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Gay Life at the Opera

Between homoeroticism and kitsch

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The composer Theodore Morrison spends much of the first act of his new opera Oscar, based on the life of Oscar Wilde, trying to capture the wit and rapid-fire bon mots of his title character. But Morrison’s musical language, a mélange of slightly dissonant chords that circle around each other without forward motion or resolution, does not allow for purling streams of text. Wilde’s banter, his flippancy and love of illusory and insubstantial paradox—which is to say, all that remains vital about him more than a century after his death—falls flat.

Rossini might have made something of these early scenes in an otherwise dark and earnest opera. Arthur Sullivan, who managed to bring clarity and pellucid sparkle to the rat-a-tat libretti of his collaborator W. S. Gilbert, might have found an idiomatic way to manage this kind of parlor talk. But Oscar, which premiered at the Santa Fe Opera this summer, is an exercise in leaden seriousness, and despite the libretto’s efforts to build up Wilde’s character with some lighthearted chatter the musical palette is consistently gray. Humor, which was so essential to Wilde, not least as a way of disguising his subversive agenda, is a musical inconvenience for Morrison, who seems comfortable only when indulging an occasional paroxysm of melody in the grand manner of Hollywood. Almost everything in this sober, hagiographic spectacle is borrowed: from Britten, from Richard Strauss, from Maurice Jarre, from Shostakovich.1

Of course most operas today feel a bit borrowed, because in many cases they are created for a host of non-musical and institutional reasons. It is considered foul play for a critic to mention the obvious: many big-budget projects are merely an exercise in honorifics, a way of paying respect to a great book, or person, or event, by elevating it to quasi-sacred status. They are commissioned in the same self-conscious spirit that we commission portraits of the Senate majority leader or the governor of Maryland, because it feels grand and old-fashioned.

But while one can forgive a lack of originality—the bulk of the operas composed since the form’s invention in the late sixteenth century did not exactly break new ground—it is harder to forgive the lapses of taste, the bathos and the bad writing, and the craven appeals to primitive emotion, in the manner of Broadway or a Spielberg film. What response is one supposed to have to a final scene in which Wilde, after years of public humiliation, trial, imprisonment, and death, is greeted by a chorus of “immortals” of world literature, dressed in celestial white raiment? If Oscar captures anything about the current cultural moment, it is the kitschy sentimentality that obtains when it comes to narratives of gay life. Gay stories, now fashionable and mainstream, are no longer written by outsiders and aesthetes, but are fodder for every kind of hack, and there is no limit to how maudlin the worst of these weepy morality plays will go. And so Oscar Wilde ascends to literary Parnassus as Oscar devolves into embarrassing panegyrics.

Oscar was one of two works premiered during a summer festival season that dealt with gay issues. Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which presents a five-week season from late May through June, gave the world premiere of Terence Blanchard’s Champion, based on the life of the boxer Emile Griffith, whose emotionally complicated life was made even more so by his homosexuality. These join other works, including Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which will be given its American premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera this fall, and Charles Wuorinen’s Brokeback Mountain, which has its world premiere at Madrid’s Teatro Real in January 2014.

It takes too long to gestate an opera for one to read too much into all this serendipity. It was entirely coincidence that Emile Griffith, the subject of Blanchard’s jazz-inflected score, died less than a month after the opera based on his life closed. It was accidental marketing manna that Jason Collins became the first active major-league American male athlete to come out as gay only six weeks before the premiere of Champion, which is the story of a gay boxer. It was convenient happenstance that only a few months before the premiere of Oscar the Supreme Court put an end to the ugliest aspects of the Defense of Marriage Act, and allowed to stand a lower-court decision that overturned a state referendum banning same-sex marriage in California. But in the world of opera, where new works are relatively rare, four data points are a trend.

And yet, if anything, the opera world is late to the depiction of homoeroticism. With a few exceptions—a lesbian character in Berg’s Lulu, an unrequited pederastic fixation in Britten’s Death in Venice—there are few operatic depictions of same-sex love that aren’t safely contained within a discourse of Greek myth or Ovidian fable. Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus, which premiered in 1767, when the composer was eleven, is typical in how it was tweaked to keep sexual desire scrupulously heterosexual. Compared with film and theater, opera is embarrassingly late to broach this now thoroughly non-controversial subject.

Paradoxically, this belatedness may have more to do with the rapid pace of social acceptance than it does with any deep internal homophobia in the social and cultural milieu of the opera world. Indeed, opera has long been a place of refuge, emotionally and socially, for people whose sexuality does not conform to the heterosexual norm. Willa Cather not only found personal comfort in the opera house, it was also a conduit to self-realization and personal growth for some of her most memorable non-conformists. Her story called “Paul’s Case,” published in 1905, about a gay young man who flees a stifling life in Pittsburgh for an orgy of music and desire in New York City, gives a clear sense of how even a century ago opera was a locus of survival for gay men. (A promising chamber opera by composer Gregory Spears, based on the Cather story, was premiered in Alexandria last April.)

