Pride Month 2017: A Look At The LGBT Operas In History

By Francisco Salazar

June marks the start of Pride Month, a month dedicated to commemorating the Stonewall riots, which occurred at the end of June 1969. As a result, many pride events occur to honor the achievements of LGBT individuals.

This month OperaWire will also dedicate a section to honoring LGBT individuals, operas, and achievements. It is our goal to bring visibility to works that have long been neglected and that need to be brought to the forefront and which showcase underrepresented individuals.

To start, let us take a look at the works that have showcased LGBT individuals and have put their stories front and center.


Composed in 1935, “Lulu” is recognized for its challenging subject matter and its complex characters. It is also recognized for having one of the first openly lesbian characters in opera. Countess Geschwitz is in love with Lulu and follows her until her imminent death. It is a somber role but one that mezzos have really enjoyed playing and one that sheds light on underrepresented characters.

Patience and Sarah

The opera is seen as the first mainstream gay-themed opera. Composed by Paula M. Kimper and written by librettist Wende Persons, the opera is based on the novel of the same name by Isabel Miller. Not only was the opera the first mainstream LGBT work, but it was the first opera to feature a lesbian love story. The opera was formally commissioned by American Opera Projects, which presented readings of the work in development from 1994 to 1996 before a semi-staged final version was performed in 1996. The opera made its world premiere on July 8, 1998, as part of the Lincoln Center Festival and has since been performed numerous time including at the New York Fest during Pride week.

Angels in America

Inspired by the classic play by Tony Kushner, Peter Eötvös and Mari Mezei adapted the work for the opera stage. “Angels in America” is a two-part drama that examines the AIDS epidemic and the internal and external battles of LGBT life in America in the 1980s, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, history and the present. The opera was first heard in 2004 in the Théâtre du Châtelet and has since been seen all around the world, including at Fort Worth Opera. As part of the LGBT initiative, the work will receive its New York premiere at the New York City Opera.

Before Night Falls

Written by Jorge Martín and Dolores M. Koch, “Before Night Falls” is based on the famous memoir of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas. The opera follows Arenas’s life from childhood poverty in the Cuban countryside to his emigration to the United States in the 1980 Mariel boatlift and his last decade suffering from AIDS in New York City. Disillusioned by the Cuban Revolution and persecuted by the Castro regime as a dissident writer and homosexual, Arenas suffered as a political prisoner forced to smuggle his manuscripts abroad for publication. The opera that depicts his trials and tribulations was developed by American Opera Projects and made its world premiere in 2010 at Fort Worth Opera, where it scored rave reviews. It was later seen at Florida Grand Opera.


Theodore Morrison and John Cox’s opera based on the writings of Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries chronicles Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for “gross indecency.” The opera, which had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in 2013, was a vehicle for David Daniels, who is also openly gay and who later brought the work to Opera Philadelphia in a revised version. One of the interesting characteristics of the work was the use of a dancer to play Oscar’s lover, something that was off-putting to some but that ultimately created a haunting effect for audiences.

Brokeback Mountain 

Everyone knows the 2005 movie, which went on to win critical acclaim and three Academy Awards. However, unless you are an opera lover, you may know little about the 2014 opera by  Charles Wuorinen, with a libretto in English by the tale’s original author, Annie Proulx. Originally commissioned in 2008 by the New York City Opera, the work eventually premiered in 2014 at the Teatro Real de Madrid, where it received mixed reviews. However, it was still filmed and released on DVD thanks to Bel Air Classique. It was brought over to Germany in 2016, where it played in Aachen. A chamber version for 24 players was commissioned by the Salzburger Landestheater in 2016, directed by Jacopo Spirei and conducted by Adrian Kelly. The opera next goes to New York, where it will finally be performed by the New York City Opera.

As One 

This is considered the first transgender opera, composed by Laura Kaminsky and written by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed. The work was commissioned by American Opera Projects and follows the story of Hannah as she goes through her transformation. The opera is a series of 16 vignettes divided into Hannah Before and Hannah After and is written for a string quartet. The opera made its world premiere in 2014 at BAM and has since been performed by the Long Beach Opera, Seattle Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and the New Orleans Opera. It is expected to play at the San Diego Opera. 

Sweets by Kate

Considered the second opera with lesbian lovers ever written, Griffin Candey created a comic chamber work that follows Elizabeth, who must return to the small town that shunned her 12 years before when her father dies. Amidst the outwardly cheery glow of the 1950s, Elizabeth and her partner, Kate, must square with the lurking disapproval of the town, the teetering success of Elizabeth’s family business, and the Devil. The opera had its world premiere in 2015 and is scheduled for its New York premiere this summer. It will also become the first opera with lesbian protagonists to be performed at the Stonewall Inn.

Not in My Town

Perhaps one of the most tragic stories in the LGBT community, “Not in My Town” is musical drama in one 90-minute act written by Fort Lauderdale composer Michael W. Ross, based on the events surrounding the death of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay college student who was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. The story has been told in many documentaries and movies, but this was the first time the work was seen in opera.  While the story is tragic, it was also seen as a triumph for those in the LGBTQA community dealing with the same issues as it brought to the forefront hate crimes and prejudice against the LGBT community.  The opera was commissioned by Operafusion and had its world premiere in 2016.

Fellow Travelers 

“Fellow Travelers” made its world premiere at the Cincinnati Opera in 2016. The work, with libretto by Greg Pierce based on Thomas Mallon’s novel of the same name, chronicles a doomed gay romance in McCarthy-era Washington, D.C. The opera follows a recent college graduate, Timothy Laughlin, who is eager to join the crusade against communism. A chance encounter with a handsome State Department official, Hawkins Fuller, leads to Tim’s first job—and his first relationship with a man. Drawn into a maelstrom of deceit, Tim struggles to reconcile his political convictions and his forbidden love for Fuller—an entanglement that will end in a stunning act of betrayal. After receiving raves, the work heads to Chicago’s Lyric Opera and will be directed by Kevin Newbury.

Les Feluettes

Commissioned by the Montreal Opera, “Le Feluettes” follows the love story between two men set in Quebec in the early 20th century. The work was composed by Kevin March and written by Michel Marc Bouchard, who also wrote the original play on which the work is based. The opera is set in 1912 and 1957, when homosexuality was still a taboo. The opera made its world premiere in 2016 and marked the first time a gay love story had been staged in Montreal. CBC News reported that a small percentage of subscribers registered their objections to the piece, but the show played on to sold-out houses. It was later performed at the Pacific Opera Victoria in the 2016-17 season.

The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing

Most people discovered Alan Turing through “The Imitation Game.” But most in the LGBT community also disparaged the film as ignoring Turing’s gay side and not being open about it. And this new work has ignored the movie altogether and taken a new approach. Commissioned by the American Lyric Theater, “The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing” was composed by Justine F. Chen with a libretto by David Simpatico. The opera, which has not yet had its world premiere, is a historical fantasia inspired by the life of the groundbreaking computer scientist Alan Turing. The opera takes liberties with the story (as it shows multiple deaths) and also speaks openly about Turing’s homosexuality.

Did we miss any works? Feel free to comment and help us revive all these important works in major houses! 


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