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Gay composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote three operas that, like Lulu, deal with social exclusion, scapegoating, and death to characters who are or who are perceived to be gay.

Peter Grimes (1945) concerns a misanthropic fisherman suspected of murder and pederasty, and Billy Budd (1951)--with libretto by E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier after Herman Melville's novella--presents a beautiful sailor sacrificed, in Christ-like fashion, because his evil superior Claggert cannot tolerate his romantic and sexual longings for Billy. Death in Venice (1973), based on Thomas Mann's novella, sustains Britten's interest in the relationships among youth, gay desire, and death, as the dying writer Aschenbach becomes hopelessly infatuated with the beautiful if ever inaccessible Venetian adolescent Tadzio.

In contrast to such modernist queer tragedies, Leonard Bernstein's Quiet Place (1983) makes a bisexual male character the symbol of social mediation and conflict resolution, while Libby Larsen's and Bonnie Grice's Mrs. Dalloway (1993), based on Virginia Woolf's novel of repressed homoerotic desire, reinvokes queer modernist concerns.

In his recent Harvey Milk (1995), Stewart Wallace pays tribute to a heroic pioneer who, in 1977, became the first openly gay man to win elected office in the United States and, in the following year, was assassinated, along with San Francisco Mayor Moscone, by Dan White, a former police officer and city supervisor. White, in his infamous "Twinkie defense," claimed that junk food had undermined his reason, and his seven-year sentence was widely perceived as reflecting societal . Wallace's opera is perhaps the first operatic representation of a historical gay tragic hero.

The increasing visibility of gay and lesbian artists and audiences in opera in recent years has also affected the world of opera. Not only have earlier Baroque works been revived, but productions of mainstream operas have explored the homoerotic possibilities of familiar and ostensibly heterosexual plots. Newer compositions, such as John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles (1991) combine the pleasures of camp masquerade with serious considerations of issues of personal liberty, sexuality, scapegoating, and misogyny.

Diva Worship and Camp Opera

While queers, like opera fans in general, have probably worshipped the larger-than-life figure of the diva since opera's emergence as a popular art form, in the twentieth-century gay and lesbian identification with or adulation of such figures became both documented and an explicit feature of queer culture.

For various reasons, early twentieth-century lesbian opera fans adulated Emma Calve, Mary Garden, Olive Fremstad, Geraldine Farrar, and Kathleen Ferrier.

Lesbian novelist Willa Cather saw in Fremstad, the renowned Wagnerian soprano who had also dared to play the title role in the American premiere of Richard Strauss's Salomé, the embodiment of the serious woman artist "married" to her art and to artistic perfection. Mary Garden, who became the "directa" of the Chicago Lyric Opera, specialized in en travesti roles, and, for decades, exerted considerable power in the operatic world.

Gay male culture produces the "opera queen," a fan notable for his fetishistic, indeed perhaps obsessive knowledge of opera plots, productions, and recordings, along with an equally extensive lore of gossip and speculation about the scandals, rivalries, romances, breakdowns, and triumphs in divas' personal lives.

Onstage and off-stage converge in this extravagant figuration of the diva, who is perceived by her devotees as a quasi-divine mediatrix, both redeemed and imperiled by the extremities of her existence. Maria Callas (1923-1977), the Greek-American dramatic coloratura soprano, became the focus of this worship, and, to a great extent, remains so, even more than a quarter century after her death.

The extraordinary artistic virtuosity required to sing opera, on the one hand, coupled with the high artifice, emotional extravagance, and melodrama of this art form on the other, makes opera an art form that veers between aesthetic sublimity and camp absurdity. For modern audiences, the ornate plots and elaborate gender-bendings of Baroque opera, for example, can provide as much camp pleasure as parodic treatments of nineteenth-century "serious" opera.

The all-gay male La Gran Scena opera company, founded in 1981 by artistic director Ira Siff, presents hilarious camp renditions of famous operas but also, in keeping with opera's profound commitment to the beauties of the rigorously trained human voice, insists on quality singing. Siff, as a member of the company, has adopted the camp stage name Vera Galup-Borszkh, and other members bear names such as Fodor Szedan and Kavatina Turner. Also known to his audiences as the "traumatic soprano" or "La Dementia," Siff has poked affectionate fun at the long-suffering heroines of many nineteenth-century operas through his aria, "La suicidio."

Although La Gran Scena recently disbanded because, according to Siff, contemporary opera divas no longer display the kind of extravagant excess that enables camp appropriation, queers' long involvement with this art form promises to continue and to take new directions in the ongoing revival of Baroque operas and the creation of new operas on specifically gay and lesbian plots and characters.

Corinne E. Blackmer
Patricia Juliana Smith

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arts >> Overview:  Castrati

Male singers who were castrated before they reached puberty, castrati reached the height of their popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; although not necessarily homosexual, they occupy a "queer space" in cultural history.

arts >> Overview:  Conductors

In spite of the presence of many gay, lesbian, and bisexual figures in the field of classical music, it is difficult to identify more than a handful of self-identified, openly gay or lesbian conductors even in the early years of the twenty-first century.

arts >> Overview:  Divas

The diva has traditionally played a significant role in both gay and lesbian culture as an object of cult worship with whom those who suffer the heartaches of forbidden love and ostracism from an unaccepting society find solace and identification.

arts >> Overview:  Music: Classical

Classical music is an important component of Western culture to which glbt people have contributed significantly.

arts >> Overview:  Musical Theater and Film

The musical has been a significant aspect of American gay male culture, manifesting itself both in diva worship and, more recently, in the presentation of openly gay characters and shows written by gay writers primarily for gay audiences.

literature >> Overview:  Musical Theater

There has always been homosexual involvement in American musical theatre and a homosexual sensibility even in straight musicals, and recently the Broadway musical has welcomed openly homosexual themes and situations.

