Lili Elbe’s story is an important one, especially for the Transgender community.
Born in 1882, Elbe became a noted painter (known as Einar Wegener) and married Gerda Gottlieb in 1904. By the 1920s, Elbe was presenting herself as a woman and took on the name of Lili and stopped painting. In 1930, she went to Germany for gender-affirmation surgery, changed her legal name to Lili Ilse Elvenes before eventually changing her last name to Elbe.
In 2000 David Ebershoff wrote a fictionalized account of her story, “The Danish Girl,” which was eventually adapted into a 2015 film; the film starred Eddie Redmayne, a cisgender man, as Elbe, a decision that was subsequently criticized.
And now, in 2023, Elbe will have her story told on the opera stage when it world premieres at the Theater St. Gallen on Oct. 22, 2023. “Lili Elbe,” written by composer Tobias Picker and librettist Aryeh Lev Stollman, will star Lucia Lucas in the title role. Lucas also served as dramaturg to Picker and Stollman. Lucas, a transgender Heldenbaritone, made history in 2019 when she became the first transgender artist to perform a principal role at an American opera company as Tulsa Opera’s “Don Giovanni;” her journey was captured in the award-winning documentary “The Sound of Identity.” Lucas also made history as the first transgender woman to appear in a principal role at The Metropolitan Opera.
OperaWire spoke to Lucas and Picker about the inspiration for the opera in the midst of their rehearsal process.
OperaWire: So I guess I want to start from the beginning where this project initiated. Tobias, were you approached to take on the project or did it come from you? Where did that start?
Tobias Picker: In 2018 I wanted to compose an opera for the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion so I asked Lucia if she would be interested in singing one of the roles in it because it was trans women who were really the heroines of that watershed moment in queer history.
Lucia flew over from her home in Germany and auditioned for me. I was also, at that time artistic director of Tulsa Opera and was planning a production of “Don Giovanni” which I had not yet cast. As soon as I heard her sing, I thought; Now I don’t have to look for a Don Giovanni anymore if she is available and if she wants to do it. I asked her if she wanted to and she said “Yes, I have sung every other role in ‘Don Giovanni’ except Don Giovanni.”
So, she came to Tulsa and made her professional stage debut in America with “Don Giovanni.: By the time she came to Tulsa the next year, I had dropped the project I’d originally invited her to audition for. I was very interested in the story of Lili Elbe and thought it really was meant to be an opera. I had not yet been able to write an opera for Lucia and I wanted very much to do so and this just seemed like the right subject for her and for me. So, I asked Lucia if she wanted to do it and she said: “Yes! That’s my story”.
Lucia Lucas: Yeah. I mean, you can talk about casting in the movie, but the movie was very compelling. I thought about how I came out at Opera Ball. I don’t think the film had been released before I came out. And so there were a lot of similarities to when I came out, and a lot of similarities to the main relationship between Lili and her wife, and me and my wife. I knew that I could do a good job with it, and I knew that it would be an important story to tell. So I said yes.
TP: I then went to Europe and offered it to a number of opera companies. Lucia had introduced me to Krystian Lada, the brilliant young director who’s staging the premiere. He wanted to do it here in St. Gallen, and now it’s in rehearsal.
OW: So how long was the process from conception to completion of the score?
TP: Well there was a little thing called the COVID pandemic that intervened between my meeting with Krystian Lada and finishing the opera. But, Jan Henric Bogen, the visionary intendant of Theater St. Gallen, commissioned it specifically for the reopening of his theater which had been under renovation for several years. Aryeh and I started work on it just when the pandemic started in the spring of 2020. We worked on it for a few months but then put it aside. The first draft of the score was completed in 2022. After two workshops in St. Gallen, I delivered the final score, the third edition, in June of 2023.
LL: No, It was fall 2018 when we started talking about it. Because I remember I was in this really cold hotel room in Wuppertal, Germany. So it’s five years then.
OW: How would you describe the musical language for this piece?
LL: I’d say that all of Tobias’ music, not just “Lili,” but especially “Lili” falls into speech patterns really comfortably. If it ever doesn’t, there’s always a reason. And it’s fun trying to find the musical reason why the speech pattern is different. I always feel like Tobias is talking to me through his music and he’s telling me that this word is important. The clues are always there because of the way he sets it or because of another theme going by. It feels supernatural to me.
