When is Sexual Orientation Relevant to Opera?

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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.