Pride Month 2017: Remembering the Great LGBT Composers of the Past

By Francisco Salazar

This week we continue our celebration of pride month. We’ve now looked at some of the most popular LGBT operas and commemorated Harvey Milk and Stonewall. Now OperaWire looks at some of the legendary composers in opera and classical music who were part of the LGBT community. Some of these composers were unfortunately never able to be open about their sexuality, while others were very open.

Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s best-known opera is “Eugene Onegin,” but he also wrote “The Queen of Spades,” “Mazeppa,” “The Maid of Orleans,” and “Iolanta.” While the composer never admitted to being gay, biographers and historians have generally agreed that Tchaikovsky was homosexual. Many biographers have said that he sought the company of other men in his circle for extended periods. There is argument about whether or not the composer felt comfortable with his sexual nature, and there has been speculation that he felt tainted by his orientation. However, his feelings remain unknown. What is known is that he had a failed marriage and that this was mostly due to his sexuality. 

Francis Poulenc 

Poulenc’s most famous opera is “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” and it is performed frequently around the world. His compositions are among the most revered of the 20th century and he made a mark among French composers. However, what most did not know is that Poulenc engaged in a long string of homosexual relationships, with painter Richard Chanlaire and Raymond Destouches, among others.

Benjamin Britten

Perhaps best known for “Peter Grimes,” “Billy Budd,” and “Death in Venice,” Britten was initially cagey about his sexuality. However, Britten was quite a controversial figure because he had an attraction to younger boys. He went on to have a relationship with Peter Pears that lasted more than 40 years. Many of his well-known tenor songs were said to be influenced by Pears’ voice.

Samuel Barber and Giancarlo Menotti 

Barber is of course known for his “Vanessa” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” while Menotti is popular for “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” The two were also known for being collaborators and lovers. They started their relationship at the Curtis Institute. They would become inseparable and worked on numerous librettos together. Menotti crafted the libretto for “Vanessa,” which would become Barber’s most famous opera. Menotti also revised “Antony and Cleopatra” after the opening, which was seen as a debacle.

Leonard Bernstein

Many will argue that Bernstein didn’t really write an opera. However, his works “Candide” and “West Side Story” cross over so well that they have been performed in opera houses as well as on Broadway, making Bernstein a composer who surpassed genre and made classical music accessible to the public. While he was a successful musician, he was a closeted homosexual. He was famously married and had children. However, he had several relationships with men, including Aaron Copland and Dimitri Mitropoulos. He also went through numerous tumultuous relationships. The 1990 New York Times obituary acknowledged his homosexuality, and while it may have been something he covered up for social and professional reasons, today we celebrate him as an LGBT hero.

Of today’s LGBT composers, Jake Heggie is one of the most notable for having written “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby Dick,” along with Greg Spears, who recently wrote “Fellow Travelers,” and Nico Muhly, who wrote “Two Boys.” Other out and proud composers include Thomas Ades, known for “The Tempest,” and John Corigliano, who wrote “The Ghost of Versailles.”

Who did we miss? Tell us in the comments below!



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