Sunday, June 20, 2021



Hanna Hipp (Isolier) and Sarah Coburn (Adele). 

When Lindy Hume directed Rossini’s 1828 opera Count Ory at Seattle Opera in 2016, gender fluidity was a key element of the production, evident in the big hair and crotch-hugging costumes reminiscent of 1970s glam rock. In the trousers role of Isolier, Hanna Hipp’s androgyny was especially striking. Her steamier moments with Adele (Sarah Coburn) suggested a queer romance between a princess and a more feminine David Bowie à la Labyrinth

“Seattle Opera’s new production of Rossini’s final comic opera is about the fluidity of gender, how we often don’t look like who we are, the vicissitudes of lust, and the lengths people go to get in the sack with someone,” wrote Rebecca Brown in The Stranger. 

Composers like Rossini and Mozart undoubtedly enjoyed a little transgressive frisson when creating trouser roles in operatic rom-coms like Count Ory or The Marriage of Figaro. But they likely had no idea what these characters might come to mean to viewers centuries later. In a time where people are living increasingly more liberated lives in terms of both gender expression and sexual orientation, the possibilities of queerness on the opera stage are endless—both through retellings of traditional operas and through new work.

In a forthcoming blog post we’ll return to this question of new work. For now, let’s consider ‘standard rep,’ especially those characters and scenes written for all to enjoy, but which can have special resonance for opera lovers who exist outside the gender binary, as well as the LGBTQIA2+ community. 

A new generation of queer, trans, and non-binary artists and storytellers bring their own lived experiences to classic opera characters. “I absolutely think Carmen is bi- or pansexual, at least that's my interpretation of the character,” said mezzo soprano Jamie Barton, an outspoken bisexual opera singer. “I'd love to see a major opera company stage an Orfeo where the Orfeo is a lesbian rather than a pants role. And I'd *love* to see that female Orfeo be super butch, too ... Why do all women on stage in romantic roles have to be of the femme variety?” 

Here’s a look at some ways that opera has traditionally explored both gender expression and queer romance. 

The Lovesick Androgynous Youth

 “Trousers roles,” where a singer, usually a mezzo soprano, plays a young man, are a beloved gender-expansive tradition in opera. In comedy, usually for reasons of plot, the opera’s creators play with the art of drag (an art form where a person dresses in clothing and makeup meant to exaggerate a specific gender identity, usually of the opposite sex.) Trouser roles often include a type of “double drag”—where the mezzo playing a young man dresses up as a woman in the story. 

In Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, much of the comic shenanigans derive from the antics of Cherubino, a hormone-addled teenage boy sung by a mezzo-soprano. His out-of-control libido and accident-prone highjinks remind all of us how disorienting—and wonderful—young love can be.

Nuccia Focile as Susanna & Karin Mushegain as Cherubino. Jacob Lucas photo

One operatic descendent of Cherubino is Isolier, the mezzo-soprano page boy to Rossini’s wicked Count Ory. In the comic climaxes of both The Marriage of Figaro and Count Ory, lecherous aristocrat and lovesick youth both think they’re kissing the soprano in the dark, but end up smooching each other.
Another beloved opera character who derives from Cherubino is Octavian, the Marschallin’s mezzo-soprano boy-toy in the opening scene of Der Rosenkavalier. He goes on a date in Act 3 with the appalling Baron Ochs, but is really torn between the two sopranos in this opera. No one could write love music for soprano and mezzo like Richard Strauss; listen for the stars sparkling in the eyes of the young lovers, in Rosenkavalier’s famous “Presentation of the Rose” scene. 

Angelika Kirchschlager as Octavian and Jane Giering-DeHaan as Sophie.

The Tenor/Baritone “Friendship Duet” 

In traditional French opera, tenors and baritones tend to share a special intimacy, often signified in a powerful love duet. In these scenes the intense devotion of the characters isn’t necessarily sexual. But it certainly can be played or interpreted as a kind of marriage. Here are some of our favorites:

Orestes & Pylades
These best buds from ancient Greece end up in a sticky situation in Gluck’s masterpiece, Iphigénie en Tauride: one of them is going to have to be sacrificed to the cruel gods of the barbarians who’ve captured the pair. In their duet, they argue over which one gets the honor of laying down his life to save his friend. “Let me die for you!” “No, I must die for you!” (Never fear, all works out well, thanks to a timely deus ex machina by the butch goddess Diana. Eighteenth-century operas always had happy endings!) 

William Burden as Pylades and Brett Polegato as Orestes. Bill Mohn photo

Don Carlos & Rodrigue
In Verdi’s French masterpiece Don Carlos, tenor and baritone pledge their devotion to one another in thrilling music which will return to break our hearts later on, when the baritone dies so that the tenor he loves so much can live.

Vinson Cole as Don Carlos and William Stone as Rodrigue. Gary Smith photo 

Nadir & Zurga 
Bizet may be better-known for Carmen, but in The Pearl Fishers he gave that old French tradition of the tenor-baritone love duet new life with the hugely popular and gorgeous Pearl Fishers duet, “Au fond du temple saint.” The eroticism in this music describes the bond of two friends who vow that no woman will come between them; they swear to stay true to each other until death. (Never swear a vow like that in Act 1, it’s almost guaranteed to get broken by the time we get to Act 3...)

