Queering Opera

As a queer woman-of-color I personify a lot of non-realities in the opera world. Opera tends to be heteronormative in its convention, not showing much grey area when interpreting gender and sexuality and with these realities dictating much of how operatic works are formulated, it makes it hard for someone who doesn’t fit into these molds of heteronormativity to find an authentic operatic voice when portraying a role, reenacting a scene, or just trying to relate to the lyrics in a particular song.

Ever since I was a child, I knew that I had an attraction to women. I remember the first image of a naked body that really stayed fragmented in my mind was not of my own body, it was an image of a naked, white woman from a pornographic adverstisement pop-up on my family computer. We had a computer virus that flooded our homepage with pornography and I remember seeing this image and then my mother walking in on me seeing the image and subsequently freaking out because I had seen something that would potentially “corrupt” me. I wasn’t allowed to use the computer until the virus had been fixed and even years after that incident, when I was old enough to have my own computer in my room, I still wasn’t allowed to have Internet connectivity in fear that I would see more sexualized images…but I digress.
After seeing that female figure with fully-developed breasts, hips, a dramatic waist-to-hip ratio, and a vagina… I was intrigued by its form. I both admired the features of the woman and was aroused by it before I even knew what my own arousal was.
Around this timeframe, the years of experimental childhood play occurred and I had all of my playground girlfriends “play doctor” with me: these sessions included seeing each other naked, comparing body parts, pretending to be each other’s “boyfriends” with small kisses and touches here-and-there. I was fascinated more by female friends’ body parts than my male friends, and a lot of my female friends developed earlier than me, and I would be in awe of their curvaceous figures, noticing how they resembled the body of the porn star I saw at age 6.
Paired with these external manifestations of my budding lesbianism came the voyeuristic ventures of late-night erotica on T.V. Although my parents thought they were protecting my innocence by not allowing my Internet access, they put a cable T.V. in my room, forgetting about the massive amount of sex all over the place in the media. Perhaps they thought I would fall asleep before the phone sex advertisements, sex toy infomercials, and softcore erotic movies/shows would come on, but I was a youthful insomniac, unable to fall asleep until 3 or 4AM at times.
I began watching an erotic television show on “Oxygen”, the women’s network, called “Bliss”. It portrayed examples of female sexuality with soft-lens visions of women’s breasts and buttocks and all different forms of sex that always contained a female protagonist: heterosexual, homosexual, non-binary and gender-swapping sex. Seeing those visuals of women in ecstasy fascinated me, and I remembered always wanting to watch more of the lesbian storylines than the straight storylines.
But, still, I was also attracted to men. I still had posters of the hottest male actors, male pop stars and boy bands, and I still liked boys in my classes at school. All of this intrigue of women was something that I kept secret because I felt this unspoken sentiment of being gay-in any form-was bad. My parents were also religious and they believed that being gay was a sin, so I never spoke about my affinity for both men and women until I got older and wasn’t ashamed of who I was. I also found out that I had two gay male relatives, and I began to discuss the hypocrisy behind accepting them and not their own daughter to my parents.

There is this idea of women being able to have ‘acceptable queerness’ in the heteronormative space; women experimenting with other women or being not fully heterosexual as a performance to heterosexual men increased with the rise of modern pornographic culture, but even during the turn of the century women having sexual fluidity was still considered a crime and mental illness, but it was still subordinate to homosexual men due to patriarchal dynamics about gender (women are weaker than men, so their sexual preferences aren’t as detrimental as men’s…men must be straight because they are stronger). However, a lot of traditional conventions behind heteronormativity come from homoeroticism in male-to-male interactions, and this can be seen in opera.
Women were not allowed to perform in many on-stage productions, and when the first opera houses began, men were playing female roles. The men who played these roles went through a process of testicular castration  in order to keep their voices high-pitched and these performers were called, “castrati”. (Britannica)

In my personal experience with my own sexuality, I feel as if I have to perform as a straight woman in order to properly portray females in a heteronormative way. This tendency to perform as heterosexual has clouded my own viewpoint of my sexuality and has increasingly made me question where I stood in relation to be attracted to women. During the beginning stages of my transition to larger opera works and meeting my vocal coach and professor, I was experiencing a sexual dysphoria that I felt I had to suppress in order to successfully relay my arias to my audience; I grappled with believing I was a lesbian at the time, and was unable to find opera text that shared any similar sentiments. This is not surprising considering the fact that most operatic composers were heterosexual identifying males.
The opera that is primarily studied throughout my schooling years was always works that were written by men, celebrated by other male theorists, and those works were considered the foundation of studying classical operatic texts. This celebration of their works heightened my sense of dysphoria and I believe that it also led to me not fully grasping who I truly was for awhile.

