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Opera  
 
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Even before the practice of castrating prepubescent male singers was gradually abolished toward the end of the eighteenth century, composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) created the so-called "trouser" or en travesti roles specifically for female mezzo-sopranos and contraltos, who usually played adolescent males. This new role remained popular from the late eighteenth through the early twentieth century.

Mozart's most notable trouser role, Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), worships Countess Almaviva but also seduces Barbarina, the gardener's daughter. Mozart thus uses gender play in his comic political assault on aristocratic privilege.

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The nineteenth century witnessed an increasing number of female singers in male roles, who either played the kind of heroic "armor roles" once the province of castrati or young romantic heroes.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) made spectacular developments in the "armor roles" in works such as Tancredi (1813), La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake, 1819), and Semiramide (1823). In the latter, Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, falls in love with the mezzo-soprano Arsace, commander of her army and also, indeed, her long-lost son by Nino, the husband she had conspired to murder. In the meantime, Arsace becomes enamored of the Indian Princess Azema, and seeks vengeance for the murder of "his" father.

While nominally representing heterosexual intrigue, Semiramide marks the moment in the history of opera in which elaborate gender-bending devolves into the incoherent, unconsciously camp, or kitsch spectacle of an adulterous and murderous woman falling in love with a girl in armor who is not only her actual son but also in love with another woman and out to avenge "his" father's murder by killing Semiramide's former paramour.

Although Rossini's opera fell out of fashion by the mid-nineteenth century, the use of female singers in the roles of young male lovers continued even into the early twentieth century in many notable operas from Vicenzo Bellini's I Capuletti ed I Montecchi (1830) to Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier (1911), perhaps the first opera to present an explicit love scene performed by two women.

Over the course of the nineteenth-century, opera became increasingly concerned with political themes of nationalism, often resulting in heterosexual romance plots functioning as microcosmic representation of political struggles. This is not to say that there were no homoerotic aspects in nineteenth-century opera; love between two men or two women is a crucial factor in such operas as Bellini's Norma (1831), Giuseppe Verdi's Don Carlo (1867), Georges Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de Perles (1863), and Richard Wagner's Tannhäuser (1845) and Parsifal (1882).

Twentieth-Century Opera

The twentieth century witnessed three major developments in opera relevant to gay men and lesbians: the representation of openly gay and lesbian operatic characters, the cult of the diva, and camp treatments of traditional operatic plots and themes. Moreover, antibourgeois works such as Strauss's Salomé (1905, based on the Wilde play) and Elektra (1909) early in the century signaled a new openness in dealing with sex and sexuality.

Also of significance, gay modernist composers such as Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) typically abandoned traditional heterosexual plots in favor of modes that explore the psychological, metaphysical, and social parameters of individuality and community, often emphasizing themes that are at least implicitly relevant to the gay and lesbian experience.

For example, Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Child and the Enchantments, 1925), with libretto by Colette and set in a magical child's world in which injured animals and objects become speaking subjects, considers the relationships among mother identification, destructiveness, creativity, and ethical responsibility. Thomson collaborated with Gertrude Stein to produce two highly original works, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947), the latter presenting the struggles of the feminist movement in America.

Implicitly gay and lesbian concerns also surface in the work of Francis Poulenc. In his compelling Dialogues des Carmelites (1957), Poulenc returns to the scene of the French Revolution to explore how a community of women, the Carmelite nuns of Compiegne, respond to their scapegoating and martyrdom at the hands of the all-male revolutionary authorities.

Gay and Lesbian Characters in Opera

Alban Berg's Lulu (1937) presents the first self-identified queer character in opera, the Countess Martha Geschwitz. Lulu, an attractive if amoral femme fatale, has many suitors, but only the noble and self-sacrificial Geschwitz seems genuinely to love her, and emerges as the only admirable character in an otherwise selfish and brutal social realm.

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