The Possibilities of Bisexuality in Opera
I first learned about opera’s tradition of trouser roles from a trio of puppets. As a toddler, I’d often watch the 1972-73 series “Who’s Afraid of Opera?,” which featured a trio of audience members created by puppeteer Larry Berthelson: Rudy the Lion, Sir William the goat, and Billy, the baby goat nephew of Sir William. In one episode, a family-friendly rendition of Gounod’s “Faust,” the trio spot Siébel, the young man in love with Marguerite.
On seeing him, Rudy remarks: “That girlfriend’s no use against the devil. Marguerite needs someone like me to look out for her.”
The effete Sir William responds: “That girlfriend is a boyfriend—and in love with Marguerite himself… In Gounod’s time, sopranos often played men’s roles.”
If at the time this idea of women playing men’s roles stuck with me, I was unaware of it doing so. My introduction to opera at age two or three meant that the various disbeliefs that needed to be suspended as an adult were non-issues. My toddler’s mind hadn’t yet developed the antibodies that fight all of the cognitive incongruities of an art form that demands stories must be sung all the way through.
I wonder if such early exposure is meritable or damnable. Quoting Brigid Brophy’s Mozart the Dramatist, the queer literary theorist Terry Castle notes that the role of an audience member is, by nature, regressive. Listeners must “renounce the power of speech,” and are only allowed “the infantile methods of inarticulate cries and hand-clapping.” This results in what Castle describes as a “baby-mood” that can linger long after the curtain call.
“At best,” she concludes, “the diva-worshiper is a kind of parody adult, a maker of silly sounds and fatuous conceits—a sort of gurgling, burbling semi-idiot.”
Did watching “Who’s Afraid of Opera?”—a series itself conceived by a diva (Joan Sutherland)—as a toddler enable me to shed my gurgling, burbling responses to the art form in tandem with my non–opera-induced baby-moods? Or did the 30-minute condensations of works like “Faust,” “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” and “La Traviata” result in a permanent baby-mood, the simplistic belief that feelings were as all-consuming as a Verdi plot, and romance was as binary as a Rossini comedy?
With an emotional landscape akin to the Alps—peak highs or plummeting crevasses, no in-betweens—it was easy for me to continue my love of opera well into my turbulent teenage years. (I defy you to find anything as perfectly suited to a prom-night meltdown as a Puccini-scored crisis.) Growing up in a small town in Rhode Island with no one around to share my delight in the music, the voices, or the romances, I turned to the wild west that was the internet in the late ‘90s. The prototype of social media was listservs, beginning with eGroups, which soon merged with Yahoo! to form Yahoo Groups. Revealing some of the DNA that would one day become Twitter threads, these groups communicated primarily via email, but kept all replies to new subjects on a semi-private archive. (It was only a few months ago, at the beginning of this year, that Yahoo finally scrubbed these archives from the Internet, following the sunset of Groups in 2014.) I have one of these groups, dominated by a few dozen misfit teens, to thank for the woman I would soon fall in love with.
I had already come out to a few close friends as bi towards the end of my freshman year of high school, trying on the label in the wake of a languishing crush on a tall camp counselor with pixie-ish hair who listened to James Taylor. But I hadn’t acted on any feelings until meeting this girl from New Jersey with a caustic wit and overlapping artistic obsessions. We met in New York one afternoon when I had taken a day trip in to see “Aida,” and I fell deep into the Mazzy Star-hued throes of a teenage crush.
At the dawn of the new millennium, high school sophomores didn’t declare love in rhythmic duets. Rather, in a time when Comic Sans was used unironically, we did so over AIM chats. A few weeks later, on a class trip to see “Don Giovanni,” I told a friend of mine about my new relationship. Her reaction, while supportive, was also cautious, and it clouded my mind as we sat through Don Giovanni’s conquest of Spain and eventual comeuppance. I contemplated every relationship pairing in that staging: Giovanni and Anna, Anna and Ottavio, Giovanni and Elvira, Zerlina and Masetto, Giovanni and Zerlina… the symmetry of boy-girl, girl-boy was the bulk of the score, with the only pairing that was boy-boy, Giovanni and Leporello, the most volatile.
