Playlist: 7 American Operas That Put LGBTQ Issues Center Stage

By Stephen Raskauskas |

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The War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco illuminated for Pride Month (Photo: Rene Rivers, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr)

The LGBTQ community has been central to the history of opera since its beginnings.  One of the earliest operas to explore queer love as a central theme might be Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, first performed in 1688. The “tragédie biblique” describes the love between Old Testament figures David and Jonathan. As audiences in the United States are hungrier than ever for new operas, artists are more eager than ever to tell stories in song that reflect the diversity of our lived experiences. Here are 7 American operas that put LGBTQ issues center stage.

Patience and Sarah (1998)

The premiere performances of Patience and Sarah at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1998 (Photo: Ken Howard)

When composer Paula M. Kimper was first approached to set a libretto about a lesbian love story to music, she was resistant. Kimper had known librettist Wende Persons since their college days, though it was not until they both attended a commitment ceremony for mutual friends in 1990 that the two became close. During the festivities, Persons told Kimper that she wrote a libretto inspired by the novel Patience and Sarah by Alma Routsong under the pen name Isabel Miller. She suggested that Kimper help her bring the work from page to stage by creating music for it.

“At that time, I wasn’t writing opera,” Kimper said. “I was writing film scores and music for plays. I thought opera was just too many notes,” she said. Kimper was also uninterested in the typical boy-meets-girl stories of traditional opera, which did not reflect her experiences as a lesbian. She always felt “grateful” to see women disguised as men when performing trouser roles, calling it “the unspoken acceptance” of alternative gender and sexual expression in opera. In other operas, “There are sometimes lesbian characters, but they’re not happy people,” she lamented. Yet, she thought if she composed music for Patience and Sarah that she would be “pigeon holed as a lesbian composer, because it had negative implications” at the time.

Kimper was finally inspired to change the future of opera by attending one of the most traditional works in the repertoire: Wagner’s Ring Cycle. “Somewhere in the middle of – perhaps it was Siegfried – I realized that every opera contains its own world. I realized I could do that, so I asked Wende to see her libretto again,” she said. “I was trying to make a career as a woman composer when the industry was far less friendly towards women. But by that time in the mid-1990s, I felt like I could embrace my identity.”

Kimper and Persons worked with American Opera Projects to develop the work. After presenting several scenes during a workshop in November of 1994 “everybody was thrilled,” Kimper said, “so we kept going from there.”

Creating an opera “affects every aspect of your life. It’s like having a baby,” Kimper laughed. The opera premiered at the Lincoln Center Festival in 1998, and Kimper said, “It was glorious. It was embraced by the gay and lesbian community in New York City, and so the three shows sold out pretty quickly. We loved putting it on, and yet we were also aware that we could be attacked,” because of the subject matter.

The life of artist Mary Ann Willson served as the inspiration for Alma Routsong’s novel later published as Patience and Sarah and which composer Paula Kimper adapted into an opera

The critics, however, praised the piece. The New York Times described the premiere as “a soaring affirmation in this music of the transcendent beauty of life and love.” USA Today wrote that the score “recalls Richard Strauss in its soaring vocal lines.”

Strauss was a direct inspiration for Kimper, in fact. “It’s erotic when two women sing together,” she said. “Look at Der Rosenkavalier. Even though one character is playing a man, we know they are two women on stage. The eroticism is obvious. We can feel it. That’s what I was going for in the music for this. It’s hot. In some places, it’s very hot.”

The story is itself is a romance that proves “opposites attract.” Patience comes from a wealthy family, while Sarah and her family struggle to make ends meet. Patience offers to teach Sarah to read. “When she starts to read,” Kimper said, “she begins to have her own independence. But that’s also how the women begin to see each other.”

After experiencing other queer operas composed after Patience and Sarah first premiered, Kimper said she is “glad people are continuing to pioneer into the form.” She has composed three other operas with strong female lead characters, “which I feel is missing in traditional opera.”

