The Legacy of Pride in Opera
June 1st marks the beginning of Pride Month, which takes place in June to honor the Stonewall Riots of 1969. During a time where authorities refused to provide liquor licenses to bars that served gay people, cops raided the Stonewall Inn for operating without a permit. The majority of people arrested were drag queens and gay men of color. In response, the LGBTQ+ community fought back against unfair and violent practices. The Stonewall Riots marked the tipping point for the American Gay Liberation Movement. Today, the month of June is used to celebrate LGBTQ+ people, hold memorials for those lost to hate crimes and HIV/AIDS, and recognize the huge impact that LGBTQ+ individuals have had on our world.
Opera is no exception to the magnitude of impact made by LGBTQ+ people. Some of your favorite composers may have had to hide their identities during their lifetimes, but we can celebrate their works and true selves today!
Jean-Baptiste de Lully (1632-1687)
Lully is often hailed as the father of early French opera. As the best friend of Louis XIV and Master of the King’s Music, Lully collaborated with French poet Molière to write plays with music and ballet. Lully staged at least 15 operas within his lifetime, establishing many operatic traditions, including the use of dance within operas. Although Lully married the daughter of a court composer, it was confirmed many times that he had extramarital affairs with men and women. After being caught in an affair with a young page in Louis XIV’s court, Lully was unfortunately relieved of his position and stripped of his influence. Although homosexual activity was a capital offense at this time in France, King Louis XIV was sympathetic and allowed the nobility to carry out a discreet subculture in his court because his brother, Philippe, was a celebrated warrior and drag queen, who would often ride into battle wearing women’s dresses and makeup. Lully’s impact on the opera world is immeasurable, as he mastered the French Baroque style and subsequently set the course for opera through history.
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Handel’s contributions to opera are expansive, as a baroque composer who brought early Italian opera to its peak. One of opera’s most prolific composers, his works remain often-performed today, including Rinaldo, Giulio Cesare, and Agrippina. Other works include The Messiah (yes, THAT one), Water Music, and Music for the Royal Fireworks. He created new genres of oratorios, concertos, and English church music. Handel was widely believed to be gay due to the social circles he frequented, although no concrete evidence proves whether he was or was not. Either way, his music was no doubt influenced by the gay subculture he was surrounded with. Handel’s chamber cantatas were composed for smaller audiences of his friends and supporters; therefore, his compositions were often influenced by the homosexual men he was friends with and majorly influenced the rest of his works. During his time living in England, police broke down the underground gay community, which caused Handel to rewrite some of his lyrics to avoid any suspicion.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) (TW: Suicide)
Considered by some to be the father of the Classical Era, Beethoven often deliberately wrote of women who were unavailable or not of his class to cover up his own desires and leanings. Although his sexuality has never been officially determined, Beethoven enjoyed relationships with various women and men. He was rumored to be in love with his nephew, Karl, and adopted him once Karl’s father (Beethoven’s brother) passed away. This was the end of any female relationships in Beethoven’s life, as he turned all of his love and affection to Karl. Beethoven was jealous and controlling, often dismissing Karl’s male friends and forcing Karl to stay with him at all times. This drove Karl to attempt suicide, leading to a month-long hospitalization during which Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was debuted. Beethoven’s letters have been well-researched and detail many intimate moments in his relationships.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) (TW: Suicide)
The famous composer of The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and operas Eugene Onegin and Iolanta, was openly gay within his lifetime. His homosexuality has since been hastily covered up by the Russian government. Tchaikovsky’s sexuality is well-documented by his own letters. He fell in love with his own nephew and dedicated his Symphonie Pathétique to him. Another one of his lovers influenced the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. His true identity has been continuously and very recently rewritten by the Russian government, who deemed promotion of gay stories punishable by imprisonment. With many failed marriages to women, Tchaikovsky was reported to the Tsar by an acquaintance that had found out about his homosexual leanings. Tchaikovsky soon died of cholera, but it is now widely suspected he was forced to take his own life because of his sexuality.
Francis Poulenc (1899-1963)
Poulenc struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, as he was extremely religious, and he went through a few periods of deep depression due to this internal conflict. Writing music in almost every genre of music, he was also part of Les Six, which was a group of famous young French composers. He had many relationships with men and women throughout his life, fathering one child with a woman he did not eventually marry. He wrote his one-act opera, La voix humaine, based on a libretto written by Jean Cocteau, a French homosexual icon.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
In a musical era where dissonance was encouraged, Copland became known as the father of American music. He infused American folk and jazz traditions into his compositions, while capitalizing on open fourths and fifths to portray the sprawling of American land. Copland was openly gay, but due to the hostile climate toward homosexuality in America at the time, Copland avoided political and social justice movements and chose to focus on his compositions.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Many of Britten’s works were inspired by and dedicated to his life partner, Sir Peter Pears. Living in England during a time where it was illegal to be gay, Britten forced to live a discreet life which often impacted his compositions. His operas revolve around loners and outsiders; his librettists were also gay and felt the same anguish he experienced. Britten’s most popular works include Turn of the Screw, Peter Grimes, and War Requiem. After his death, the Queen sent Sir Peter Pears a letter of condolence, which is the way a spouse of a significant person would have been treated. This indicated a potential beginning towards the acceptance of homosexuality in England.
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) and Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007)
Although they were famous independently of each other, Barber and Menotti became life partners after meeting at the Curtis Institute of Music. Barber’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera, Vanessa, was based on a libretto by Menotti. Barber’s catalogue also include operas Antony and Cleopatra and A Hand of Bridge. Menotti’s commonly performed operas include The Consul, Amahl and the Night Visitors, and The Saint of Bleecker Street. Both of these contemporary composers are celebrated and their operas are widely performed today.