Exploring Three Operas Based on LGBTQ+ Relationships from History

By John Vandevert

Over the years, opera has come to embody an artform that represents all shades of the human experience. 

From the traditional to the abstract, every form of love that can be expressed on earth has come to the operatic stage to live. One of those shades is the love shared between those belonging to the LGBT+ community. Some of the best contemporary operas of our time like Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and Charles Wuorinen’s “Brokeback Mountain” have depicted and dealt with the complexities of the community. 

However, during the 1970s composers like Alban Berg in his 1979 opera “Lulu” were already showcasing the LGBTQ+ community to audiences. Flash forward to the 2010s and operas such as Mark Simpson’s night-club themed opera “Pleasure,” Matthew Aucoin’s “Crossing,” and the four-part “Stonewall Operas” have helped not only normalize but uplift and celebrate the presence of LGBTQ+ themes on the operatic stage.

Most recently, in 2022 the new opera “I have missed you forever” commissioned by The Dutch National Opera took a look at “queer” relationships from an innovative yet entirely human perspective. Additionally, in 2019 the opera “As One,”  a project by American Opera Project, was the first of its kind to deal with transgenderism through opera.

Despite all of these fascinating achievements, there are three operas which stand apart from the rest, whose subject matter deals with gay themes through a historical lens. So to kick off LGBTQ+ month, here is a look at those works.  

Young Caesar (1970)

One of the earliest operas to talk about queerness within the ancient world, composer and theorist Lou Harrison’s second and final opera “Young Caesar” brought a rarely talked about period of history to light. Although best-known for his work in popularizing gamelan music in America and his experiments with microtonality, different tuning systems, and unifying corporeal experiences in music, he was also one of the first to openly include LGBTQ+ themes in opera at a time when being gay was still a condemnable phenomenon. As an openly gay man, Harrison had used his “coming out” as a political act against war in the 1940s during WW2. Shortly after, he wanted to write an opera that explored gay themes.

As a leader in blending Eastern and Western musical traditions, Harrison was attracted towards the relationship between Caesar and Nicomedes IV Philopator, then ruler of Bithynia (present-day Northern Anatolia in Turkey). In 80. B.C.E, Caesar had gone to Bithynia in order to create a fleet there but after spending an elongated amount of time there, rumors began spreading of a gay romance. Denying the rumors, what actually happened is unknown. Yet, one of Nicomedes’ last acts as ruler was to give his entire kingdom to Bithynia. Conceived of as a puppet opera, or puppets against an illuminated background, with gamelan instrumentation, the opera was a representation of the unification of two entirely different worlds. Disregarding the expectations required of him, the opera depicts Caesar as someone who allowed himself to follow the veins of love rather than duty.

Hadrian (2018)

The ancient world had an entirely different worldview on love as both ruler and private citizen were open with who they loved. In Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor’s 2018 opera “Hadrian,” the first century Roman ruler Hadrian, best known for solidifying Rome’s power and building “Hadrian’s Wall,” focuses on the relationship between Hadrian and his lover Antinous. By all accounts, their relationship was mighty. Having first met in Claudiopolis during Hadrian’s tour through the empire, the pair instantly fell in love due to Hadrian’s fondness for Antinous’ intelligence and sagacity. Together, they traveled for many years throughout the Roman world.  By 130, the relationship had become somewhat rocky as Antinous was growing up. Soon after, under suspicious circumstances, Antinous had died, with some speculating it was a sacrifice, accident, or something else entirely.

In Wainwright and MacIvor’s opera, this complex yet highly impassioned romance is explored through the dynamic love and equally dynamic depression Hadrian felt when Antinous died. As the main lovers, baritone Thomas Hampson and tenor Isaiah Bell were cast, with Hadrian’s formal wife Vibia Sabina being sung by Canadian soprano Ambur Braid. The four-act opera focuses on the last days of Hadrian’s life and the mythical choice of Antinous to become a “savior” for the people of Rome. Critics were pleased with the opera but were unhappy that the music was not powerful enough to be memorable.

Lessons in Love and Violence (2018)

Based on the contested relationship between King Edward II of Britain and Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall as told by English playwright Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 play, George Benjamin’s opera, with a libretto by Martin Crimp,  takes an intimate look into the ways in which their relationship unfolded. The opera foregrounds the demonization of the relationship, one which historically was far more brotherly than overtly gay as history has cemented, based upon the King’s failure to take care of his people. If one looks into the origins of the relationship as told by Marlowe, one comes to see that Medieval reactions toward gay men was one of malice, religiously-motivated condemnation, fears of feminization, and distrust of “compromised” leadership.

As Marlowe’s play tells us, the relationship between Edward II and Gaveston was a highly complex and not entirely well-understood dynamic, then and now. One the one end, the more religious saw it as akin to sodomy and punishable by death, whereas others saw it as a “queer brotherhood” which represented the reduction of Britain’s power to the invading forces of Ireland. But the underlying theme in the story is one of homophobia and the fear of having one’s identity found out and exposed for all to see. Mortimer, the one responsible for the torture and killing of Edward II and Gaveston, was eventually overthrown by Edward III, and is included in Benjamin’s operatic telling of events. The opera was praised by critics, although argued to be too similar to his earlier opera, “Written on Skin.”


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