While I am interested in examining issues that make our standard operas problematic in current times and how we can present them in new and exciting ways, I also am interested in new works that better meet present day expectations for equity. In recent years, many works that feature LGBTQ+ representation have emerged onto the operatic stage. Since it is Pride month, what better time to explore five operas you should know that tell queer stories?
FRIDA- Frida is an opera that premiered in Philadelphia in 1991 and is based on the life of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo. The opera, composed by American composer Robert Xavier Rodríguez, with texts by Hilary Blecher and Migdalia Cruz, has enjoyed productions in recent years by Cincinnati Opera and Long Beach Opera. The work explores the life of Kahlo, who though she spent most of her life in a tumultuous marriage with a man, is known to have identified as a bisexual. She is seen as an icon to many in the LGBTQ+ community, as her work especially is known to eschew conformity and stereotypical gender roles.
Of the 2017 Long Beach Opera production, Julie Riggot of CultureSpotLA wrote that Frida was “an opera as colorful as artist Frida Kahlo’s life and work” that “explores the passion and pain and beauty of an important artist.”
This is an excerpt from that Long Beach production featuring mezzo-soprano Laura Virella as Frida.
AS ONE- As One is an opera by Laura Kaminsky with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, which premiered in 2014, and follows the story of Hannah as they discover their gender identity. The two-part chamber opera is scored for string quartet, baritone (Hannah Before), and mezzo-soprano (Hannah After) and marks many of the important steps during Hannah’s coming-of-age.
Opera News called the opera “a piece that haunts and challenges its audience with questions about identity, authenticity, compassion and the human desire for self-love and peace."
Below is an excerpt from the world premiere production by American Opera Projects featuring singers Kelly Markgraf and Sasha Cooke.
FELLOW TRAVELERS- Fellow Travelers is an opera written by Gregory Spears with a libretto by Greg Pierce. The opera is based on Thomas Mallon’s 2007 novel, and tells the McCarthy era story of love affair between two men working for the federal government at the height of the “Lavender Scare.”
I had the great fortune of seeing this work during its world premiere run at Cincinnati Opera in 2016. There have been subsequent performances of the work by Lyric Opera of Chicago, Minnesota Opera, Arizona Opera and Boston Lyric Opera, with upcoming productions scheduled by Des Moines Metro Opera and Opera Columbus.
In review of the Cincinnati premiere, the New York Times proclaimed, “with its smart music and sharp-edged romantic drama, Fellow Travelers seems assured of lasting appeal."
Below baritone Joseph Lattanzi sings “Our Very Own Home” in the 2013 workshop performance of the piece. The premiere production is also available in a live cast recording.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN- Brokeback Mountain, which premiered in 2014, is an opera composed by American composer Charles Wuorinen. The libretto was written by Annie Proulx, and is an adaptation of her own 1997 short story.
In a 2014 feature in Opera News, Wuorinen said that he “was inspired by the operatic possibilities” of the story after seeing the Academy Award winning film of the same name by Ang Lee.
The opera, originally planned for New York City Opera, took place at Teatro Real in Madrid. Additional performances have taken place at the Salzburger Landestheater and New York City Opera.
Enjoy this clip from the original Madrid production featuring Daniel Okulich as Ennis del Mar and Tom Randle as Jack Twist.
STONEWALL- Stonewall is an opera commissioned by the New York City Opera, which premiered in 2019, in conjunction with NYC World Pride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The opera is composed by Iain Bell with a libretto by Mark Campbell.
In an interview with the Gay City News, NYCO General Director Michael Capasso said that “When I realized that the City Opera 75th anniversary and the Stonewall 50th celebration coincided, it was a no-brainer.”
In the same interview, composer Iain Bell said he sought to create characters “based on the diverse people I’ve had the privilege to know and love as a gay man who has lived in downtown New York for several decades.”
Also interviewed was librettist Mark Campbell, who said, “I’d like nothing more than the LGBTQ+ community to embrace “Stonewall” as our opera. I’d also love for straight people to understand that our fight is their fight and that every one of the LGBTQ+ characters in the opera are their children, their friends, their parents.”
Here is a highlights video from the premiere production at New York City Opera.
The following was printed as a program note for Opera at USC's Winter 2020 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel at the University of South Carolina.
Is there a place for Carousel in our cultural life in 2020? With the #MeToo movement and the Women’s Marches at the forefront of our consciousness can we be comfortable watching a relic of a different time where abuse and the subjugation of women was not only often accepted but sometimes even excused? As with many dated but celebrated works of music theater and opera, the gender conventions are so baked into the core of this work, is it possible to present this work in a way that will be acceptable to a modern audience? The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 3 women have suffered some sort of physical violence at the hands of an intimate partner. Is that something we feel comfortable representing on stage when statistically there will be those among us in the audience that could have a personally triggered reaction to the work? At the same time, is there a way to honor these works in spite of our current “cancel culture” to preserve a piece that was once hailed by Time magazine to be the best musical of the 20th century?
We don’t have to look far in the performance history of this Golden Age musical to find artists grappling with this issue. Carousel had a Tony nominated revival on Broadway in 2018, as many of the stories to come out of “Me Too” movements were splashed across the headlines. In a 2018 interview with Entertainment Weekly, Broadway star Jesse Mueller who was nominated for a Tony for her performance as Julie Jordan expressed her feeling that it was “really important” to tell this story at this time because “the piece doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of the subject matter, the difficulty of the violence and that it’s hard to swallow.” Mueller went on to say that for her the show is more about “love and forgiveness and redemption.” After all, a great story is built on sharing the human experience, which Mueller points out, includes many complexities such as pain and suffering amongst the love and joy.
The producers of the revival obviously shared Mueller’s focus, even choosing to eliminate some of the lines that prove to be the hardest pills to swallow. Julie making excuses for Billy’s abuse leads their daughter Louise to accept such behavior as part of love. Louise asks, “Has it ever happened to you? Has anyone ever hit you- without hurtin’?” Julie affirmatively answers “It is possible, dear, fer someone to hit you- hit you hard- and not hurt at all.” Both of these lines were removed from the 2018 revival, even though the discomfort of the violence remains.
This is an issue that producers in music theater and opera are grappling with and will continue to do so. How do we continue to share popular works such as Carousel or Bizet’s Carmen, but still respect a greater cultural awareness? How do we present these works with integrity, while educating and inspiring our audiences towards a better future that we all hope and dream of? Are there lessons to be learned in our own discomfort? Just as Billy Bigelow seeks redemption in the end, can these jewels of our theater and operatic canon find redemption for perceived flaws in their story lines to maintain their place in our art form? Only time and our willingness to push our creative limits will tell.
MassOpera in Boston, MA is building on their past success with their New Opera Workshop (NOW) in launching what they refer to as a “re-envisioned” iteration of the initiative in partnership with OperaHub. This partnership aims to support the development of “new chamber operas that reflect and examine our current world, or hope for the future.” They are now accepting submissions of applications until July 15th for the opportunity to be part of a three stage development process of a chamber opera. The workshop process will pay special attention to the drafting and development of the libretto, the musical development of the work, and ultimately will see the work through to its premiere and publication.
The mission requires a commitment to “exploring innovative ways of storytelling” and requires “a majority of roles be for women, including a broad variety of roles for diverse women.” The most exciting part of this initiative is NOW’s desire to discover “underrepresented” voices in the operatic community that have an interest to “tell unconventional stories about women and minorities, or stories that can be told by a variety of performers regardless of singer identity or physical appearance.”
This mission is important as opera continues to struggle with gender parity and elevating minority voices.
More information on the project and how to apply can be found at: