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.