Music: Opera

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Opera, Wayne Koestenbaum has persuasively argued, has attracted LGBT people because so many of them have been silenced, afraid to express their passions in homophobic society. The grand gestures, elaborate costumes, and larger-than-life utterances of the great operatic characters speak to and compensate for the repressed sexuality of the opera queen, both giving voice to hidden desire and witnessing, sorrowfully, to love unfulfilled. Erotic excess has always been the driving force behind opera— most of which deal with people trapped in loveless marriages or other hopeless relationships. They tend either to die magnificently or finally achieve happiness. LGBT people also identify with the frequent gender transgressions in opera. The heroic male roles of baroque operas— notably those of Monteverdi (Orpheus, for example) and Handel (such as Julius Caesar)—were performed by castrati in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and taken by women until the advent of countertenors (some of whom are handsome, gay men in the late twentieth century). Great mezzo sopranos in the early nineteenth century sang parts such as Romeo (Bellini) and numerous generals and kings (Rossini), whereas youths such as Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro and Octavian in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier are "trouser roles" played by women dressed as men; in a further twist, these male characters sometimes disguise themselves as women.

Whereas opera has symbolized glamor and social rituals such as galas and opening nights for the upper classes who foot the bill, for many LGBT people it has meant fanatic attachment to particular singers—whose own personal lives acquire a fascination comparable to those of their stage creations—and participation in a community of largely LGBT opera lovers who follow the details of performances with critical enthusiasm. As Walt Whitman noted, in the mid-nineteenth century, he and his companions would head for "the 25-cent place in the theatre" where he "used to meet and make new friends in the galleries." Unlike the "average man [who] doesn't object to high prices because be only wants to go to the theatre about twice a year …for the Bohemians we are— many, many times are not too many" (Schmidgall, p. 131). In the late twentieth century, standing rooms and cheap seats were still meeting places and cruising zones for LGBT people, especially gay men. Their zeal occasionally produces headlines, as when in 1965 Metropolitan opera standees waited in line for days for tickets to Maria Callas's comeback, or when fights broke out between her partisans and those of Renata Tebaldi.

Walt Whitman may well have been America's first opera queen. Opera inspired his poetry, prose, and criticism for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle; overall, he cited thirteen grand operas by contemporary favorites Verdi, Bellini, and Donizetti and referred to singers and songs hundreds of times. Whitman sought to model his work on opera and called on American writers and composers to be inspired by the "superb suggestions of the Grand Opera" (Schmidgall, p. 25). He entitled collections of his poetry the "Song of Myself" and "Chants Democratic." Only "some moments at the opera" and being "in the woods" could put Whitman's "soul in high glee all out" (Schmidgall, p. 68). Juxtaposing the sound of the "great Italian singers" with "the voices of the native substrata of Manahattan young men," he regarded both as uniquely seductive (Schmidgall, p. 16). Whitman none-too-subtly praised the erotic attraction of the male operatic voice: "I want that tenor, large and fresh as the creation, the orbed parting of whose mouth shall lift over my head the sluices of all delight yet discovered for our race." He rhapsodized over his favorite tenor, Geremia Bettini—"a beautiful, large, robust, and friendly young man"; "never before did I realize what an indescribable volume of delight the recesses of the soul can bear from the sound of the human voice" (Schmidgall, p. 18). With opera providing the peak emotional experience offered by culture, Whitman believed that indigenous opera was needed for the United States to escape the foreign cultural domination. Opera needed to rank highly among the "democratic fetes … highly original" with which the nation would make its mark (Schmidgall, p. 25).

Whitman viewed opera variously as erotic stimulant, fulfillment of larger-than-life fantasies through worship of particular singers, inspiration for literature, and symbol of American culture, planes on which it has continued to intersect with LGBT history in the United States. Whitman's optimism about opera soon yielded to the concerns of lesbian authors Edith Wharton and Willa Cather in the early twentieth century. Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence (1920) opens in a box at the New York Academy of Music, predecessor of the Metropolitan Opera, where opera has been reduced to the ornament of an elite seeking social exclusivity. It neutralizes or covers the passions and excludes the national pulse that Whitman hoped it would express. Willa Cather loved and wrote extensively about opera. The S ong of the Lark (1915) is based on the life of Olive Fremstad, a midwestern diva who must lose her innocence and succumb to the rigors of serious vocal training to gain the bittersweet victory of success in a corrupt and affected world. (Cather's Lucy Gayheart [1935] has a similar plot; she substituted singers for herself in these semi-autobiographical works.) She writes of the opera fanatic in her short story "A Gold Slipper" (1905), where a man left unmoved by a diva's performance is mesmerized by her lost slipper—that is, the glamour of her self-presentation. In Cather's "Paul's Case" (1905), a young man, introduced to the social whirl and high society associated with opera, kills himself because he runs out of money and can no longer endure normal life.