arts >> Overview:  Wagnerism

Concerned with the music, theoretical writings, political ideas, and aesthetics of the German composer Richard Wagner, Wagnerism had a profound influence on late nineteenth-century European culture, including the expression of same-sex desire.

arts >> Bernstein, Leonard

For most of his life, the specter of the closet lurked threateningly behind the glamorous and often brash public image of American composer Leonard Bernstein.

arts >> Bourne, Matthew

Perhaps the most acclaimed British choreographer working today, Matthew Bourne is best known for his homoerotic updatings and deconstructions of classic ballets.

arts >> Britten, Benjamin

The most acclaimed British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten created many works that were inspired by his long-time personal and professional relationship with his lover, Peter Pears.

literature >> Cather, Willa

One of America's premier literary artists in the earlier twentieth century, Willa Cather reflected her own lesbianism in the creation of strong women characters and in the exploration of male homosexuality.

arts >> Chéreau, Patrice

Award-winning French director, screenwriter, and actor Patrice Chéreau has earned international renown for his visionary, often controversial, productions of opera, theater, and film

literature >> Colette

One of France's most beloved authors, Colette wrote novels with strong lesbian subtexts.

arts >> Corigliano, John

American composer of symphonies, chamber works, choral settings, operas, and film scores, John Corigliano has created some of the most moving music inspired by the AIDS epidemic.

literature >> Forster, E. M.

One of the finest English novelists of the twentieth century and a tireless defender of humane values, Forster deserves a special place in the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

arts >> Gordon, Ricky Ian

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon, often seen as an heir to the musical legacy of Stephen Sondheim, has been praised for the lyrical quality of his music and for bridging the worlds of theater and art song.

arts >> Handel, George Frideric

Around George Frideric Handel, one of the towering figures of Western classical music, was constructed the first biographical closet, of many to come, for a major composer in the West.

arts >> Hoffman, William M.

Playwright, librettist, and educator William M. Hoffman is best known for his ground-breaking play As Is, one of the first theatrical works to focus on the AIDS epidemic.

arts >> Hytner, Sir Nicholas

British director Sir Nicholas Hytner is acclaimed for his work on musicals and plays in London as well as New York, and also for directing films and operas.

arts >> Innaurato, Albert

Playwright Albert Innaurato's plays are as remarkable for the marginalizing ethnic identity, sexual orientation, and body image of their characters as they are for the author's refusal to adopt politically correct attitudes.

arts >> LaChiusa, Michael John

Composer Michael John LaChiusa, identified as a heir to Stephen Sondheim's legacy in the American musical theater, creates works that demand intellectual involvement on the part of the audience.

literature >> Mann, Thomas

One of Germany's greatest twentieth-century authors, Thomas Mann encoded his own homosexuality in his novels but thought that homosexuality led to the destruction of social institutions and the death of the individual homosexual.

arts >> Mantello, Joe

Having staged a variety of well-received and award-winning productions, actor-turned-director Joe Mantello has emerged as one of the most accomplished artists now working in the American theater.

literature >> Melville, Herman

The most important American novelist of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville reflects his homosexuality throughout his texts.

social sciences >> Milk, Harvey

Harvey Milk, among the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the United States, was assassinated in San Francisco's City Hall, making him the American gay liberation movement's most visible martyr.

arts >> Pears, Peter

Highly respected British tenor Sir Peter Pears was the life partner of composer Benjamin Britten, who wrote leading roles in many of his operas for him.

arts >> Poulenc, Francis

One of the first openly gay composers, Francis Poulenc became one of the most thoughtful composers of serious music in the twentieth century.

arts >> Ravel, Maurice

One of France's most distinguished composers, Maurice Ravel projected a public identity as a cultured dandy, a dapper man-about-town of refined taste and sensibility.

literature >> Sendak, Maurice

An important voice in children's literature over the past half century, Maurice Sendak wrote and illustrated books that both acknowledge the fears faced by children and celebrate the imagination with which they cope with them.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

arts >> Thomson, Virgil

Critic and composer Virgil Thomson was a pioneer in creating a specifically American form of classical music that is at once "serious" yet whimsically sardonic.

arts >> Wagner, Siegfried

Siegfried Wagner, the son of composer Richard Wagner, was himself a prolific composer and conductor; his bisexuality was the source of both scandal and also of elaborate attempts to erase it from histories of the Wagner family.

arts >> Wheeldon, Christopher

Christopher Wheeldon is one of the most innovative and acclaimed classical ballet choreographers working in the dance world today.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


Blackmer, Corinne E., and Patricia Juliana Smith, eds. En Travesti: Women, Gender Subversion, Opera. New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Brett, Philip, Elizabeth Wood, and Gary C. Thomas, eds. Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology. New York and London: Routledge, 1994.

Clement, Catherine. Opera, or the Undoing of Women. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988.

Dellamora, Richard, and Daniel Fischlin, eds. The Work of Opera: Genre, Nationhood, and Sexual Difference. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997.

Heriot, Angus. The Castrati in Opera. New York: Da Capo Press, 1974.

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

Leonardi, Susan J., and Rebecca A. Pope. The Diva's Mouth: Body, Voice, Prima Donna Politics. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press, 1996.

McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, and Sexuality. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Mohr, Richard D. Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.

Robinson, Paul A. Opera, Sex and Other Vital Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Rosand, Ellen. Opera in Seventeenth Century Venice: The Creation of a Genre. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Solie, Ruth A., ed. Musicology and Difference: Gender and Sexuality in Music Scholarship. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.


    Citation Information
    Author: Blackmer, Corinne E. ; Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Opera  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 2, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2004, glbtq, inc.  


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