May graduate Lynn Ahrens, a member of the tech crew, the Club's second female-identifying president in its 160-year history, and the only woman on the Glee Club's Board during the two years of the merger process. In 2018, Susanna Jaramillo, also a member of the tech crew, was elected as the first female-identifying president of the Club.
Last year Hennessy helped to expand the Club's formalwear ensemble, known in the group as “Ties & Tails,” to feature gender-inclusive options, allowing performers to choose between a tuxedo or a concert gown, she says. She worked with rising junior Yash Somaiya, who led the group's uniform overhaul last year. The ensemble made its debut during an event at the Hôtel Ritz Paris for European alumni sponsored by the Penn Alumni Club of France.
“I have always loved being surrounded by a dedicated group of people whose shared passion for music brings them even closer together, and the tour was that feeling in its purest form,” Hennessy says. “I think many would agree that our performance at the Ritz was the exemplar of this feeling.”
The group also performed at a hospital on behalf of Hop We Care and in a pop-up street concert in Barcelona and in Nice, France. The band had its own gig at the group’s hostel in Paris. Along the way, they took side trips to Monaco and Versailles and visited museums, monuments, and flamenco and Afro-Latin music spots.
The musical selections included favorites like “Let the River Run,” “The Red and Blue,” and “Afterglow,” rearranged to include all voice parts. And separate group performances featured both the soprano/alto and tenor/bass chamber choirs. “Everybody in the audience was very receptive to all three choirs,” Carsello says.
For more than three-quarters of the students, this was their first time on a Glee Club tour, and for some it was their first time traveling internationally. Calling the tour a “once in a lifetime” experience, Hennessy says a defining moment for her was in Paris.
“My small group had ended up at the Eiffel Tower on a whim, and we had arrived just in time to see it light up at midnight. We stood speechless and entranced, still in disbelief that we were on tour in Europe, watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle for five minutes straight,” she says. “The pure joy I felt in that moment is an experience I will never forget.”
This was the sixth tour, four international and two domestic, for Carsello, a 2016 graduate who was a member of the Glee Club during his four years at Penn. “It was one of the things that helped shape me as a person: this ability to see beyond the reach of Penn and Philadelphia,” he says.
Hennessy says it has been “incredibly rewarding” to be a part of the Glee Club merger process and the first year of the gender-inclusive choir. “Our ultimate goal throughout the merger process was to be a group of people who dedicate themselves to creating the best possible performance,” she says. “This year has proven that inclusivity is essential in achieving that goal, and we surpassed expectations as we shared our best performance across the globe on tour.”
Images courtesy of the Penn Glee Club.