LGBT Opera Retrospective: How Similar Is The Opera World To Hollywood In Terms of Representation?

By Francisco Salazar

Over the past years, the movie industry has been calling for more diversity in its films due to a lack fo representation. That representation has slowly been increasing and it was seen this year when the Academy decided to invite more minorities to its organization. However, in a recent study that GLAAD released, it was evident that the progress has not been seen in LGBT representation in film.

The study that GLAAD conducted showed that out of 125 top films of 2016, only 18.3% of films included LGBT characters and the majority came from smaller boutique distributors. While the study did say that there was progress with the recent “Beauty and the Beast” and “Power Rangers” movies, it is evident that this is still in an issue in the film industry.

You may ask what this has to do with opera? Well, it’s simple. As OperaWire worked to celebrate the month of Pride (which has officially ended in the USA but is continuing internationally), we were interested in knowing how many LGBT characters were represented in opera and if major theaters were taking risks in presenting these works. Our first step was to contact GLAAD, the leading LGBT organization that works to share stories about the LGBT community in entertainment, news, and digital media with the aim of accelerating acceptance. OperaWire’s intention was to see if GLAAD had ever conducted such a study or looked to the performing arts to see if the numbers were any different.

Unfortunately, the results were quite disappointing. GLAAD has never conducted such a study. As much as film and TV are important to pop culture, opera is an art form that has been part of the culture for longer and one that continues to live on around the world. More and more companies are popping up around the United Stated alone and have been challenging audiences with diverse works. The Metropolitan Opera is also bringing opera to a global world as well as other theaters with their movie theater live streams. So it was surprising that GLAAD had never looked to other performing arts.

But my bringing this up is not to attack GLAAD. The following step was to look at companies that presented LGBT opera and saw that many smaller companies were starting to find a way to include them. One such company that started to engage these works was the New York City Opera. The company started an initiative to celebrate Pride presenting an LGBT work every June starting with “Angels in America” and will follow it up with “Brokeback Mountain” next year. It also made an unprecedented move, which was to participate in the Pride parade, a move no other major New York opera companies, except for the Indie company OperaRox, made. It followed the Kennedy Center, which also took part in the parade, a few weeks before.

But what were other companies doing? The Teatro Real and the Royal Opera House made their voices heard hanging the rainbow flag, but the question was how many of these companies were actually showing an LGBT opera this season. The answer was very few. To celebrate is one thing and it is important that these companies show their support and integration, but it is also important to showcase queer art, particularly when so many great singers have identified as LGBT.

As Griffin Candey, composer of the LGBT opera “Sweets by Kate,” noted, “LGBTQ operas are important because LGBTQ people are important. We all support an artistic form that purports to tell human stories.  LGTBQ individuals are humans. They have stories — and yes, many stories of oppression, certainly, but also so, so much more than that: colorful and palpable stories, stories of regret and renewal, stories of mistrust and fulfillment, of love, of community and support.”

The Major Companies

If an opera lover was to place the top five opera companies in the world, they would easily say the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera, the Teatro alla Scala and Bayerische Staatsoper. Then there are other important houses like the Teatro Real, the Opéra de Paris, the Liceu, the Berlin State Opera, and Dresden. All these houses are looked at by most regular opera goers as the go-tos and the ones people foreign to opera make sure to visit when they are touring the world. These are the houses that also have the most influence.

So when one looks at the upcoming 2017-18 seasons and finds that there are barely any LGBT works on the schedule, it shows a lack of progress or a lack of interest. After all, the last time the Metropolitan Opera showed a full LGBT work was in 2013 when Nico Muhly’s opera “Two Boys” made its U.S premiere.  The company did show “Lulu,” which has a lesbian character, in 2015 but since then the company has yet to showcase any LGBT operas to its audience.

The Teatro Real had the world premiere of “Brokeback Mountain” and the Bayerische Staatsoper famously went against the norm with a homosexual production of Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin.” But not much progress has been made since.

So where have many of the LGBT works premiered? Many of the major works have been produced at prominent companies like the San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Washington National Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Philadelphia Opera, Santa Fe, the Chatelet in Paris, France, Lincoln Center Festival and BAM. The Lyric Opera of Chicago will be showing “Fellow Travellers” in its upcoming season and it is also slated for a New York premiere. And while all these theaters are important, simply put, they don’t have the same international audience that something like La Scala or the Met have. Many don’t have the Live in Cinemas Series, which is a powerful tool to get these diverse stories out to the world.  

