When is Sexual Orientation Relevant to Opera?

Wednesday, July 06, 2011 - 12:19 PM

On Friday, June 24, I was leaving Lincoln Center following a production of Janacek’s life- and love-affirming The Cunning Little Vixen at the New York Philharmonic when the first of several texts and voicemails reached me, stating that New York had become the sixth state in the union to legalize gay marriage. As I wrote on on Q2 (at which I am filling in for Nadia Sirota as a host this week), “the amount of love passing around the city and Internet ether was flooring.”

In the last week of listening to, thinking of and talking about homosexual composers, one thing struck me very profoundly, in tandem with Monday’s all-American holiday: There are many classical and opera composers who have remained heavily closeted, whose sexuality is still debatable and undocumented. While the United States has produced its own composers that fit this bill (as Alex Ross quipped, Leonard Bernstein was gay “on certain days of the week”), our country is situated in a unique place and time in music history: As we were forging our own musical identity in the late-19th and early-20th Centuries, closet doors were creaking open. Three years after Tchaikovsky died—according to one unproven theory, in an honor suicide following the revelation of his sexuality—openly gay composer Virgil Thomson was born in Kansas City.

Recent events, such as the passing of Proposition 8 in California and a rising number of gay teen suicides in the wake of excessive bullying (prompting Dan Savage’s "It Gets Better Project") suggest there’s still much more work to be done. But the ability of composers like Lou Harrison, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti to live and love rather openly has led to significant strides in the arts, particularly the world of opera, which still can’t quite shake its conservative veneer.

Soprano Patricia Racette and her partner, mezzo Beth Clayton, in a video for the "It Gets Better" project.

There is also, of course, the question: What does a composer’s sexuality have to do with their work? And does it matter? Aaron Copland’s cousin, Rodney H. Clurman, wrote to the New York Times out of sheer rage in 1994, following K. Robert Schwarz’s groundbreaking article Composers’ Closets Open for All to See—oddly enough not available in the Times’s extensive archives: “Who cares? Does that make Aaron and the others less good musicians?”

Ten years later, Nadine Hubbs’s book The Queer Composition of American Sound raised eyebrows, not for its frank and open discussion of composers' sexualities, but for its attempt to tie sexual orientation and politics into stylistic choices. Some critics angrily pointed out that gay composers' embrace of tonality has little to do with the fact that they were gay, nor does it have much to do with their public reception. 

Likewise, gay themes in music are not necessarily confined to gay composers. True, Ostertag is out, as is John Corigliano whose Symphony No. 1 deals heavily and forcefully with the AIDS crisis. However, Stewart Wallace, composer of Harvey Milk—a work that presented the life and tragic assassination of San Francisco’s first openly-gay elected official—is straight. Even in the more conservative corners of the nation, cities like Fort Worth, TX, boast opera companies that have produced well-received operas based on Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia Angels in America and homosexual author Reinaldo Arenas’s memoir Before Night Falls.

“The paper called it probably the most important collaboration in a hundred years, where everybody was involved and the opera was just one component,” Fort Worth Opera director Darren Woods told me in an interview last year for a separate article about the reception of Angels in America. “Opening night, I saw people leaving and coming up and saying thank you for having the courage to do this... We had not one single negative person there, not one."

An Opera Canceled Because of Homophobia?

All of this support, however, seems a bit backwards in the wake of Opera North’s catastrophic production of Harvey Brough’s Beached. The Leeds, England company was set to premiere this new work designed as a community production including 300 students from the British town of Bridlington. Librettist Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot fame) was asked to make several changes to his text in order to satisfy education officials and parents who cited concerns with the book’s language, nixing among other words, the use of “stupid” as an insult. Even with the toned-down language, however, officials felt that lines such as “Of course I’m queer/That’s why I left here/So if you infer/That I prefer/A lad to a lass/ And I’m working class/ I’d have to concur”—sung by the opera’s adult male protagonist—were inappropriate for children aged 4 to 11.

Opera North scrapped the production which has led to an outburst of op-eds from Hall, Opera North and other players in the fold—not to mention an outcry from countless journalists and bloggers for whom this situation has provoked calls of homophobia and discrimination. Whatever the real reason is for the cancellation of the production and whether authorities in the matter were acting out of prejudice or a genuine concern for the well-being of the children may, like Tchaikovsky’s cause of death, never be fully revealed.

But the situation raises several questions, many of which are astutely articulated by composer Nico Muhly in his blog. Muhly’s first opera, Two Boys, recently premiered at the English National Opera and is due to come to the Met in the 2013-14 season. It also touches on themes of homosexuality, plus those tried-and-true operatic ideas of lust, illicit affairs and murder. Children also factor into the cast for Muhly’s opera (written with librettist Craig Lucas), and they along with their parents and guardians seemingly had no issue with appearing in a work that includes some salty exchanges:

“The ENO and the Met were amazingly supportive through this entire process. At no point did anybody say that we had to de-gay anything,” writes Muhly in his blog. “If there were uncomfortable murmurs, they never reached me, and the general atmosphere on the stage and off the stage was one of completely uncompromised support for the work. This isn’t to say that we didn’t get word-change suggestions all the time, but usually this was to do with the nuances of British English or with the procedural gestures of police work.” Muhly also points out that many of the notes and textual change requests came to him and Lucas towards the onset of their 18-month workshop process, not in the days leading up to opening night.

This is where the main outcry resides: Scrapping of the production aside, Opera North has bungled its communications strategy as it navigates the unenviable and tricky road between artists and the public. A company response to Hall’s accusations of homophobia shut down the writer entirely, calling it “unacceptable” and saying that it “publicly misrepresents the situation in such a demeaning way.” Opera North’s Web site features a small update on the situation, buried among logos and advertisements for its main season of Das Rheingold, Madama Butterfly, Ruddigore and, appropriately enough, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades.