There is anecdotal evidence—overwhelming anecdotal evidence—that opera companies served as sources of employment and dignity for gay men. The Santa Fe Opera, founded by John Crosby in 1956, was always very gay, and Crosby’s pool parties, ornamented with buff baritones and epicene tenors, were legendary. Aids hit the New York City Opera extremely hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, more evidence—in this instance, wrenching evidence—of the open secret that much of the backstage and administrative staff was gay. Opera also provided gay people a shared language for emotional expression, first through its extremity of emotion and frequent depiction of doomed love, and later through the virtuosic argot of camp. If the character of Paul, in Cather’s story, felt himself dissolve into the tragic figures that Verdi created on stage, generations of latter-day Pauls laughed conspiratorially at the ridiculous parodies of these same figures created by Charles Ludlam.

The “opera queen” was sufficiently established as a mainstream cultural category to be the subject of a popular play by Terrence McNally in the 1980s, and parsed by the critic Wayne Koestenbaum in a widely cited (and for its painful self-indulgence, widely ridiculed) book The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire, published in 1993. And even these categories now feel old-fashioned, and doomed to rapid extinction in the new “post-gay” world.

Still, it was a surprise, a year ago, to see that Santa Fe had scheduled an opera for the 2013 season called Oscar.2 Opera companies live on the largesse of private donors, the audience skews older, and a buttoned-down spirit prevails, despite efforts to make the institution seem less stodgy. Major composers, such as John Adams, have been burned by taking on material that is topically volatile. Presenting Oscar would make it very clear where the company stood on a social issue, and it would pose difficult questions about how to navigate the presentation of homosexual desire on stage.3 But mostly it felt strange because the world seemed a little out of sync: mainstream social acceptance of homosexuality had reorganized the political spectrum so thoroughly that the decades-old “open secret” ethos of the opera world now looks almost self-loathing and closety.

The rate of social change must have made things very difficult for Morrison and his co-librettist, the veteran stage director John Cox, who faced an audience that would have both potentially squeamish members and a cohort of seasoned operagoers comfortable, if not bored, with all manner of sexual exotica on stage. Morrison complicated things by writing the title role for one of the world’s leading countertenors, David Daniels, who sings in the alto range. Daniels brought star power to the event, but even among the relatively sophisticated crowd that gathers in Santa Fe you could detect a small jolt of disorientation when, as Oscar, he opened his mouth and out came sounds in the female vocal range. My first thought is that it was some kind of caricature, a voice in the traditionally female range standing for the supposedly emasculated male. And yet it was, at least in theory, also a brilliant decision, forcing the audience to question deep-seated assumptions about what constitutes genuine masculinity. Aesthetically, it made sense on paper, too: in an opera with mostly male characters, vocal textures can become clotted unless some of the lines rise above the traditional male vocal range. In practice, however, countertenors have relatively small voices, and Daniels is no exception. He sang with impressive speed, subtlety, and expression, but he seemed not quite fully blooded in his depiction of Wilde. So while it raised stereotypes up for examination, and paid subtle homage to a long tradition of sexual fluidity in the opera house, it also reinforced hoary and reflexive assumptions about Wilde and gay men.

But then Wilde himself is not particularly well characterized. Morrison and Cox thanked Merlin Holland, Wilde’s only grandchild, for his scrutiny and advice on the libretto, and to their credit they avoid egregious historical fabrication. The scenario relies heavily on the writing of Frank Harris, the author in 1916 of an elegant and elegantly subjective biography, which takes up the story of Wilde’s disgrace, covering his second trial (a colorful scene with a strong musical debt to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District), his conviction, and imprisonment at Reading Gaol. Harris becomes a central character in the story (urging Wilde’s flight to France), and a sympathetic one, but the opera ignores his brutal assessment of how success had corrupted Wilde into a dangerous arrogance and complacency: “He had changed greatly and for the worse; he was growing coarser and harder every year. All his friends noticed this.”

The result is a passive, amiable, mildly likable vision of one of the most tart, acerbic, brilliant, and intellectually preposterous men of his age; and even Wilde’s likability is known not through what he says or does on stage, but by frequent assurances by secondary characters that he is a great and good man. He has no tragic flaw. In the end, he is simply a victim of intolerance. This is the source of the opera’s excruciating sentimentality, the reduction of Wilde’s tragedy to a fable of bigotry and victimization (with, of course, that happy Parnassian ending). The emotional arc is so familiar from so many bad films that one suspects a bit of creative treachery: gay subject matter may be in vogue because it is just edgy enough (but not too edgy!) to allow composers and librettists to pass off the old as new.