The Independents

But let’s not undermine their efforts because these regional and national companies do have the power to make a difference and they are by presenting these works. 

As Candey noted, “Large companies whose seasons remain flooded with operas about white, heterosexual, cisgender couples struggle to procure young and diverse audiences. Small companies that often reimagine those same warhorses alongside new works that in every way imaginable represent communities of color, the LGBTQ community and other stories of current sociopolitical import often wind up neck-deep in the young and diverse audience.  I know that correlation doesn’t always imply causation, but the contrast is pretty stark.”

And progress is being made all over. The American Opera Projects is one place to look as it seeks to “curate American Works to put alongside the great masters of the past,” said Charles Jarden, the general director of American Opera Projects, in a recent conversation with OperaWire.

The American Opera Projects is an organization that works as a contemporary opera movement, commissioning, developing, presenting, and producing opera and music theater projects, collaborating with young, rising, and established artists. “Whenever we’ve had the opportunity of doing an opera that deals with social justice or issues or outside experiences, we’ve hopped on it. We have a bias on topics that stand on their own in this day and age.” Jarden said.

The organization had a huge breakout in 1998 when “Patience and Sarah” premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival.  The opera by Paula Kimper and Wendy Persons was headlined as the first Lesbian-themed opera and was very big because it “showed a lot of AOP’s strengths. We staked a claim that we wanted to do opera’s that had relevance and made an impact on contemporary issues.”

And that opera opened the door for AOP to continue to explore LGBT works. Among the works that they have been responsible for are “Before Night Falls,” which was recently performed at the Florida Grand Opera, “Legendary,” currently in development, “Three Way” and Greg Spear’s “Paul’s Case,” a work that showcased at the Prototype Festival.

And one of the most successful LGBT works they were responsible for was “As One.” The Trans-themed chamber opera has now been shown in over 20 different productions since its premiere in 2014 and next season it will be shown at the San Diego Opera, Anchorage Opera and Des Moines Metro Opera among others.

A Change 

Back in the 90s, LGBT works were hard to come across in opera. Part of the problem was that most companies only presented large works and other companies were worried about their older audiences not attending cutting-edge works. “It was a subject matter that was difficult and we had our door slammed,” Jarden noted.

But it was thanks to Houston, San Francisco, and Chicago, among others, that led the way for more acceptance. There was also a new trend – the regional companies started to program on alternate stages. Not only were they presenting their main staged works but finding new intimate spaces for performances.

And companies like AOP started riding that wave. “We were developing more chamber operas than grand operas. We would tell our creators a parameter of space for them to work.” And with companies opening up the possibility, AOP was able to find room for an LGBT opera like “As One.” The companies who once refused due to audience now had a way of showcasing opera to new audiences while still keeping to their missions.

But as Jarden noted, “The fact that we were creating a piece with a lot of flexibility was the success that we needed.”

The Challenges and the Future 

But there is a challenge that persists with modern works, particularly LGBT works. Aside from the chamber operas obtaining success, the bigger grand operas are harder to place and are often times not seen after their respective world premieres or after a couple of productions.

European audiences are still not getting these works as the operas are not translating to these theaters. “One and a half out of ten operas produced actually get to Europe and that is a problem. Even Tobias Picker, who has many successes in Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera, has not been very popular in Europe. It’s really hard,” Jarden said.  Nico Muhly’s opera “Two Boys” had its world premiere at the English National Opera but never returned while “Brokeback Mountain” has had better stay with three productions so far and a U.S premiere coming soon. However, there are no European productions planned in the next few years.

But Jarden believes that if it is a good product it can arrive on the international scene. Out composer Greg Spears has an upcoming opera “Wolf in Skin” that deals with LGBT and Welsh themes. “The Welsh National Opera knows about the work and is interested in it so he is looking for the next samples of how it is being developed.”

Ultimately, however, LGBT works seem to have a better chance on alternate spaces and will have more community engagement in these venues because they are more casual, less stuffy and attract younger audiences.

However, the question that continues to remain is whether or not bigger houses will ever embrace these LGBT works as they do other modern operas. Only time will tell, but like the film industry, it is up to the little guys to tell these stories and create an impact that could eventually change the landscape.


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