Before Night Falls (2010)

Jonathan Blalock and Wes Mason in the premiere performances of Before Night Falls presented by Fort Worth Opera in 2010

“As a gay Cuban artist, I did not want to write about a gay Cuban artist,” composer Jorge Martín said about his opera Before Night Falls, which adapts the autobiography of Reinaldo Arenas, Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls). The book describes the author’s life in and escape from Cuba, where he was persecuted under Fidel Castro for his profession as an author and his identity as a gay man. Later, he arrived in the United States during a wave of emigration in the 1980s known as the Mariel boatlift. In 1987, he was diagnosed with AIDS, and in 1990, he took his own life.

“Reinaldo is very different from me,” Martín said. “His experience is radically different from mine. I came to this country when I was five-and-a-half. His life and times were different. I don’t know what Cuba was like then. His gayness is very different than mine. I do not have HIV/AIDS. I have to imagine these things.”

The composer wanted to adapt Before Night Falls for the operatic stage, however, because of the “big, universal themes that his story tells. It’s an amazing story of escape, not just his literal escape from Cuba, but a series of escapes in his life.” Martín was also attracted to Arenas as a character. “He has a big voice, he’s a big character. And that’s perfect for singing. You need someone who can burst into song for opera.”

Dance is an important element of the operatic adaptation of Before Night Falls as this scene from Fort Worth Opera’s production shows (Photo: Ellen Appel)

Martín is not the only person who has been inspired to dramatize Before Night Falls. Director Julian Schnabel adapted the story for the silver screen in 2000. Javier Bardem was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Arenas.

“Music and theater can do things that film cannot,” Martín said. “Reinaldo’s imaginative life is very fluid and weird and fantastic. Music can take you to those places more readily and directly than film. Film is prosaic in that it shows you a table, a field, an animal. But the magical qualities of Reinaldo’s story are more readily captured using music.”

Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp in the film adaptation of Before Night Falls

The opera follows Arenas’s autobiography closely, with a few small changes. “I realized when I was putting the work together that it was going to be all male voices,” Martín said. “There are some operas like that, but I decided I didn’t want that. There’s Reinaldo’s mother (which is actually his grandmother in the original) but she has a very small role.”

Martín’s creative solution for adding female voices to the cast was to create two female muses. “Towards the end of Arenas’s book, when he knows he’s going to die, he addresses the moon, which has accompanied him throughout his life, in a very beautiful passage. The sea also is with him throughout his story: the island of Cuba is surrounded by the sea, which is this gorgeous image of expansive possibility, but it can also imprison. So in my opera, the moon and the sea become Reinaldo’s muses.”

“As I get older,” Martín reflected, “I have become more and more political. But I also realize that all works of art, even things that are seemingly innocuous, are political in their own way.” Hear Arenas’s meditation on political and personal liberty in “So now I am a free man” above.

Oscar (2013)

David Daniels, pictured right, performs the title role in Oscar, an opera about Oscar Wilde’s trial and imprisonment that premiered at Santa Fe Opera in 2013

One of the most important 20th century operas, Strauss’s Salome, is an adaptation of a play by Oscar Wilde. More than a century after Strauss’s Salome premiered in Dresden, an opera adapting the life of Wilde himself premiered in Santa Fe.

Oscar, with music by Theodore Morrison and a libretto by Morrison and John Cox, recounts Wilde’s trial for public indecency, of which he was accused for having a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, nicknamed Bosie. After Wilde was convicted, he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in Reading Gaol.

Oscar Wilde with Lord Alfred Douglas

David Daniels, who created the role of Oscar, said that when he began talks with Morrison and Cox, they “wanted to do something that could affect people: a political issue, something that was relevant. And Oscar Wilde made sense to me, the more I read about him, the more I knew about him. I mean, I knew his writings, I knew what had happened, but I didn’t know the extent to which he was persecuted. And so this was just something that I knew was going to be an important story to tell the world, and to remind the world that this happened to this man.”

Daniels said in the weeks leading up to the premiere, “there were many tears shed in rehearsals every day.” He continued, “As a gay man myself, the experience of creating the role of Oscar was a very emotional journey.”

