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Opera, an eclectic synthesis of voice, drama, music, costume, visual arts and spectacle, has played an integral role in queer culture since its development in seventeenth-century Venice.

As opera intermingles the sublime and the absurd, and has embraced unabashedly high artifice, unfettered emotion, melodrama and improbable, convoluted plots, it shares many of the qualities that define sensibility, through a combination of idealistic romantic identification and camp travesty.

Holding up an allegorical and larger-than-life mirror to the incongruous experience of many gay men and lesbians, opera revels in cross-dressing, illicit romance, intrigue, gender-bending, despair and triumph, passion and death, and the cult of the diva.

The Origins of Opera

Opera, or dramma per musica, developed in early seventeenth century Venice, where a combination of Renaissance humanism, anti-clericalism, and, perhaps most important, a large, mixed public audience willing to pay for entertainments that appealed to popular tastes sustained and informed this new genre. Hence, opera could exercise some autonomy from Church censorship and aristocratic patronage, resulting in plots that celebrated the human rather than the divine and that punctured caste hierarchies.

Typically, these operatic plots, replete with intrigue, reversals of fortune, byzantine complication, and masquerade, valorized human passion and created an idealized form of romantic heroism. While many of the plots featured contemporary characters and subjects, most were based on Greco-Roman sources, given a popular, deflationary, or erotic twist. For instance, Pier Francesco Cavalli's La Callisto (1651), Giacomo Castoreo's Pericle Effeminato (Effeminate Pericles, 1653), and Aurelio Aureli's Alcibiade (1680) utilized ancient Greco-Roman figures or plots to legitimize representations of male and female , although numerous detractors deemed them "immoral."

Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the most renowned composer of early Venetian opera, developed stylistic conventions to express "affections," particularly desire, rage, madness, grief, and despair in both female and male characters alike. The individual, and her overpowering personal emotions and conflicts, was thus culturally valorized through the aesthetic vehicle of musical virtuosity, which could transform madness into sublime or quasi-divine possession.

Such artistically controlled loss of control was featured in operas such as Monteverdi's La Finta Pazza (The Feigned Madness of Licori, 1627), Francesco Manelli's La Maga Fulminata (The Raging Sorceress, 1638), Cavalli's Ercole Amante (Hercules in Love, 1662), and Antonio Vivaldi's Orlando Furioso (Orlando Enraged, 1713), to cite but a few.

That emotion could overwhelm both female and male characters in this new art form contributed to the gender-bending characteristic of opera in the following centuries.

Gender-Bending and Cross-Dressing

From its beginnings, opera has not merely allowed but also in many instances encouraged cross-gendered casting. Although most operatic gender-bending involves women playing male roles, in the earliest operas male singers also at times performed female roles for various reasons, including legal strictures against women performing in public and the vocal ranges of available performers.

For example, in Monteverdi's best known opera, La Favola d'Orfeo (The Fable of Orpheus, 1607), the role of Orpheus, the mythological poet and musician, has been sung by either a soprano or tenor. His later opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1643), which narrates the rise of Poppea from Roman courtesan to empress, features numerous roles that have been sung by either male or female performers.

Poppea's lovers, Ottone and Nero, have been sung by female contraltos, male castrati, or male tenors, as has suited the custom or taste of the time. The comic role of her nurse, Arnalta, conversely, has been more frequently performed by a tenor. The one decidedly male voice in this opera, the philosopher Seneca, is condemned to death, to the great rejoicing of the other characters. (Indeed, opera is antithetical to the stoical self-restraint Seneca championed.)

Such artistically self-conscious gender play also informs the works of eighteenth-century opera composers; for example, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) and Christoph Wilibald Gluck (1714-1787).

This period also witnessed the zenith of castrati, male singers who were castrated before puberty to retain their high tessitura (i.e., high vocal range). Possessing voices of fabled power and angelic purity, such legendary castrati as Senesino, Farinelli, and Caffarelli enthralled audiences and were the eighteenth-century equivalent of international superstars.

However paradoxically, castrati usually played heroic and "masculine" roles as generals, gods, and emperors, although their capacity to transcend conventional gender assignment through their vocal prowess associated the most powerful human beings with the and quasi-divine.

Handel, himself probably gay, remains best-known for his Messiah (1741), but he concentrated much of his artistic energies on distinctly profane operas that took gender-bending and cross-dressing to new heights of confusion.

For instance, the lead role of his Serse (Xerxes, 1738) was originally written for the castrato Caffarelli, while two of the other male characters were played by female mezzo-sopranos. With the eclipse of the castrati, female mezzo-sopranos play the roles originally written for castrati, which means that modern productions of Serse and many other Baroque operas have become, for visual and aural purposes, lesbian romantic and political melodramas.

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Scenes from two operas that featured roles for women playing men:
Top: The Marriage of Figaro (1786) by Amadeus Mozart. Anonymous watercolor.
Above: Der Rosenkavelier by Richard Strauss. This painting of a 1912 performance was created by Ernst Edler.

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