On the bus ride home, my friend had liked the opera (except for the finale, “when they all sang about how it was over now and they were going to go home and have dinner”). She then remarked—in what was likely a 15-year–old’s stunted attempt at empathy—“It must be hard to like opera when you’re gay when all of the characters are straight.”
I’m still not sure why this comment stuck with me in the way it did.
By this time, I had graduated from goat puppets to “Great Performances.” The VHS I watched most in this time, recorded from a 1988 PBS broadcast, was “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” from the Metropolitan Opera. The truncated version of “Ecco, ridente in cielo” that Count Almaviva sings to Rosina in “Who’s Afraid of Opera?” expanded here into an ardent, swoony coloratura showcase for Rockwell Blake. In those five minutes, all I wanted as an unhappy teenager was to be serenaded outside my own (comparatively modest) bedroom window and carried off, culottes flying.
In Rossini’s era, being a woman at the opera could be both a liberation and a limitation. At that time, women were denied even the infantile methods of inarticulate cries and hand-clapping, permitted instead to wave their handkerchiefs, while the men, entitled to the full spectrum of their emotions, applauded and cheered.
In 2000, in a small town where I was already the square peg, the added burden of my queerness seemed like too much for a high school where I was already miserably cloistered (not unlike Rosina languishing under the guardianship of Bartolo). While mine was also the high school that had been challenged some 20 years earlier in district court by student Aaron Fricke, resulting in Fricke being allowed to bring his boyfriend to senior prom, this momentary liberation seemed to have once again been shoved in the back of the closet. (I was barred from bringing a platonic female friend to my freshman formal.)
But to be an outcast in high school was one thing—a temporary situation that would be resolved by college. To also feel like an outcast in the art form that gave me a sense of escape, a sense of a future, but not a lot to work with in terms of queer representation, was too much for my teenage brain. I sent my girlfriend a break-up email, edging myself back into a heteronormative identity. (For some reason, despite this act of adolescent cowardice, she still speaks to me.)
What I hadn’t known in 2000, and what I’d later discover in 2004 via Terry Castle and her essay “In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender,” was that the opera house was, up until the latter part of the 20th century, a haven for queer women. It was one of those rare spaces where one woman “could openly admire another woman’s body, resonate to the penetrating tones of her voice, and even imagine (from a distance) the blood-warmth of her flesh—and in an atmosphere of heightened emotion and powerful sensual arousal.”
I moved to New York for college in 2003, living next to Lincoln Center during the final years of the Paul Kellogg era at New York City Opera. I saw everything that season thanks to cheap student rush tickets, beginning with the season-opener of Handel’s “Alcina,” directed by Francesca Zambello. It marked the first live performance I’d seen featuring a trouser role, the first trouser role in general that I’d encountered since “Faust.” Beyond that, as I snuck into a prime orchestra seat at intermission, was the towering presence of women. Women playing women, women playing men, women playing women that were, for purposes of plot, disguised as men.
This dizzying display of gender dynamics was turned up a notch several months later when I saw the same composer’s “Xerxes.” In addition to women playing women, women playing men, and women temporarily disguised as men, we had men playing men but singing as countertenors. At times, I truly could not figure out which genders were underneath the britches.
Bookended by Handel that season, and perhaps leaving the greatest impression on me, was “La finta giardiniera.” Mozart was 18 when he wrote the piece, the same age I was when I first saw it. The libretto is a tangle of couples and disguises, love and vengeance, set to a score by a composer still figuring himself out. But the ideas that would drive later works like “Le nozze di Figaro” and “La clemenza di Tito” were already there in the ether.
For this production, director Mark Lamos staged “Giardiniera” in a mental hospital, highlighting the temporary madness some of the characters experience in the libretto, and adding a dramatic accent to each of their emotions. This renders the trouser role of Ramiro a bitter, finger-flipping spurned lover of Arminda (who left him for another).