“You always are aware of discrimination,” he said. “And to be telling this story in rehearsals with the entire cast, all of us there together in love, telling the story of this man – it just brought all of this emotion out.”

Reeed Lulau as Bosie and David Daniels as Oscar Wilde in the opera Oscar

“I personally have experienced some discrimination in my own life, and even been the victim of physical violence because of my sexuality. But I am a proud gay man, and I am very proud that our country is taking steps in the right direction to provide equal rights for everybody.”

Creating the role of Oscar also “is really what prompted me to look into proposing to my husband Scott,” Daniels said. “It just seemed right… Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a huge advocate for Oscar and talked about in interviews. She came to the performances in Santa Fe…I think Prop 8 failed at that time, states started to make marriage legal, and it just all seemed right.”

William Scott Walters and David Daniels on their wedding day picture with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who officiated the ceremony

“Justice Ginsburg married us in D.C., which was such an honor. I still look back to that day and can’t really believe it! I asked her, and she said if I could come to Washington, D.C., she would be happy to do it. And on June 21st, 2014, we got married.” So when Oscar was revived by Opera Philadelphia in 2015, Daniels was able to perform the title role as a married man.

Brokeback Mountain (2014)

Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch and tenor Tom Randle in the original production of Brokeback Mountain, which premiered at the Teatro Real, Madrid in 2014

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Charles Wuorinen said that when he saw the film Brokeback Mountain, “I sensed immediately that this was certainly operatic material.” At the time, he had not read Proulx’s original short story that inspired the film, which tells of two men who develop a relationship while caring for sheep on the fictional Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. “The story touched me instantly,” he said.

“Annie Proulx decided that she wanted to make the libretto herself,” the composer explained. “We worked very smoothly together and became good friends in the process. She was an ideal collaborator because, although she is a very strong personality, she’s also very honest. She doesn’t pretend to know things she doesn’t know, and she’s not afraid to admit when she doesn’t.”

“In particular, she doesn’t really know, for example, what kind of language or what kind of words are good for musical setting,” he said. “One of the things that I said to her is something I’ve learned from other librettists who are well-accomplished in writing things to be sung: if you can shout it, you can sing it. That’s a good test, if you want to run around your room shouting things to see how they come out,” he said. “And the other thing is just the general notion that words take twice as long to get through if you’re singing them – no matter how you’re singing them – than if you’re speaking them.”

A scene from the 2005 film adaptation of Brokeback Mountain staring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal

Ultimately, the opera they created together has “very little to do with the film,” he said. “The film has its merits, but it is a much longer affair and it would not be suitable for a musical setting. You have to be concise and efficient.”

One aspect of the film, he said, “is very misleading. It presents a cinematography that is very beautiful and shows this wonderful landscape and outdoor world and it’s all so marvelous. What it doesn’t do is put you in the real context there, which is an environment which is very beautiful indeed, yes, but also very dangerous,” he said. “People die all the time; they fall off of cliffs, they get caught in snow storms and freeze to death, they get bitten by unpleasant vipers, and all the rest. And then of course there’s the social atmosphere which at the time which the story takes place is very unforgiving.”

The composer said that “looking at the kind of progress that gay relations and the status of gay people has made during the past decades, Brokeback Mountain is almost quaint now. Some people might find it hard to understand the psychological difficulties and torments that at least one of the principal characters has. But I think it’s instructive to have that memorialized in a way that shows the problems that people of that time faced, especially in an atmosphere like the Wyoming of that period.”

Daniel Okulitch and tenor Tom Randle in the original production of Brokeback Mountain

Wuorinen said that though he did not grow up in Wyoming, but Manhattan, he could “empathize in a way with the main characters. I’m old enough understand their need for secrecy, although I was born in Manhattan and have lived here all my life. In the ‘50s, it was a deeply homophobic place.”

“Even in the relatively sophisticated social circumstances in which I worked or moved,” he said, “you didn’t know other gay people. Or, if you did, they wouldn’t reveal anything. It was a completely different atmosphere. You can’t imagine the secretiveness and the furtiveness with which these things took place – the police raids on gay bars and all that stuff.”