Blanchard’s Champion, co-commissioned by Jazz Saint Louis, indulges in sentimentality too—one scene is sung by a man in a coma, on his death bed—and in many ways it is a less professional product than Morrison’s cleanly rendered operatic portrait. But it is a far more interesting work, because it struggles more honestly and rigorously with how to tell a story in music in new and meaningful ways. Blanchard, a jazz trumpeter, band leader, and prolific composer of film scores, calls it not a “jazz opera” but “an opera in jazz.” That seems about right. Jazz rhythms and harmonies are adapted to serve the dramatic purpose, and vocalization is often free and seemingly improvisatory over basic accompaniment figures. But Blanchard has found a subtle and adaptable music language that serves the most important need of an opera composer: the transmission of a text. In spirit, it is remarkably similar to the devices used by Baroque opera composers in its emphasis on subtly inflected vocal lines over spare and transparent accompaniment figures.

There is also plenty of Porgy and Bess in it, and the opera is chopped into short scenes, and goes on much too long. It needs drastic editing, but there is real substance to be salvaged. Emile Griffith, the “champion,” emerges as a more interesting character than Morrison’s Wilde—more flawed, and more susceptible to genuine growth and self-knowledge. The real Emile Griffith was born in the Virgin Islands, came to the United States as a young man, and developed into a world champion welterweight boxer. In 1962, in a fight with Benny “The Kid” Paret, Griffith infamously struck his opponent so hard and so repeatedly that Paret collapsed in the ring and died ten days later. Paret had provoked Griffith before the fight by calling him maricón, a Spanish anti-gay slur. Griffith, who had worked for a time in a hat factory and was suspiciously attentive to his wardrobe, was incensed.

Griffith was also likely gay, or at least bisexual. With a libretto by Michael Cristofer, Champion creates a complex picture of sexuality in a conservative era and a deeply homophobic sport. Although the opera’s centerpiece, an aria for the title character called “What Makes a Man a Man?”, is a repetitive musical setting of bad music-theater doggerel, the cumulative effect of Griffith’s sexual confusion, exploitation, and unwanted role-playing creates a powerful sense of disempowerment that is strikingly different from the sentimental victimization of Morrison’s Wilde. Blanchard’s Griffith wanders through the world as best he can, uncertain of his identity, pushed to extremes of emotion, and ultimately broken by the sport that he has been reluctantly forced to pursue. The opera opens and closes with scenes of Griffith as an old man, suffering from dementia pugilistica, reflecting on a complicated life that involved a lot of cruelty, both inflicted and received. In this, Blanchard and Cristofer channel the mood and structure of Britten’s Billy Budd more effectively than Morrison channels his Death in Venice.

The best moments in Champion are raw, and unprocessed, yet more genuinely forceful than anything in Oscar. Blanchard and Cristofer may well have invented, or distilled beyond recognition, the emotional drama of their title character, but they have also rescued a tortured life from oblivion. The opera’s material is an exercise in preservation rather than celebration, and musically it feels more intimate and honest than the more self-conscious striving after traditional operatic effects heard in Oscar. The salvaging of Emile Griffith, through music, is a more substantial service to history, and the archaeology of human feeling, than the dutiful homage to Wilde as gay icon heard in Santa Fe. In this sense, Champion feels close to the approach that made Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” such a sad and engaging story and a tolerably good movie, which raises expectations for what Wuorinen, a prickly and astringent musical voice, will do with the same characters in Madrid.4 If opera has been late to depicting lives such as Griffith’s, works such as Champion suggest how the oversight can be remedied: by approaching sexuality as but one element in the spectrum of personality, incidental but not irrelevant. The mainstreaming of homosexuality brings the blessing of freeing the depiction of gay lives in art from the burden of protest. Protest is often a necessary stance toward society, but it comes with a terrible deformation of the full richness of human experience. 

Philip Kennicott is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

  1. Maurice Jarre was a prolific French composer of film scores, nominated for nine academy awards, winner of three. The melodic contours in “Oscar” are reminiscent of his scores to “Doctor Zhivago” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”

  2. The season wasn’t a wash. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato gave a spectacular performance of the title role of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago, and young singers helped dust all the cobwebs off two repertory staples, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and Verdi’s “La traviata.”

  3. Adams’ 1991 “Death of Klinghoffer” is the most famous recent example. Based on the events surrounding the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by the Palestine Liberation Front, the opera was deemed by some prominent critics too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, and anti-Semitic. Adams revised parts of it, and it was restaged in the United States in 2011 by the adventurous Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

  4. Wuorinen’s first opera was “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” based on the children’s book by Salmon Rushdie. For “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx wrote the libretto, and exercised her skills as a poet as well, creating short, punchy, verses that balance colloquial and lyric language.