Wednesday, June 6, 2018

LGBTQ youth respond to O+E

Seattle Opera's O+E offers an important moment of queer and women representation. The performance features two women in a same-sex marriage, and was created by an all-women creative team and cast of principal singers. 
Representation in art matters. When you’re a young person, being able to see a performer onstage with your same skin color or gender identity for example, can be the difference between feeling like part of society, and feeling unwanted by it. In honor of Seattle Opera’s O+E, which tells the story of Orpheus and Eurydice with two women in a same-sex marriage, Seattle Opera invited two LGBTQ youthboth singers in our Teen Vocal Studioto share what it’s like to see themselves represented in opera for the first time.

Naomi O’Neil, 17 
Skyline High School / Bellevue College 
She/her/hers 
A choir singer since fourth grade, Naomi participated in a camp with Seattle Opera’s Programs and Partnerships Department, before joining the Teen Vocal Studio program. The mezzo-soprano has enjoyed various aspects of her time training with Seattle Opera's youth programs; she performed in Robin Hood this past winter, and has recently taken several various masterclasses through the Teen Vocal Studio.



As a member of the LGBTQ community, how often have you felt represented in opera or classic stories? 
I’m a lesbian, and I pretty much never see myself represented. At least, not in opera. Most operas I’ve seen do not have much diversity. It’s a little disheartening, but things are getting better. I have seen more representation in TV, but I feel like gay characters often end up getting killed off. I used to love Supernatural, there was a lesbian character who I really liked, but I stopped watching when she was killed off. Sometimes it seems like Hollywood just adds gay people to their shows, just to have them (and get the viewership). However, these characters rarely get any significant or meaty story of their own.    

Naomi O'Neil 
What would you like to see more of in art and entertainment? 
I want to see more stories written by and created by gay people. If you’re going to tell a story about us, you need to have a gay person working on it so you don’t do something accidentally offensive.

What was the most powerful thing about O+E?
Honestly, it was like a breath of fresh air. It was powerful to see a story about gay people where the narrative wasn’t simply about them being gay or coming out.

Of course, the role of Orpheus is often sung by a woman in a pants role. You get used to seeing a girl playing a guy in opera. It was so refreshing to see a female character just being herself as a woman.

I also thought it was very beautiful—I loved the lighting and costumes (even though I kept hearing the Italian version in my head!).

Do you feel supported in living your truth?
Yes. Of course there are always going to be homophobic people, but I do feel free to be me. I don’t spend too much time at my high school because I do running start. Bellevue College has a wonderful LGBTQ Center, which is so nice because I can’t make it to my school’s GSA. I think also, the power of the Internet has helped LGBTQ youth; it’s given us a community even when we can’t physically be together.

Why is LGBTQ representation important onstage?
Because we grow up seeing straight characters in everything, and that’s what we think of as “normal.” We need to show gay youth that they are also normal.

Natalie Ositis, 16
Shorewood High School
She/her/hers 
A longtime lover of musical theater and all-things theatrical, Natalie has been involved with Seattle Opera for the past four years through various youth camps and performances, most recently, Teen Vocal Studio. Today, she shares this passion with both her father, a former music major in college, and her mom Kim, who works on Seattle Opera’s Development Team. A talented visual artist as well, Natalie looks forward to continuing to carve out her own niche in this world and combining her love of visual and performing arts as she grows up. 

As a member of the LGBTQ community, how often have you felt represented in opera or classic stories? 
I identify as pansexual—I don’t have a preference based on sex or how someone identifies gender-wise. For me, it’s more about how I connect with that person. Also, I’m pretty butch. Opera often lacks representation—you’re definitely not going to find many LGBT characters in older works, at least.

Natalie Ositis flanked by two cast members from Seattle Opera's Hansel and Gretel: Marcy Stonikas and Mark Walters.  


What was the most powerful thing about O+E in your view? 
The fact that O and E are in love, but this is portrayed as if being a gay couple is the most normal thing in the world—is powerful, and unfortunately, not something you see everyday. A lot of the time, when you see a gay couple in a story, their gayness is the whole point. In O+E, the focus is on a functioning, loving couple. That was very encouraging. Other moments that stuck out—it was so powerful when Eurydice comes out in a veil—you think it’s going to be a wedding dress, but she’s actually wearing pants. She was so beautiful and confident.

When Seattle Opera presented As One, some of our gay and trans community partners said that people your age are living their identities with a freedom they admire and wish that they’d had.

What do you think about that? Do you see young people getting to be themselves today?  
It really depends on where you are. For me—I’ve been immensely lucky. I live in an accepting community with really awesome parents and great, like-minded friends. Some of my friends live in more conservative environments—they have to find other ways to express themselves. In general, we are definitely living in a much more accepting time, though. We would not be here as an LGBTQ community without the passion and hard work of those who came before us. Their steps have formed the basis of why people like me can have a good life, and that’s something I’m really grateful for.

How was this opera different than other operas you’ve seen?
Seeing a performance in the round was cool, because there’s usually a degree of separation between the performers and the audience. Performed in the round, you get to be a lot more intimate with the performers. One thing I noticed with the Orpheus—the movement of her hands, the way she portrayed emotion waiting hunched over the chair. She turned her wedding ring over in her hand in anticipation—it made it feel more real.

Why do you think other young folks would like O+E?
Because it feels genuine. You can connect with the performers on an emotional, and even spiritual level. I think the modern setting makes it easier for young people to identify. The story line was an emotional roller coaster: brief comedic moments. Joy. Sadness. You can't help but get invested. It was an experience I'll never forget.

Magda Gartner (O) and Tess Altiveros (E) in Seattle Opera's O+E. Philip Newton photo
Seattle Opera's O+E runs through June 10. 
Tickets & info: seattleopera.org/oande

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