As with turn-of-the-century writers and political activists, several of the most eminent female singers in the United States spoke about their preference for female companionship. Fremstad's lifetime companion Mary Watkins Cushing wrote about her slavish devotion to her mistress; she spoke of how the diva would touch her "flat and heaving bosom," and she slept with a string attached to her toe from Fremstad's bedpost so she could be summoned at will in the middle of the night. Mary Garden wrote in her autobiography of her physical attraction to her first teacher and to Mme. Lily Debussy, adding "sometimes I wonder why I've never been crazy about men." Frances Alda, Emma Eames, and Grace Moore also spoke of strong attachments to female role models who influenced their career choices (Kostenbaum, p. 99).

Homosexuals and Homosexual Stand-ins

Many of the most important U.S. opera composers of the twentieth century were homosexuals, but none expressed the sensitivity and tragedy of unrequited homosexual longing as did the Englishman Benjamin Britten in the operas Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951), and Death in Venice (1973). These are among the most frequently performed post–World War II works in major opera houses in the United States. Until the 1990s, among American composers, only Paul Bowles and Virgil Thomson, twice in collaboration with author Gertrude Stein, touched on homosexual themes in their works for the stage, and even they did not deal explicitly with the subject. Better known as a writer, Bowles wrote two operas based on the works of gay Spanish poet Federico García Lorca: The Wind Remains (1941), which explores the fantasies of a young man who cannot find heterosexual love but has no alternative, and Yerma (1958), the story of a woman who murders her husband because he cannot give her children. Thomson met Stein in Paris in 1926. Together they wrote Four Saints in Three Acts, which premiered in 1934 with an all-black cast directed by John Houseman. The saints—Teresa of Avila and her confessor Saint Settlement and Ignatius of Loyola and his mentor Saint Chavez—and the production suggest the composer and librettist's concern, typical of the New Deal era, with displaying the virtues of cultures regarded as inferior by mainstream U.S. culture. The African American cast and the saints whose celibacy and interior spiritual struggles they portray may be regarded as socially acceptable standins for homosexuals. In The Mother of Us All, begun shortly before Stein's death in 1946 and posthumously premiered the following year, lesbian Susan B. Anthony and her companion Anne are introduced by narrators playing the parts of Thomson and Stein themselves. Although Susan B., as she is called, is not a sexual being, she stands head and shoulders above male politicians such as John Adams (implausibly reduced to a hopeless romantic) and Ulysses S. Grant. Thomson wrote a third opera, Lord Byron (1972), which is less well known. It consists of a series of flashbacks following Byron's death in which his unhappy affairs with women are stressed; only several fellow male poets appreciate him.

Sympathy for the Dispossessed

Perhaps to compensate for the love that dared not be spoken, most homosexual opera composers have dealt sympathetically with the plight of other underprivileged groups. George Gershwin wrote of black life in Charleston, South Carolina, in Porgy and Bess (1935). The most famous of Gian Carlo Menotti's numerous operas, including The Old Maid and the Thief (1939), The Medium (1946), The Consul (1950), and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954), are set in poor urban neighborhoods. The most popular of his several children's operas, Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), tells of a crippled boy's response to Jesus's birth. Leonard Bernstein's major works for the stage straddled the line between opera and Broadway. West Side Story (1957) was a rewritten version of Romeo and Juliet in which Puerto Ricans and Italians fight and fall in love in a neighborhood on New York City's Upper West Side (ironically soon to be displaced for Lincoln Center, a home for the performing arts). Candide (1956) is based on Voltaire's short novel of the hapless lad victimized by the incompetent evildoers who dominate the world. Marc Blitzstein, a mentor for Bernstein, composed The Cradle Will Rock (1937), a New Deal drama based loosely on actual events, in which a prostitute and druggist organize Steeltown against the tyrannical Mister Mister and his so-called Liberty Committee. Blitzstein's other notable opera, Regina (1953), was based on Lillian Hellman's play The Little Foxes (1939), a tale of avarice and corruption in a southern family. Aaron Copland's only opera, The Tender Land(1954), deals with a small midwestern community that, suspicious of two itinerant workers, considers them murderers; a young woman, dissuaded from leaving with the man she loves, leaves anyway. An extremely successful opera, by gay composer Jake Heggie, is Dead Man Walking (2000), the story of a nun and the convicted murderer she befriends on death row.

Mainstream Themes

Gay composers have also written operas on more conventional themes. Menotti's companion, Samuel Barber, has worked mostly in symphonic and chamber music. His two major operas, Vanessa (1953) and Antony and Cleopatra (1966), deal with love among the upper classes. Both were premiered at the New York Metropolitan Opera, the latter opening the new house in Lincoln Center in a gargantuan production whose awkwardness eclipsed the work's real virtues, which were far more evident in the revised version staged first at the Julliard School in 1975. John Corigliano's Ghosts of Versailles (1991) is a pastiche in which both the music and characters from Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (1786) interact with members of Marie Antoinette's court as they observe their lives from eternity. The Russian Igor Stravinsky composed The Rake's Progress (1951), with a libretto by the Englishman W. H. Auden and his companion Chester Kallman. Both Auden and Stravinsky were longtime permanent residents of the United States. The story, based on eighteenth-century English engraver William Hogarth's series of prints depicting a young man's moral degeneration when he comes to London, adds a transgender element in the form of a bearded lady, Baba the Turk, invented by the librettists, who is by far the opera's most sympathetic and decent character.

