Wednesday, June 23, 2021


Seattle Opera Celebrates Pride Month, Post 2 of 3

Native American transgender tenor Holden Madagame performing with Kiefer Jones at a showcase for Glyndebourne Academy 2017 participants (Sam Stephenson). Learn more about Holden's story in the 

The first queer works to be presented in opera came from the imaginations of white, gay, cisgender men. Now in the 21st century—and largely thanks to individuals and groups such as the Black Opera AllianceDr. Naomi André, among other Black, Indigenous, and PoC professionals—the opera stage is being illuminated as a more liberated space, where QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color) storytelling and artistry can thrive. But at the very beginning of queer operatic representation in the twentieth century—opera emerged as a significant art form in white gay culture.

Some of these first composers and writers to explore queer themes in opera—more or less overtly—included (from right, clockwise) Oscar Wilde, Francis Poulenc, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein, Giancarlo Menotti, and Samuel Barber. In this post we’ll consider the contributions of these men, both back when they had to be extremely discreet, and today, when it’s possible to be more direct. (Also, please check out our blog post about “Looking at opera through a queer lens”!)

Plenty of opera fans (and artists) identified as gay long before it was possible for opera to address queerness directly. In several well-known cases, artists sidestepped their society’s homophobia or closeted nature by creating operas in which female characters carry the emotional experiences of gay men:

Eugene Onegin

Peter Tchaikovsky had reasons other than tormented sexuality for making Eugene Onegin into an opera in 1879. But when he sat down to write the music, it just came pouring out, particularly the music for the passionate Tatyana’s experience of falling head-over-heels in love for the handsome but inaccessible Onegin. He rejects her with, “Sorry, I’m not the marrying kind."

John Moore & Marjukka Tepponen. Sunny Martini photo 

When Tatyana rejects Onegin, in the final scene, it’s another situation all too familiar to gay men who had to live in the closet: “Yes, I loved you once...but I’m married now, and you mustn’t come near me.” Once again, Tchaikovsky’s musical honesty makes this scene thrilling and horrifyingly real.

Nina Warren as Salome, Gary Smuth photo.


Richard Strauss, who composed Salome, didn’t identify as queer, despite his facility at writing gorgeous love music for women (see earlier post). But Oscar Wilde, who wrote the words for this kinkiest of operas, all but initiated modern gay culture. For Wilde, Salome was a bit of a Lord Douglas, the beautiful but heartless boy whose messed-up family situation ended up ruining Wilde—the way Salome’s messed-up family situation destroys the man who momentarily takes her fancy and whose severed head she covers with kisses in the demented final moments of this shocking opera.


Samuel Barber and Giancarlo Menotti met in college and rapidly became a couple. Each wrote operas with other collaborators (and Seattle Opera has also presented Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors and The Consul). Together Barber (the composer) and Menotti (the librettist) collaborated on Vanessa, an opera which won Barber the 1958 Pulitzer Prize for Music. This beautiful composition concerns three generations of women in the same frozen house, all of whom find different unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of wanting ideal love in a deeply flawed world. The creators were, of course, writing about themselves; in fact, their relationship of thirty years ended as Vanessa first came to the stage.

Kimberly Barber (Erika), Sheri Greenawald (Vanessa), and Sheila Nadler (the Countess). Gary Smith photo


For both librettist Jean Cocteau and composer Francis Poulenc, La voix humaine was about a gay man having difficulty ending a relationship. But the only character in the opera is played by a soprano, because even in 1959 these French artists couldn’t put exactly what they were thinking onstage. 

Seattle Opera first presented operas by composers who were open about their sexuality beginning in the ‘70s.

Thomas Pasatieri

This prolific opera composer was a familiar face at Seattle Opera in the days of original General Director Glynn Ross. Pasatieri’s opera Black Widow premiered on our stage in 1972, and four years later we also presented The Seagull, his adapation of Chekov. He also wrote us chamber operas: in 1971, the world premiere of his opera Calvary (based on the verse drama by Yeats) was given at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Medina; and in 1978, the company toured free performances of Pasatieri’s Signor Deluso to Federal Way, Carnation, Bothell, Maple Valley, and Vashon.

Theodore Uppman (Juan), Evelyn Madac (Berta), and Jennie Tourel (Doña Marta) in Black Widow. Des Gates photo

Benjamin Britten

This great English composer (1913-1976) made no secret of his lifelong artistic and personal partnership with the tenor Peter Pears, who sang lead roles in most of Britten’s many operas. At Seattle Opera we’ve presented Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (1973), Peter Grimes (1983), The Turn of the Screw (1994, 2006, and 2018), Billy Budd (2001), and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009).

Christopher Maltman as Billy Budd and Gabor Andrasy as Dansker. Gary Smith photo

The one that got away: Szymanowski’s King Roger

Little-known fact of Seattle Opera history: in 1982 Seattle Opera came very close to presenting the fascinating, beautiful, and queer Polish opera King Roger, by Karol Szymanowski. Alas, “political and financial uncertainties” made it impossible to follow through on plans for this the company put on Madama Butterfly instead.

LGBTQIA2+ opera today:

While certainly not an exhaustive list, below are some of the operas featuring queer opera stories and characters written in the last decade.

Jorell Williams (Hannah before) and Taylor Raven (Hannah after). Rozarii Lynch photo

Before Night Falls, libretto & music Jorge Martín (world premiere 2010, Fort Worth Opera). Based on the Reinaldo Arenas autobiography which inspired the movie.

Paul’s Case, music Gregory Spears, libretto Kathryn Walat (world premiere 2013, UrbanArias). 
A chamber opera based on the 1905 Willa Cather short story.

Champion, music Terence Blanchard, libretto Michael Christofer (world premiere 2013, Opera Theatre St. Louis). A jazz opera about the boxer Emile Griffith.

Oscar, music Theodore Morrison (world premiere 2013, Santa Fe Opera).
An opera starring a countertenor in the role of Oscar Wilde.

Brokeback Mountain, music Charles Wuorinen, libretto Annie Proulx (world premiere 2014, Teatro Real Madrid). Annie Proulx wrote a libretto based on her story, which also inspired the famous movie.

As One, music Laura Kaminsky, libretto Mark Campbell & Kimberly Reed (world premiere 2014, American Opera Projects). Seattle Opera presented this chamber opera, in which a baritone and mezzo play two versions of the same transgender character.

27, music Ricky Ian Gordon, libretto Royce Vavrek (world premiere 2014, Opera Theatre St. Louis). Stephanie Blythe created the role of Gertrude Stein in this opera about the famous writer’s relationship with Alice B. Toklas

Elizabeth Futral as Alice B. Toklas and Stephanie Blythe as Gertrude Stein. Ken Howard photo

Pleasure, music Mark Simpson, libretto Melanie challenger (wp 2016, Opera North). An “eminently theatrical” British chamber opera set in a gay nightclub.

Fellow Travelers, music Gregory Spears, libretto Greg Pierce (world premiere 2016, Cincinnati Opera). A harrowing drama of the McCarthy-era “Lavender scare.”

Les Feluettes, music Kevin March, libretto Michel Marc Bouchard (world premiere 2017, Pacific Opera Victoria). Based on the 1987 play Lilies, which was also made into a powerful Canadian film.

Edward II, music Andrea Scartazzini (wp 2017, Deutsche Oper Berlin). A dark German-language opera inspired by Marlowe’s play about the notorious English king.

, music Rufus Wainwright, libretto Daniel MacIvor (world premiere 2018, Canadian Opera Company). This Orpheus-like opera, by the well-known singer-songwriter, focuses on the Roman Emperor’s grief for his dead beloved Antinous.

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