In his final aria, “Va pure ad altri in braccio,” Ramiro tells Arminda he’s tired of chasing her and would rather be alone than miserable with her. As Sandra Piques Eddy sang this aria (looking like a dead ringer for Yitzhak in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”), she began to unbutton her shirt, remove her hat, and let down her hair, removing all semblance of a costume. By the end, she was standing in front of Brenda Harris’s Arminda in a pure state of emotional honesty, a hybrid of Sandra Piques Eddy and Ramiro, something that was between man and woman and utterly vulnerable.
Playwright Tony Kushner once called opera “a grand arena of irreconcilables.” As a playwriting major myself at the time, looking at the helpless and exhausted expression on Eddy’s face, I was struck by these irreconcilables. They’re not invisible in the more standard and heteronormative “Rigoletto”s or “Traviata”s of the canon, but, in a work like “La finta giardiniera,” in a staging like this, they were impossible to ignore. They stood there, vulnerable, exhausted, and demanding for attention to be paid.
I spent the second semester of my freshman year writing a play about a gay, closeted mezzo-soprano struggling to square her own relationship with her public image. (Perhaps my peak as a writer was having this character, in defense of her talents, at one point shout: “I MADE BEVERLY FUCKING SILLS CRY.”) The spark of this idea came from the image of a female singer dressed in full, period costume as a man, looking at herself in the mirror before going out onstage. I soon fell down a rabbit hole of pre-Google Images visual research that led me to Bulgarian mezzo Vesselina Kasarova’s website.
I tacked print-outs of production photos of Kasarova as Sesto, Idamante, and Bellini’s Romeo above my desk, much to the confusion of my roommates. I ordered a used copy of Corinne E. Blackmer and Patricia Juliana Smith’s En Travesti, perhaps the closest queer female complement to Wayne Koestenbaum’s standard-setting The Queen’s Throat.
En Travesti opens with a bang with Terry Castle’s “In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender.” Like Catherine Clément before her, Castle brings up the obsession with Maria Callas (one that Koestenbaum himself gently prods in The Queen’s Throat). While Callas, a soprano, sang many mezzo roles, from Carmen to Rosina, and had the requisite low notes, Castle notes that the diva’s “unambiguously heterosexual persona gets in the way.” Onstage and off, Callas’s allure was wrapped up in men, often unattainable.
Fassbaender, conversely, “fools no one” in her trouser roles. As Castle notes, “I find myself becoming more and more acutely aware of, and aroused by, her femininity.”
Playwriting didn’t stick for me, but those images of Kasarova did. Even after I’d left my first college, left New York, and was studying business in Italy, I still kept a folder of production photos on my laptop that I’d browse on a quiet Sunday morning, flipping through the old images of Kasarova that had once formed a moodboard on my old dorm room wall.
Ironically, it wasn’t a Mozart or Handel opera that became the catalyst for me. It wasn’t even Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” which may be the queerest heteronormative opera in the canon. Rather, it was a performance of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” in Budapest that brought me back out of the closet for a second time. Running into a fellow traveler from my hostel at one of the city’s bathhouses, we began to talk in the sulphur-rich pools. Realizing we both had a yen to see the opera house, we bought absurdly cheap box seats for that evening. Her hair still smelled vaguely of sulphur when she kissed me during “O du, mein holder Abendstern.”
“The grandiosity of operatic utterance is a wild compensation for the listener’s silence,” writes Wayne Koestenbaum in The Queen’s Throat, in a parallel to Terry Castle’s description of listening to opera as an act of regression. “Our ability to speak of ourselves has been foreshortened; we turn to opera because we need to breathe, to regain a right we imagine is godgiven—the right to open.”