“I still think a lot of people have difficulties today. Although I think we can take satisfaction in the certain amount of progress which has been made” since the time the story of Brokeback Mountain is set. “Overall, we’re in much better shape than we were before. I am 80 this year, so I grew up in a very different world from what younger people have now. But I’m glad for that.”

27 (2014)

Stephanie Blythe and Elizabeth Futral as Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s premiere production of 27 in 2014 (Photo: Ken Howard)

When librettist Royce Vavrek was asked by composer Ricky Ian Gordon to provide the libretto for an opera about Gertrude Stein, he came late to the project and had to write very quickly. “Ricky wanted to explore the salon that Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas hosted at their Paris home located at 27 rue de Fleurus.”

“I knew very little about Gertrude Stein going into this piece. So I gobbled up as much about her and Alice B. Toklas as I could,” he said. “The central mystery is how these two Jewish lesbian women could survive in this part of the 20th century, how they could live unabashedly out loud. Their lives were so colorful, and so singular. Their stories needed to sing.”

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with their dog

When Vavrek first began writing the libretto he thought, “Obviously, because her language is so unique, I need to go into her works and find cells of language to create my own libretto.” But then after sending “an early half draft” of the libretto to Gordon, the composer responded, “‘This is a libretto that Gertrude Stein would write. But you need to write an opera about Gertrude Stein not by Gertrude Stein.’ That gave me a freedom to explore her world while using the sensibilities of her prose and poetry. Everything was informed by her work, but not in the sense that I was copying and pasting her language.”

The real challenge, Vavrek said, in crafting the libretto for 27 was not writing about a writer, but that “so many things happened during Gertrude Stein’s life. How can you create a 90 minute piece that suggests that while also making something that’s cohesive and beautiful?”

“The love story between Gertrude and Alice is the glue in this opera,” he said, though the audiences also encounters other famous figures that the two hosted at their home at 27 rue de Fleurus. Pablo Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Leo Stein, Man Ray, Henri Matisse, and Ernest Hemingway all make appearances in the opera.

from left: Heidi Strober, Tobias Greenhalgh, Theo Lebow, Stephanie Blythe and Daniel Brevik. Master Voices presents the New York premiere of “27”. New York City Center, Thursday October 20, 2016. (Photo: Erin Baiano)

“I loved that they had this ‘gay marriage’ long before gay marriage was legal anywhere in the world. I wanted to paint it as a marriage even though it was not. They were not wife and wife, but they lived that way and that was their truth. Everyone who came into their sphere accepted that, and if people didn’t, they were expelled. They lived a homonormative existence that was very pure, and very vital.”

“The world is full of really unique singular expression and perspective. It’s important that we suggest that everyone can sing in opera. In the case of 27, that means Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It’s not just important that two queer women are on stage, but that everyone has the right to sing and tell their stories.”

As One (2014)

Baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke portray Hannah in the premiere production of As One at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014

Librettist Mark Campbell explained that when writing operas he often looks for transformative moments in a character’s life, “because opera is – for me at any rate – the most dramatic form. You have to really give a character a reason to sing. I look for that moment in a character’s life where they had to make a decision to move forward or hang back. It has to be a dramatic moment.”

As One, which he created with composer Laura Kaminsky, is about a transgender woman. “I mean, talk about a trajectory or transformative moment! I was very lucky to be working with Kimberly Reid, who is transgender herself and a beautiful writer,” he said. “They asked me to join the team, though I came late to the project. I was the one who proposed that we create an original story based somewhat on Kimberly’s experiences. But then I also said, ‘Kimberly, you have to help me write this because I’m not transgender.’ I’m gay, but that doesn’t mean that I understand a transgender person’s experiences by any means.”

Campbell’s libretto describes As One as “a chamber opera in which two voices—Hannah after (mezzo-soprano) and Hannah before (baritone)—share the part of a sole transgender protagonist.” By casting Hannah for two voices, which often sing simultaneously, the composer and librettist were able to explore a person whose identity is bifurcated. In the premiere production, the dual-roles of Hannah were portrayed by baritone Kelly Markgraf and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who, offstage, are a married couple.

