Saturday 2 April 2016

Hidden in plain sight - a brief survey of LGBT relationships in opera

Simon Keenlyside & Jonas Kaufmann in Verdi's Don Carlo at Covent Garden in 2009 - Photo by Caroline Ashmore/ROH
Simon Keenlyside & Jonas Kaufmann in
Verdi's Don Carlo at Covent Garden in 2009
Photo by Caroline Ashmore/ROH
The first explicitly lesbian or gay character in opera seems to be the Countess Geschwitz in Berg's Lulu, but what about the first gay male relationship? A few weeks ago I asked all my musical contacts on Facebook for ideas about which opera contains the first depiction of a gay male relationship. The results were, generally, unsurprising and no-one really came up with a hidden gem. We have to wait for the mid-20th century before we get something made explicit, but along the way there are one or two intriguing depictions which make you wonder, operas by Kurt Weill, Szymanowski and Verdi, not to mention the lively double entendres in Cavalli's oeuvre.

Regarding the first open depiction, well it is clear that Claggart's obsession with Billy Budd in Britten's 1951 opera stems from homosexual desire but whether you could describe it as a relationship is very much a moot point. The first real gay relationship in a major opera seems to be in Tippett's The Knot Garden, which was produced at Covent Garden in 1970 (just three years after the 1967 act made homosexual acts between consenting adults legal). So Mel and Dov (originally Thomas Carey and Robert Tear) seem to be the first major gay male couple on the operatic stage. But there are men in previous operas where we can presume and assume.

Alice Roberts as the Countess Geschwitz with Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929)#
Alice Roberts as the Countess Geschwitz
with Louise Brooks in G.W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929)
Kurt Weill's Der Silbersee, a 1933 play with music that he wrote with the playwright Georg Kaiser, is based around the development of a relationship between two men, Olim (a policeman who has a major lottery win) and Severin (a vagrant). Olim shoots Severin and feels guilty and attempts to make it up to him. Their relationship is, at most, homosocial till the ending when the two set off together into the unknown over the frozen lake, Der Silbersee. When I saw it staged at the Camden Festival with Nigel Robson as Severin, the ending was profoundly moving and very intense.

Kurt Weill and Georg Kaiser's intentions at the end of Der Silbersee might not have been intended to have the resonance they do, or perhaps that was their intention. It is difficult to tell. There is a similar case with Szymanowski's King Roger. That part of the opera's plot relates to Szymanowski's struggles with his own homosexuality is clear, and that King Roger is attracted to the Shepherd. But quite how sexual is this, and there is never a hint of relationship. This is another opera where the homosexual desire is there without the explicit action, and Szymanowski made this all the more obscure with the ending, which the composer changed from his original librettist's. The original intention was something inspired by Euripedes The Bacchae but Szymanowski's changes mean that King Roger doesn't succumb and the focus is on his indecision, coming through to a sort of triumph at the end..

Thomas Carey (Mel), Jill Gomez (Flora) and Robert Tear (Dov) in Knot Garden's 1970 Covent Garden premiere, directed by Peter Hall Zoë Dominic/Opera News Archives
Thomas Carey (Mel), Jill Gomez (Flora) & Robert Tear (Dov)
Tippett The Knot Garden - 1970 Covent Garden premiere
directed by Peter Hall
photo Zoë Dominic/Opera News Archives
Jumping back to the 19th century, Smetana wrote his grand opera Dalibor for the Provisional Theatre in Prague. Smetana always regarded the opera highly, but critics were not so impressed. The title role is in prison for killing burgrave of Ploskovice in revenge for execution of his friend Zdenek. The second act includes a very intense scene where Dalibor has a dream of Zdenek, who was a musician. Zdenek's sister Milada, comes to Dalibor's cell in disguise as a boy and bringing Zdenek's violin. Dalibor at first mistakes her for his friend, and the two end up singing a passionate duet in a scene which is redolent with homosexual undertones but works in the social context of the period because one of the characters is sung by a woman. At the end of the opera, Dalibor chooses death so that he can be with both Milada and Zdenek.

