Wednesday 10 October 2007

Homoerotic opera?

Gluck's Iphigenie en Tauride includes a very strong depiction of the close friendship between two men, Oreste and Pylade. In fact, the opera includes no male/female romantic involvement, as Iphigenie is Oreste's sister and Pylade's main (only) depicted relationship is with Oreste. This is pretty unusual in the standard late 18th/ 19th century operatic canon.

Most operas in the standard repertoire are almost exclusively heterosexual with very little homo-erotic shading. Of course casting can alter this, with young men being played by women. In the 19th century, the playing of young men by women was favoured by heterosexual men as it gave them the opportunity of casting glances at the beautifully displayed female legs. I am unclear whether there was explicit lesbian interest in such works, but judging by 20th century reactions I presume there was. This also applies to female/female relationships in operas as it was quite common for the diva to have some sort of friend in the plot and convention allowed them a quite intense relationship. In Bellini's Norma for instance, the relationship between Norma and Adalgisa is close and by far the most satisfactory relationship depicted, neither woman has an entirely satisfying relationship with Pollione. But 18th and 19th centurys arts allowed for passionate relationships between women in a way which was not, completely, reflected in male relationships.

If we consider male/male relationships in opera, then there are very few close relationships depicted. Men are more conventionally rivals, or relations (father/son) etc. Gluck's opera is unusual in that it does allow a close friendship for the two men. To find another such close friendship we must jump to the 1860's and look at
Verdi's Don Carlos. Though the love between Carlos and Elizabeth is the engine which drives the complex plot, the friendship between Carlos and Posa is strong and intense. They get a powerful duet, hymning their friendship, and Verdi uses the theme from this as a leitmotif in the opera. Bizet's Pearl Fishers also depicts a strong relationship between 2 men, but this friendship is complicated by the fact that they are both rivals for the same woman, still it does give rise to another powerful male/male duet.

But, frankly, that seems to be about it. Though opera is capable of depicting all sorts of vagaries and uncertainties in relationships, even though the synthesis of words and music is a combination which can give rise to subtle distinctions in relations and the shimmering uncertainties of operas like Pelleas and Melisande, uncertainty of male sexuality is not an area that is covered and strong male/male relations are rarely coloured with homoerotic uncertainty.

But in a world where homosexual composers such as Tchaikovsky strongly identified with their heroines, we should not be surprised that the 19th century opera world largely ignore the explicit depiction of homoeroticism. This is an area where producers are still reluctant to extend the dramatic footprint of opera. I have always wondered whether you could make the staging of La Traviata or Carmen work if the part was played en travestie so that the principal relationship becomes a homosexual one. This is one way of bringing the 19th century obsession with a fallen woman into the 21st century. Perhaps producers would find it difficult to cast these works if the strong sexuality displayed was a male one. Would Carmen's Habanera work if it was sung by a woman playing a young man?

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