Gay men have a larger space in larger musical works than gay women. These can be seen in the crossover works of the musical theater/Broadway space, where gay males stereotypically ‘run’ the discipline. I believe this can also be said when detailing the idea of castrati and the homo-eroticism of being able to perform as gender-fluid icons on stage: even though it is unspoken, gay men are widely more accepted and prevalent in the opera world than gay women.
I felt more accepted in the discipline when I was told of modern operas now allowing women to play ‘contralto’ and ‘countertenor’ parts. According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a contralto is “…a singing voice that has the range between tenor and mezzo-soprano [typically females]…” (Merriam-Webster) A countertenor is “…a tenor with an unusually high range [typically males]…” (Merriam-Webster). (A tenor is typically described as a high-voice male vocal part, and a mezzo-soprano is a middle-high voice for a female.)  This allowed for women to play the parts of male characters in lead roles. This is a phenomena not to be thought of in the older years of opera and it allowed me to feel more comfortable with my identity when I found this out. Another interesting factoid, though, is that I’m a soprano which usually fares to more traditional female roles. For my voice part, there aren’t many roles that allow me to explore gender-bending or any form of masculinity.

My opera studies have always been strictly heteronormative – I have not performed any operatic works that are for male leads; I’ve never portrayed a different gender or etc. The closest form of gender-fluidity that I’ve portrayed is the aria, “Ballata” by Ottorino Respighi. When I studied this song, it fit the correct voice part and intonation needed for my voice (soprano), but when I looked up a performance of the piece I also found that it could be performed by a male tenor. There are many pieces that have gender-neutral lyrics which could be for any gender to sing, and maybe these lyrics also allow a space for queer people to sing about/to whomever partner they prefer.
In my experience, however, my voice teachers have assumed that I would be singing to a male protagonist/antagonist and maybe that is because they never knew about my queerness. (Perhaps, it was also because of how we assume most people to be heterosexual before anything else which is less of an operatic issue and more of a cultural/social issue.)

Black queerness is something that is completely absent from opera. Since blackness is a minority in the opera world, in general, the minority of blackness interwoven with queerness is even smaller. These two intersections personify another part of my public vs. private space persona – the reality that my private space (my queerness and my blackness) does not have a home within the public space (opera). Since opera is a performance of art for an audience, how you present yourself is automatically put in the public eye – my blackness can be both private and public but I categorize my blackness as more private space because it’s an identity that goes beyond skin color and this can also be said for my queerness-it goes beyond liking women, there is a culture behind both identities that does not exist in the public lens of the opera space. This conflict of the public space mingling with the private space allows me to have to perform while already performing. I feel as if parts of my blackness and queerness must be hidden from the main-stage due to my voice part, depending on what songs I am singing, and how I present myself to the audience. I feel that they must already adjust to seeing a dark-skinned black woman on the stage, so they should not be presented with all facets of my identity all at once. This assumption is assuming that my audience is primarily white heterosexuals and of a different class background than me, and this particular audience’s private space (whiteness, heterosexuality, etc.) is allowed to take up public space.

So, how does this all affect my queerness overall? In the space of opera, I find myself performing as straight, and this performance affects my activist space when fighting for LGBTQIA+ rights in the social justice world. Because I feel the need to pass and mask my queerness when performing opera, I grapple with feeling like I belong in the activist world because I am not always authentic to who I am unlike other queer activists. This change from passing to non-passing hinders my ability to be comfortable in my own skin, at times, especially when I know that because I am bi-sexual, it is easier for me to access privilege in the queer world. This ability to pass and not have to morph into who I really am when performing gives me rights and abilities that other queer identities/minorities do not have.

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Ballata lyrics:

Non so qual io mi voglia
O viver o morir, per minor doglia
Morrir vorrei, che’l viver m’e gravoso
Veggendomi da voi esser lasciato
E morir nonvorrei, che trapassato
Piu non vedrei il bel viso amoroso
Per cui io piango invidioso
Di chi l’ha fatto suo e me ne spoglia!

I don’t know which I want,
To live or to die, to diminish [the] suffering
I would die, life weighs on me
Seeing myself abandoned by you;
But I would not die, [because if I] passed away
I would not see [your] beautiful, loving face
[So] I weep with envy for [he] who
Had it and strips me of it!

Castrato. The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. May 09, 2013. July 27th, 2017. Online.

“Contralto.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 30 July 2017.

“Countertenor.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 30 July 2017.

Ballata. Respighi, Ottorino. 1906.

Daring, C. B. Queering Anarchism: Essays on Gender, Power and Desire. Edinburgh: AK, 2013. Print.

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