A year earlier, in 1867, Verdi wrote his large scale opera Don Carlos. Based on the historical figure of Philip II of Spain's son, it is the usual mix of personal anguish, tragedy and foiled love against a grand historical background typical of the Paris Opera. In the opera, Rodrigue, Marquis de Posa, is one of those people whose Telegraph obituary says 'They never married'. Whilst Rodrigue's relations with Carlos can be viewed as simply that of a good friend, the way the role is written suggests that the librettists (Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle) might have had other ideas. Certainly Verdi's music for Carlos and Rodrigue during Rodrigue death scene is very intense and verges on the explicit. And their duet at the beginning of the opera is one of the work's big numbers. Add to this that in the second act, set in the Monastery of San Yuste, whilst Carlos has an illicit interview with his stepmother (and former fiance!) Elisabeth, Rodrigue distracts Elisabeth's lady in waiting, Eboli, by talking to her about the latest Paris fashions!

The Biblical story of David and Jonathan throws up a number of operatic or quasi operatic versions. Charpentier's David et Jonathas premiered in 1688 at a Jesuit college in Paris. Handel's Saul treats the same subject in his 1738 oratorio. Both treat the relationship between David and Jonathan as an intense friendship, though in fact the text Handel received from his librettist was somewhat more explicit about their love than that Handel chose to set.

Christophe Dumaux in the title role of Cavalli's Il Giasone at Vlaamse Opera Antwerp/Ghent
Christophe Dumaux in the title role of
Cavalli's Il Giasone at Vlaamse Opera Antwerp/Ghent
In the early 17th century things could be far more licentious and the operas that Cavalli wrote for Venice such as Giasone are full of innuendo and double entendre. And it is from this period that we get that fascinating operatic habit, cross dressing. Cavalli's operas routinely have men (usually a tenor) playing an older woman obsessed with lust for a younger man, for comic purposes. Given the generally licentious behaviour of the plots you wonder what the original audiences thought. In La Calisto, Giove disguises himself as Diana to seduce Calisto. In the original performances the bass playing Giove sang Giove as Diana as well, using falsetto, so any hint of illicit lesbianism was mitigated by having it played by a man and a woman.

If men dressed as women for comic purposes, women dressed as men with more serious intent. This female to male cross-dressing was partly because the high voiced castratos made audiences expect the hero to have a high voice. And here we have another conundrum, which runs all the way through opera. A love scene between two female singers, one playing a man. When I wrote an article on playing en travestie, for Classical Music, Helen Sherman said that whilst playing Monteverdi's Nerone in L'Incoronazione di Poppea, she makes every effort to appear masculine, but is still aware of the frisson in the love scenes. And of course, in earlier periods when women were expected to dress demurely, the sight of a female singer dressed as a man gave the men in the audience the chance to appreciate some shapely legs.

The long tradition of women playing men, with the concomitant love scenes with the soprano heroine mean that defining exactly what we mean by a relationship between two women on stage becomes rather more difficult. Clearly the first explicit lesbian is the Countess Geschwitz in Berg's Lulu, but what of Massenet's Cherubin or Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. You can't help feeling that the attraction was to a certain extent the sight of two women in a discreetly erotic clinch. And this was definitely true in the boulevard theatre in Paris in the 19th century.

Moving to the present day, you cannot help feel that opera directors have failed to explore an interesting vein in staging operas. Some years ago there was a brave staging of Mozart's Don Giovanni where, with the exception of the title role (sung by Duncan Rock, I think) all the sexes of the major characters were changed. Giovanni becomes a gay man chasing young men, with a female side-kick instead of Leporello. An intriguing prospect. OperaUpClose tried staging Madama Butterfly with Butterfly as a Thai lady-boy, but this failed to a certain extent because sopranos capable of singing Butterfly rarely look anything like Thai lady-boys. No-one, as far as I know, has tried to stage an opera like Cherubin or Der Rosenkavalier with the cross dressing character played as a girl. And I have always had the fantasy of staging Handel's Alcina where the leading role is in fact a male sorcerer who uses his magic to project a female image and ensnare young men.

But new opera is starting to explore all sorts of boundaries, and Mark Simpson's Pleasure which is set in the cloakroom of a gay club opens at Opera North on 28 April and Covent Garden will be presenting the production at the Lyric Hammersmith from 12 May 2016.

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