As One is now one of the most popular contemporary operas in the United States. It has had ten productions to date, including the premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014. Perhaps As One has had popular appeal because its themes of self-love and self-acceptance transcend the protagonist’s specific experience.

Three Way (2017)

The final one-act of Three Way, “Masquerade,” which premiered at Nashville Opera in 2017 (Photo: Anthony Popolo)

Librettist David Cote said that when he and composer Robert Paterson teamed up to create an opera made up of three one-acts, they asked: “What are human stories that are suited for opera?” The two decided their three-one acts would explore sex in contemporary society, and so Three Way was born.

“Sex is such a huge, amorphous topic,” Cote said in a three-way interview with Paterson. “Opera is a very sensual, orgiastic art form. Everything in opera involves intense pleasure, intense pain. So opera is a particularly great vehicle to explore desire.”

“We are two straight guys,” Cote said. “We could’ve done an opera exploring love and sexuality with a straight couple, or a bunch of straight couples. But we wanted to expand the categories of what we show on stage because that’s the world we live in. If you’re interested in talking about sexuality in today’s society, you have to.”

The three one-acts in Three Way are, in part, Cote explained, inspired by other operas. The first act, “The Companion,” is a modern take on the first act of Tales of Hoffmann, in which the title character falls in love with a mechanical doll, Olympia. In the first act of Three Way, a woman falls in love with a robot. The second act of Three Way, “Safe Word,” is about a dominatrix and her client. Cote said it has some “on the surface references to Salome and Tosca,” to give a nod to other femmes fatales in opera.

The third act, “Masquerade,” is “a comedy of manners set at a swinger’s party,” Cote said, and explores similar themes to those in Così fan tutte like “inconstancy, love, disguises, and passion. It’s a celebration of fluidity and confusion as a productive force for self-discovery. There’s only so much you can show on stage,” he added. “A lot of the action happens off stage because what we’re really interested in is how people react to each other socially.”

While gender-bending performers have graced opera stages for centuries, “Masquerade” contains what may be the first characters that self-identify as gender fluid in song. One character, Tyler, explains to the other party guests that they and their partner Kyle are, “gender nonconforming.” Kyle clarifies, “I’m biologically male but reject cis-male social codes.”

When some of the other couples are confused, Tyler continues, “Some of us believe fences should come down. Social attitudes have evolved.  Gender barriers dissolved.” Tyler and Kyle join in singing, “Male or female, it’s all in flux: you are whatever you construct. Become the creature you imagine in your heads.”

When composing music for Kyle and Tyler, Paterson said he wanted to “portray the two characters in ways that are very similar. We chose a mezzo-soprano and a countertenor, since they have similar vocal qualities.”

Kyle and Tyler, two gender nonconforming characters that appear in the last act of Three Way (Photo: Anthony Popolo)

In order to organize “Masquerade” musically, Paterson said he used musical themes or leitmotifs for different characters. Paterson also picked the vibraphone to musically depict Kyle and Tyler, since he said “there’s something beautiful but also indistinct” about the instrument’s timbre. There are also “all kinds of harmonics that you can get on the vibes that you can’t get on other instruments,” he added.

Paterson’s score blends musical styles so that it is as accessible as Cote’s libretto. “We wanted to appeal to people who don’t go to opera at all,” Paterson said, describing some sections of the score as jazz and pop inspired. “I try not to even use the term ‘opera’ anymore.”

At the same time, Cote added, “We hope that someone who is a really seasoned opera goer, and even someone who says, ‘I can’t listen to anything after Puccini’ can come to Three Way and say, ‘Yes, this is opera,’ because of the themes and the human drama. And we hope that people who might enjoy theater and musicals will say, ‘This is opera? This was actually entertaining!’”

“Opera needs a little bit of vulgarity to be true opera,” Cote said. “If it’s too ‘arty,’ if it’s too high-brow, it’s opera, but I don’t think it can be terribly interesting opera. Opera’s always been a little vulgar.”