Vinson Cole as Nadir and Jason Howard as Zurga. Greg Eastman photo

The Affectionate Youthful Sidekick 

Modern terminology about sexual orientation didn’t exist before the twentieth century; there wasn’t really any such thing as “gay” as we know it today in the worlds of Verdi, Wagner, and Bizet. But there were plenty of same-sex partnerships and affiliations. It wasn’t uncommon to find sentimental or affectionate relationships between adult men and attractive youths in their circle. When opera represents these situations, those younger figures tend to be portrayed by female singers. 

Terri Richter as Oscar cradles Vinson Cole as Gustavo. Gary Smith photo
Gustavus & Oscar
In Un ballo in maschera, Verdi dramatized the 1792 assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden, who (according to some historians) was gay in real life. Verdi’s opera characterizes the king as “gay” in the old-fashioned sense of the word, i.e. too interested in parties, mirth, and frivolity for his dour and severe courtiers to take him seriously. In the opera, the king also has a fun-loving page-boy sidekick, Oscar (played by high soprano), inspired by the attractive young “favorites” associated with the real-life Gustavus.

Hoffmann & Nicklausse
Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann was assembled from several tales by the real-life E.T.A. Hoffmann, one of the great German Romantic writers. But one thing the French creators of the opera added, that doesn’t have any source in the real writer’s life or work, is the gender-bending character portrayed by the mezzo. She begins and ends the opera, in the form of the Muse, the goddess to whom Hoffmann ultimately belongs; but she accompanies him throughout his mad adventures in the form of Nicklausse, a schoolboy who seems to be Hoffmann’s intern, or devoted companion, and who (in his/her Act 2 “Violin aria”) sings one of the great show-stopper arias:

Helene Schneidermann as Nicklausse and Vinson Cole as Hoffmann

Lohengrin & the Swan
Wagner’s Lohengrin marries a soprano, but that marriage is never consummated. Instead, the hero sings just as tenderly to the swan who transports him back and forth to the ideal, pure world from whence he comes—a swan who turns out to be his bride’s younger brother, an ensorcelled prince. This complex dynamic made Lohengrin the favorite opera of Wagner’s young patron King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Ludwig was a tragic character, torn between same-sex desires and a yearning for innocence and purity. The fantasy-world of Wagner’s operas became, for Ludwig, a refuge from an increasingly impossible real world. Wagner’s efforts to take advantage of the king’s obsession with his operas made the composer many enemies in Ludwig’s court, including homophobes who deplored the young king’s fondness for his much older court composer. After a year or two, and a tremendous scandal arising from Wagner’s burgeoning relationship with Cosima, Ludwig had to banish the composer from Munich. After his early death, Ludwig became a kind of martyred hero for the first generation of men to identify as gay.

Albert Bonnema as Lohengrin.

When Women Blend their Voices 

Opera’s wonderful baritone-tenor duets can have special significance for queer listeners, as can these great “women power” passages in which soprano and mezzo join their voices to astonishing effect.

Lakmé & Mallika
The feminine answer to Bizet’s beloved Pearl Fishers duet is surely the gorgeous “Flower Duet” from Lakmé, by Léo Délibes, sung by a Hindu priestess and her attendant as they canoe out into the jungle to collect lotus blossoms. In these Orientalist operas, where white Europeans concocted sexual, exoticized fantasies about peoples and cultures they knew nothing about, everything takes on an extra layer of sensuality. Throughout the years, many have assumed these two are as intimate as their vocal lines, says Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean.

Kathleen Hegierski as Mallika and Lisa Saffer as Lakmé. Gary Smith photo

The Countess & Susanna
One of the most sensual passages in any Mozart opera is the “Letter Duet” sung in the third act of The Marriage of Figaro by the Countess and her friend and employee Susanna. But this sensuality is a hoax, as befits a comedy. Susanna is taking dictation from the Countess, writing a mash note promising the Count a midnight assignation in the garden with Susanna. But the Countess intends to go in Susanna’s place, disguised, so she can catch her husband in the act of cheating on her. This moment of female solidarity is the turning point of The Marriage of Figaro. Up to this point, the Countess and Susanna have been trusting Figaro to plan a trap for the Count. But in this scene the two women activate their wonder-twin powers, and both husbands will learn an important lesson about who’s really on top in these marriages.

Sheri Greenawald as the Countess and Cynthia Haymon as Susanna. Matthew McVay photo

Semele & Ino
George Frideric Handel, himself a hero to queer opera-goers (even though very little is known about the composer’s love life), wrote a phenomenally gorgeous duet for soprano and mezzo for the climax of the second act of his Semele. It’s another crazily complex situation, in which man-woman sexual passion, love between siblings, rivalry, jealousy, hubris, humility, and divine love all get churned up together. Handel includes musical pastiches of his great predecessors Monteverdi and Purcell in this scene.

Seattle Opera's Semele. Elise Bakketun photo

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