Recent Opera and Its Gay Fans

As of 2003, only two operas by American composers dealing explicitly with homosexuality have attained wide notice. Stewart Wallace's opera Harvey Milk ( 1991) tells the story of the San Francisco supervisor, the first openly gay official in the United States, based on The Life and Times of Harvey Milk (1984), the first gay film to win an Academy Award (Best Documentary, 1984). The first scene takes place at New York City's Metropolitan Opera,

where a fifteen-year-old Milk finds his love of opera reciprocated by numerous older men. For much of the first act, he wears handcuffs to symbolize both his unexpressed desires and the persecution of LGBT people. Milk is arrested after entrapment by a policeman, but the handcuffs do not come off until the Stonewall Riots of 1969, which are depicted, lead to their removal. Milk moves in with his lover, gay activist Scott Smith, and subsequently runs for public office. A gay pride parade and a memorial service for Milk are staged, and the motivations of his assassin, Dan White, are brought out.

Harold Blumenfeld's work A Season in Hell (1994) is based on the life of the nineteenth-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Set at the moment when Rimbaud gives up poetry to sell guns and slaves in Abyssinia, the opera looks both forward and backward in the writer's life. A highlight of the opera is Rimbaud's tempestuous love affair with the older poet Paul Verlaine, which leads to the latter's imprisonment after he wounds Rimbaud with a pistol shot.

For many gay Americans—mostly males—at the turn of the millennium, opera matters less as a creative, contemporary art form in which homosexuals are writing, composing, or acting and more as a means of enjoying masterpieces of the past and the singers associated with them. Opera queens worship their divas much as film buffs adore movie stars. Maria Callas, whose career resembled her contemporary Judy Garland's, has attracted a huge gay following. After her transformation from a fat woman into an Audrey Hepburn look-alike glamor queen, her tempestuous personality, riveting acting, flawed yet thrilling singing, and tragic personal life combined to give her recordings and several biographies large sales. The leading literary works about opera in our time deal with Callas and her mystique. Albert Innaurato's play Magda and Callas (1988)—the former referring to Magda Olivero, another gay icon who sang into her eighties—is about the perils of young singers imitating a diva before becoming one. Terrence McNally, the librettist for Heggie's Dead Man Walking, has written The Lisbon Traviata (1985, rev. 1989)—which compares the gay fetishization of Callas to that of young male models and treats the AIDS epidemic as well—and Master Class (1995), in which actresses including Zoe Caldwell, Patti LuPone, and Faye Dunaway have brought to life a Callas who sacrificed her youth to become a great singer before throwing her career away for the false paradise represented by Aristotle Onassis and the glitter of high society.

LGBT opera fans do not always take themselves so seriously, and in fact some do an excellent job of satirizing their own enthusiasm. James McCourt's novel Maw-drew Czgowchwz (1975; pronounced "Mardu Gorgeous," although the initials match those of Maria Callas) is about a fictional superdiva who can sing anything and is involved in murder, mayhem, and witchcraft. Since 1981 the female impersonators of La Gran Scena, founded and directed by Ira Siff (Vera Galupe-Borszkh) and based in New York City, have delighted audiences with their parodies of the operatic world, especially the personalities and (with remarkable accuracy) vocal traits of leading divas. The leading singers include Sylvia Bills, Fodor Szedan, Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi, and the world's oldest diva, Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola. Parterre: A Queer Opera Zine ( offers reviews, interviews with singers, gossip, and musical selections both outstanding and outrageous primarily for the edification of opera queens. Through composition, literature, fanatic devotion, and parody, LGBT Americans have established themselves as a significant part of the American opera scene.


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Galatopoulos, Stelios. Maria Callas: Sacred Monster. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Giannone, Richard. Music in Willa Cather's Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

Kirk, Elise K. American Opera. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire. New York: Poseidon Press, 1993.

Montgomery, Maureen E. Displaying Women: Spectacles of Leisure in Edith Wharton's New York. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove's Dictionary of Opera.London: Macmillan, 1992.

Schmidgall, Gary. Walt Whitman: A Gay Life. New York: Dutton, 1997.

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William Pencak

see alsoanthony, susan b.; auden, w. h.; barber, samuel, and gian carlo menotti; barney, natalie; bernstein, leonard; bowles, paul and jane bowles; cage, john; cather, willa; choruses and bands; copland, aaron; icons; mcnally, terrence; milk, harvey; oliveros, pauline; stein, gertrude, and alice b. toklas; thomson, virgil; whitman, walt.

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