TP: I was thinking about transcendentalism when I was composing this piece and how my musical language has evolved beyond what I have ever done before. The opera begins with Lili and Gerda attending the premiere of a new play about “Orpheus and Eurydice” in 1925. I wanted the incidental music of the play to sound avant garde in terms of that time. So there’s some fake Webern at the beginning of the opera and again at the beginning of the second act, which actually sounds like a hybrid of Webern and (one of my teachers) Milton Babbitt and my very early work. But the rest of the opera is just me.
OW: Do you have any composers or musical inspirations that you draw from when you’re composing your music or that you feel your music is deeply indebted to or influenced by?
TP: The first serious music that I was exposed to as a three-year-old was was the music of the German-Jewish refugee Kurt Weill. I grew up with the Lotte Lenya recordings both in German and English. Kurt Weill was the first music I was ever exposed to and it really has stayed with me. I love Weill’s work and I also identify with him as a composer of German-Jewish heritage myself. I would also say that Brahms has always been a very big presence in my life. I have an autographed photograph of Brahms on the wall of my study in New York, and a bust and another picture of him on my desk. And then there’s another Jewish refugee emigré, Korngold. Brahms said Korngold was “the next Brahms,” so Korngold is a logical influence. I’m also influenced by Stravinsky and American popular music.
OW: Lucia, I wanted to ask you about preparation for this role. How was your process different in preparing for this role versus other roles?
LL: I did my exact same process for this role as I do for every role. I wrote an article back in about 2015 about how I learn a role. It’s still on my website. I still use the same process but basically that’s talking through the role, just the text 25 times, including English, because there’re lots of subtleties. Then I do it with text and rhythm another 25 times and start to absorb some stuff that Tobias is doing, and then I do it with pitches 25 times. I do this process for different reasons on different pieces, depending on what language it is and how hard the music is. But it all serves a purpose. And if I go through that process, I will pick up all the things that I need, no matter which role it is.
So I learned it just as I do other roles. But of course the difference between this role and most other roles that I do is that I have so many parallel experiences, some of the same things said to me or by me in my life. So processing emotion, processing trauma has been a big part of learning this role. And that’s hard. But as far as the base process, I know how to learn a role and if I just do that process then maybe I can manage the external factors such as the emotionality of the scene.
OW: How has it been working with Krystian Lada on this production? What is his approach? What have you learned and how has it opened up the opera further for you beyond the score?
LL: Before I get to know what he’s doing, I sort of have a visual picture of what might happen and who’s talking to who at this moment and who hears which conversation. You know, sometimes there are group scenes and there’s a conversation happening in one area and a conversation happening in another area. And Krystian is so smart. He’s one of the smartest directors that I know and whenever I work with him I always show up and I’m surprised by extra details that he’s found that I have somehow missed or possibilities that I didn’t even see as possible and then they… they just pop out. It’s like of course… I don’t know why I didn’t think of that.
TP: I met with Krystian Lada in Berlin in the fall of 2019 and we talked for a long time about Lili Elbe. I asked him if he wanted to direct the opera. I’ve been in rehearsal with him for several weeks now. It’s so gratifying to work with a director who I think is a genius. They are very rare. I’ve only worked with one other genius stage director. Krystian is a very special director and the way he brought the choreographer into the process and has 17 dancers in this piece representing Gerda Wegener’s paintings, it’s just so thoroughly conceived. Just all the detail and subtlety that he brings out of the score is a revelation in every rehearsal.
OW: What do you hope that audiences take away from this opera?
LL: This person, Lili, she had one one of the first surgeries. There’s also a scene where she gets legally recognized as female so that she can go marry a new partner. But the most important part of her story is the social transition and who accepts her. What are the arcs of all the characters and what impact does she leave on them? These personal relationships are so much more important than a surgery. It’s really unfortunate that we lost a lot of material about the early trans experience in 1933 when the Nazis burned down the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft. But the most important part of this story is not the medical stuff, it’s the interactions. I think that what the public can learn is what somebody goes through and what’s in their head when they’re going through all of this. We don’t usually explore that, we don’t really talk about that. And there’s so much detail in this story, particularly with Lili and Gerda and what that means… how can you be happy in life? If we’re on a journey in our life, do we ever stop to ask “Am I happy right now?” And I think that’s really important, because sometimes we just go through life and we think that we have a goal, but if we stop and look around and keep our eyes open, we can see wonderful things happening all around us on our journey.