Queer Themes in Opera: A Closer Look

Queer Themes in Opera: A Closer Look
Opera has a long history of including queer themes and characters, often coding them subtly due to social norms of the time. A closer examination reveals rich stories of love, identity, and societal attitudes towards sexuality and gender over the centuries.

One early example is the opera Il Re Pastore (1751) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The opera includes a trouser role—a character played by a woman dressed as a man—for the character Aminta. This casting crosses gender lines and hints at fluidity of both gender identity and sexuality. Trouser roles were common in opera and often allowed space to explore queer themes more freely.

Later, Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) is based on a historical novel that includes subtle suggestions of a lesbian relationship between Lucia and Alisa. Though the opera adaptation does not explicitly include queerness, the connotations of intimacy between the women were likely apparent to contemporary audiences. Donizetti also wrote many trouser roles, furthering the queer coding common in opera.

As times progressed, coding became more explicit. Italian composer Amilcare Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda debuted in 1876 featuring the famous Dance of the Hours ballet sequence. The four dancing lead characters are portrayed by two male dancers and two female dancers dressed and posed as males, sporting facial hair. This blending of gender presentation and same-sex partnering communicated nascent queer themes to audiences even in the restrictive Victorian era.

In the early 20th century, German composer Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier (1911) included an iconic scene that clearly established a past sexual relationship between two women characters—revelatory for the time. Decades later, Benjamin Brittten's Peter Grimes (1945) featured predominant homoerotic themes in its story of outcast fisherman Peter Grimes.

By the late 20th century, coding dropped away as social mores shifted. Composers began tackling the AIDS crisis explicitly. Contemporary American composer John Corigliano's Symphony No. 1 (1988-89), subtitled "Of Rage and Remembrance,” honors friends and loved ones lost to AIDS. The chorus solemnly recites names of the dead as a memorial. Meanwhile, deceased Cuban-American singer and composer Alberto García Demestres left behind the opera Tom, based on his dying partner’s struggle with AIDS when Demestres himself passed from AIDS-related illness.

Today, queer stories take center stage in 21st century opera. Recent examples that celebrate queer love and relationships include the sold out run of As One (2014), about a transgender woman’s self-discovery. Additionally, Tête à Tête opera company's 2005 production Graduation Ball boldly depicted a gay romance between two male dancers. Moving forward, the growing number of emerging queer composers like Clint Borzoni promises opera will continue reflecting contemporary experiences with exciting new scores and stories.

In summary, tracing back hundreds of years reveals opera has an abundant, if secret, queer history encoded into centuries of legendary works through unusual casting, ambiguously gendered characters, and coded relationships. Often these subtle expressions mapped broader social mores of the times. As culture shifted, queer themes slowly emerged more explicitly. And in recent decades, authentic queer narratives now regularly claim the spotlight. Opera continues reflecting changing attitudes towards sexuality and identity with society over time, making the art form a unique lens through which to track cultural progression. Whatever themes may come, opera's most authentic stories will always mirror back the full range of human experience with passion.
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