Pride Month 2017: Commemorating Harvey Milk & Stonewall In Operatic Works

By Francisco Salazar

As we continue to celebrate Pride month and look at the LGBT individuals who have contributed to the opera world, we take a look at two operas that have celebrated some of the most iconic moments in LGBT history. The first is “Stonewall” and the second is “Harvey Milk.”

“Stonewall: The Opera”

The Stonewall Inn in New York City became a national landmark thanks to the efforts of President Obama. It is perhaps best known for the riots of 1969 that are considered the catalyst for the gay liberation movement. At that time, gay people met with widespread rejection and oppression and were prevented from living openly. It was the bars that welcomed the LGBT community, and the riots at the Stonewall Inn broke out in protest against police raids targeting that community. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots the first Gay Pride march took place in New York City, and each year in June Pride celebrations are held in cities throughout the US.

Few know of this opera, but composer David Conte and librettist John Stirling Walker created a piece based on the events of the Stonewall riots. The opera looks into the past and makes a political statement for today. It had its world premiere in 2013 at the University of Northern Colorado. Conte described the work as a “spiritual channel, much of what happens in an otherworldly realm where fictional characters of the revolt meet such entertainment figures as Michael Jackson and Judy Garland.”

Harvey Milk (Opera)

Harvey Milk is best known for becoming the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Like many, Milk was not open about his homosexuality during his early life, and it was only at age 40 that he began to join civil rights groups. During his time in office, he was able to pass a stringent gay rights ordinance for the city. He was assassinated by Dan White in 1978 and today is held as a gay icon. Many tributes have been given to Milk and he has been seen in media including the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” and the Academy Award-winning film “Milk” by Gus Van Sant.

Perhaps it is also fitting that an opera about his life was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera. “Harvey Milk” would have its world premiere on Jan. 21, 1995, at the Houston Grand Opera, and was based on the life and death of the gay activist and politician.

The production was directed by Christopher Alden with set designs by Paul Steinberg and choreography by Ross Petty. The work later traveled to New York, which was considered a debacle, and later went on to be performed in Opernhaus Dortmund, where the text was translated into German. A revised version of “Harvey Milk” also played in San Francisco in 1996. It represented the last time the drama was performed, but thankfully it was recorded for posterity by Teldec.


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