Of course, I thought I was the first person ever to have this experience,” the blogger named Queer Lorgnette tells me with a laugh. “And then you realize, Okay, there are centuries before us.” Q, whose pseudonym refers to perhaps the most famous lesbian in opera, Countess Geschwitz in Berg’s “Lulu,” and I are talking about the closeted world of queer female desire in opera. At roughly the same age as me, she grew up in a period where the part of the internet reserved for queer opera fans was dominated by the male world of Parterre Box. Like me, she sensed a void, but unlike me, she did something about it and started a blog.
For Q, one moment of awakening came from watching “Der Rosenkavalier,” empathizing with Octavian’s own admiration for the Marschallin, and finding herself drawn to the imagery of the trouser role. (“I shouldn’t have let you watch ‘Rosenkavalier,’” Q’s mother said when she eventually came out as a teenager, suggesting that Q’s mother had understood what was going on for her daughter even before Q had realized it herself.)
Q references another trouser role, Idamante—the son of Mozart’s “Idomeneo”—in describing this moment of coming out. Like my own experiences with En Travesti and The Queen’s Throat, Q had turned to music textbooks, using them as a road map to further understand both the repertoire that she was drawn to, and, by extension, herself. Idamante’s first aria begins with the phrase “Non ho colpa, e mi condanni, idol mio, perché t’adoro”—“It’s not my fault,” he sings to Ilia. “And yet, you condemn me, my idol, because I adore you.”
“I didn’t realize then that this was such a core experience of coming out as gay in an environment that would shame me for it,” Q adds.
Where I, as an adult, failed to find an online community of queer female opera fans, Q had found clearer waters. After starting her own blog in 2008, billed as a space where people—“most of them queer, most of them identifying as female”—could talk about opera from a feminist and feminine lens, she found a willing audience. And while Koestenbaum admits to never having had a satisfying conversation about opera with another opera queen, the female version of opera fandom is a near-perfect inverse. Much like Cherubino’s androgynous and hormonal presence in “Le nozze di Figaro” stymies more than one male character, it’s appealing company to the female characters. Like attracts like.
And where women previously had fan clubs and the occasional in-person meetups to see a performance together and resonate to the penetrating tones of voices like Mary Garden’s and Brigitte Fassbaender’s, the era of blogging (and, later on, social media) became a chance for many queer female opera fans to reclaim the language they had ceded as listeners. “There were women that were suddenly latching onto a community that they didn’t have the infrastructure for before,” Q explains of her blog’s growth in 2008. “There wasn’t a women-centric environment.”
Different eras and factions of female opera fandom have had their names, such as the “Gerry-flappers” who followed soprano Geraldine Farrar. Aptly enough, it was Vesselina Kasarova who inspired the name of this growing women-centric environment. As production trends moved from period costumes with britches and culottes into more minimalist and modern imaginings, Kasarova’s own production photos began to look different. A 2003 Salzburg Festival performance of “La clemenza di Tito,” released on DVD in 2006, features the Bulgarian mezzo with her hair slicked down, but hanging in loose curls around the nape of her neck.
In an Act I duet, Kasarova begins in a black suit and tie, begging Dorothea Röschmann’s Vitellia to command him as she will. The heartbeat of Sesto’s plea quickens as Vitellia takes the vocal line in response, demanding that Sesto avenge her by killing Tito. With Sesto’s own pulse racing (“Your fury sets me aflame,” he responds), Kasarova removes her jacket. She wears a white dress shirt underneath, but her chest is unbound. Like Fassbaender before her, Kasarova isn’t out to fool anyone into thinking she is strictly a man in this scene. The term “White Shirts” became used as a collective for this new, codified online community, a term credited to former blogger Purity McCall.
Less than 10 years later, with the hyper-connection and short-form messaging of social media supplanting blogs, another generation began to pick up the thread. Echoing Tony Kushner, writer and performer Ilana Walder-Biesanz wrote in 2017:
The delicious queerness of opera also involves a paradox of creating realistic drama in which everyone sings everything; the mismatch between singers’ and characters’ appearances or ages; and the carefully trained use of the most natural instrument, the human voice.