Opera North's Website

Discussions, according to the company, are “ongoing,” and this production may be saved yet. However, whether the company wished to accept it or not, the company cannot escape the surrounding politics of the situation. What we’re seeing here, however, is an instance where the sexuality of composer and librettist are irrelevant in comparison to that of the characters onstage. If it’s not a problem in Fort Worth, an area characterized by the Bush family and liberal conservatism, what does it say when it is an issue in the United Kingdom?

Is sexual orientation relevant in artist or art? Are Opera North, the Bridlington community or Lee Hall (or all three) at fault here? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


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Comments [12]

Ken Thompson from New York City

Of course there are a LOT of gay opera fans. That has, no doubt, always been true. In my lifetime experience, however, the majority of people attending operatic performances are straight, just like the general population. This fact has been true whether the performances were at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Central Park, or in other cities across the country and in Europe. Gay opera fans are enthusiastic, passionate and quite visible, but we are not the majority. (Well... OK, maybe in Cherry Grove)

Jul. 08 2011 11:16 AM
Frank Feldman

And the complementary question-why are male homosexuals disproportionately represented in the opera-loving public?

Jul. 08 2011 12:47 AM
Michael Meltzer

In the wake of the gay marriage legislation, you don't have to be a genius to see that if it isn't true already, it soon will be that gay couples with no children will have the highest discretionary houshold budgets of any demographic arts-interested group.
Marketing people would be nuts not to launch a major effort toward that group, and the opera world has plenty of material they can use.

Jul. 07 2011 08:15 PM
Michael Meltzer

Let's imagine that a great conference were convened of distinguished psychologists, musicologists, composers, historians and critics, and it emerged after exhaustive presentation, analysis and discussion that sexuality had nothiing whatsoever to do with musical composition.
The opera marketing people would still insist on keeping it in there and up front, because sexuality makes rock stars, keeps names in the papers and certainly sells tickets.

Jul. 07 2011 07:49 PM

John, can't that be said of most musical trivia? Generally, not knowing that Mozart composed the "Linz" symphony in four days or that Strauss's Intermezzo is autobiographical doesn't take away from the listening/viewing experience. And while we may care about such points, I'm sure there are listeners who aren't interested in that sort of trivia either. But on the other hand, the more one knows about a composer's life, the more it enhances the experience. To go back to Bernstein and the number of other folks working on Candide, the fact that the majority of them were the exact opposite of Voltaire's eternal optimist (Bernstein, Agee, Parker, Hellman) always colors my experience with that work.

Jul. 07 2011 05:46 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ


I still don't see the relevance. And I don't think listeners, in general care. I've watched countless presentations on TV and heard just as many on radio. While narrators describe the action or the foundations of the work, or the historical significance of a work, it seems that injecting the authors' sexual predispositions, even if it is the inspiration for the work, doesn't help (or hurt) the piece.

Classical works are so majestic, they surpass the authors.

Jul. 07 2011 05:07 PM

And the Celebrant in the Mass goes through a crisis of faith that is not far from those operas either. Really you could easily do a week of gay programming if you wanted to (shout-out to Szymanowski's King Roger)

Jul. 07 2011 04:33 PM

Interesting point, Will, between correlating Britten to his operas and Bernstein with his own. Keeping that in mind, the main male characters in A Quiet Place/Trouble in Tahiti seem to contain different variations on the same theme.

Jul. 07 2011 01:10 PM

Of course it's relevant, it's always relevant. Maybe, John, Bernstein's "Mass" sounds the same to you whether or not you knew he was gay. Does it sound the same whether you knew that he was a conductor? Or whether you knew that it was written in 1971, and not 1848, or 1523? Our knowledge of the biography cannot help but shape our interpretations of the music, for better or worse. It's not always fair to put Tchaik 6 in a dialogue with the composer's sexuality; but you cannot intelligently discuss Peter Grimes, Death in Venice, or Billy Budd and gloss over Britten's sexuality--same goes for Bernstein's stage works and his sexuality.

And if you think it's not there in the classics, there are Schubert lieder to which the composer's sexuality is very relevant. It's worthwhile to know that Schubert was gay just as it's worthwhile to know that Beethoven had an immortal beloved or that Bach wrote music in the wake of his wife's death. It's not just gossip--it's part history, part mythology, and all important.

(This is all old hat for any academics; Queering the Pitch, the breakthrough anthology, is already 17 years old, and there is a musicologist who focuses on gender studies at, I would wager, most universities in the country. Their work is good and interesting, and just as relevant as the people finding new Beethoven letters or Mahler piano rolls.)

Jul. 07 2011 12:24 PM
John J. Christiano from Franklin NJ

I don't see how the topic is at all relevant to the greater study or appreciation of music.

Most classical and non-classical pieces (painting and sculpture, too) grow beyond their artists to the point where they are mere footnotes to the work.

Tchaikovsky was gay. Does that make the "1812" sound any different?

Bernstein? His Mass sounds the same. So does West Side Story.

You can probably find a dozen of the "greats" and many, many more of the not-sos in the same category. So what? Let it go.

Jul. 07 2011 10:30 AM

If I may add to what Michael Meltzer said about family-oriented subjects:The Dance of the Seven Veils is not the Dance of the Seven Dwarves.

Jul. 07 2011 10:00 AM
Michael Meltzer

Why can't opera stick to the traditional, heart-warming, family-oriented operatic subjects of lust, treachery, murder and abandonment?
Considering the subject matter of most operas and the titillation that the opera-going public has come to expect over the centuries, why all the discussion?

Jul. 07 2011 02:29 AM

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