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Michael Hanko
A Singing Soldier

"Platoon Lieder"

by Denny Meyer

This is the story of how a gay Army brat grew up to become a reluctant lieutenant, an operatic baritone, and the creator of his brilliant performances of "Platoon Lieder;" based on the esoteric art form of Deutsche Lieder, German poetry songs derived from romantic mythology and folk stories.  Hanko has taken the original lyrical lieder piano accompaniments of classical composers and created new English song lyrics telling the story of his travails through life in the Army as a gay man, all done in the style, tone, mood, and cadence of the original German songs.

Simply put, this is all about a gay guy's service as a US Army officer; which, as a veteran, he is telling about in an arched-eyebrow highbrow song cycle with a lot of tongue-in-cheek gay gesticulation and humor.

Michael Hanko had a typical 'military family' childhood.  His father was a career officer.  They moved more than twenty times during his childhood, from assignment to assignment all over the world.  While the rest of America was beginning to enter the era of awareness and acceptance of gay folk, the armed forces family environment and school system was an insular moveable world of on-base housing and education where we did not exist in thought or word.  Survival meant suppressing any conscious awareness of alternate sexual identity from an early age, and being immersed in close family ties.  And so it was not until early adulthood, as a student in Princeton's ROTC program in 1982, that he came to know who he really was.  By that time he was committed and trapped in an eight year program of military scholarship education followed by the payback of service.
 

On the plus side, he notes that both his military childhood and service was in an always fully racially integrated environment of equality established long before civilian society caught up to that ideal.  That at least gives him hope that our now emerging right to serve in pride will also evolve into leading the way to full equality.
As he sings that story with a lot of pathos over the anguished horror of his situation; in fact he went through it with courage rather than quitting.  Right away, he told his parents the truth.  His mother, pragmatic as mothers can be, wept with joy, in fact, sighing and saying, "Thank God, that explains a lot."  While typically put off at first, his father, a Vietnam vet, did his best with military pragmatism to tell him that he had to keep quiet about it, for both their sakes, and just get through it.  While that may seem cruel in retrospect; he did what his dad told him and it led to his subsequent experiences serving in Germany where he met his mate who recognized his singing ability which led to his becoming an accomplished classical baritone, and the rest of his creative life, none of which would have happened had he quit ROTC and college.  Whew, it's a long story.  Years later, his parents have attended his show with enthusiastic applause and pride in their accomplished son.

These things do not happen by accident.  He'd had piano lessons since the age of five and sang in choirs from an early age; and his mother had been an accomplished singer.  So, one might blame his parent's choices if one were to believe what makes a homosexual, but of course that's not the way it works.
 

The song cycle's story begins at Princeton at the moment when he realizes to his horror that he does not belong in the homophobic hostile military environment which is also anti-intellectual and contemptuous of non-manly skills such as singing and musical ability, all of which was what he was all about.  Oh Fie!  Well, as noted, he squared his jaw, as best he could, and suddenly learned to love his uniform which he began to appreciate as a gay fashionista.  (His performance includes some clever quick change transitions where he wears a tight fitting olive drab tee shirt and later an olive drab tank top with a large rhinestone pink triangle).

Anyway, he graduates, is commissioned, and goes through the hideous muddy sweaty boot camp experience complete with a purse-lipped soliloquy lamenting shower room libido repression.

 
After several ghastly assignments, he finds himself the Community Adjutant for the Norddeutschland Military Community, assisting the Community Commander coordinating personnel and ops for multiple divisions.  The tragic theme of his presentation aside, he actually thrived in this administrative position preparing orders, correspondence, duty rosters, meeting minutes, newsletters, and training troops in military correspondence.  Having had a career as an administrative Sgt First Class, I personally can appreciate the heroism of that job.

The real story, however, takes place in his off duty time in Germany where he meets a civilian military employee who becomes both his lover and patron as he studies classical singing and begins to perform his art.  That meant everything in that it was what kept him going through the trauma of his commitment to military service, as well as what led to his artistic life that followed.

Even if his story may lack the gung-ho patriotism that my kind of military gay hero thrives on, the moments of sheer classical virtuosity combined with his brilliant gay military humor make Michael Hanko's true tale told in song a genuine pleasure for almost anyone, except maybe disgruntled grunting old straight vets.


 

As a classical arts review, this article would not be complete without mentioning the brilliance of Hanko's piano accompanist Byron Sean.  Hailing from the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Sean accomplished the completion of his musical training via a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music in London, as well as at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris.  His Carnegie Hall debut was in 2012; he has worked with Michael Hanko for seven years.

For details and performance scheduling, please visit Michal Hanko's website: platoonlieder.com

  2013 Gay Military Signal