“I don’t think I had any sense that I was also attracted to women until I got really into opera and started watching a bunch of operas with trouser roles,” Walter-Biesanz tells me via Skype. Like me, she didn’t grow up among fellow opera lovers. But she did grow up roughly a decade later than I did, leaving for college in 2009—a year after the White Shirt community began to coalesce. Following a brief heyday on Tumblr, the agora for opera fans shifted to Twitter. With a new community (with many of its members identifying as queer, female, trans and non-binary), a new name was born: Mezzosexual.
Writing about the phrase in her college thesis on “La clemenza di Tito,” Walder-Biesanz describes the concept of mezzosexuality as part of the delicious paradox of opera: “not quite homo-, hetero-, bi-, or any other ‘sexual,’ but rather somewhere in the middle of all those labels.”
The rise and urgency of identity politics came at roughly the same time as a growing ambivalence towards labels. With many people discussing a spectrum versus a binary, one Tumblr user and opera fan quipped that they chose to identify as “mezzosexual.” It resonated. (The fact that “mezzo” literally means “middle” was cosmic.)
“It was just a joke, and then it became a real thing,” laughs Aiden Kim Feltkamp, a transgender nonbinary librettist, performer, and educator who previously specialized in what they describe as the “queer grey zone” of trouser roles.
“It’s a very queer experience playing these roles,” Feltkamp explains. One formative role for them was Count Orlofsky in “Die Fledermaus.” In a 1980s-influenced staging, they were outfitted as David Bowie circa Ziggy Stardust. Something felt right.
“Most trans narratives circle around this idea of gender dysphoria—which makes sense, because that’s something that you deal with every day,” Feltkamp says of the experience. “But, to me, it was like finding gender euphoria in this place that made sense to me now. It wasn’t moving away from something, it was moving towards.”
In the final chapter of The Queen’s Throat, Koestenbaum presents “A Pocket Guide to Queer Moments in Opera.” The first time I read this book, I’m shocked to see that “Ecco, ridente in cielo,” Almaviva’s first aria from “Il barbiere di Siviglia” and one of my heteronormative opera touchpoints, is included:
A present, palpitating man opens his mouth to invoke a woman. But the woman fails to appear, and the aria, retroactively, becomes queer: The woman appears not in person but in his timbre. He sings for the pleasure of singing, for no woman, because he loves to linger in the land of wounds.
Almaviva sings of love, hidden in the shadows. It’s almost a premonition of Cherubino in “Figaro,” asking the Countess and Susanna (those who know what love is) if he, too, has it in his heart. His desire is surrounded by uncertainty.
Art can be used to illuminate the consciousness that lies on the margins of uncertainty. In 1972, while Joan Sutherland and her puppet friends were teaching generations of kids about opera, John Berger argued in his book Ways of Seeing that a “language of images” could be used to “confer a new kind of power.”
On any given pinboard, Berger reasons, someone—adult or child—may collect letters, photographs, postcards, articles, drawings. On such a board, “all the images belong to the same language and all are more or less equal within it, because they have been chosen in a highly personal way to match and express the experience of the room’s inhabitant.”
In this analogy, I’m reminded of the moodboard of Kasarova images, and consider them as a language. Within such a language, Berger argues, “we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.”
Art in the present can neither exist as it did in the past, nor can it exist in a vacuum. Over the last few decades, productions of operas like “Alcina” for the Staatsoper Stuttgart and “Clemenza” for the Salzburg Festival have allowed for what Walter-Biezans describes as “that interesting possibility of queerness.” It’s a possibility that—like Sandra Piques Eddy’s Ramiro— is impossible to ignore in 2020. The Cult of Callas existed in the footsteps of Gerry-flappers, and now shares space with White Shirts and Mezzosexuals. And, finally, queer and nonbinary women are demanding more space.
“It’s a repertoire of moving, of taking space, of an attitude that usually is not associated with women,” says Q. “The core rep is so much about submissive and suppressed female desire, and actually it’s fetishizing the sort of passivity and being passed around as an object. And if you have that, then [if you create] something that finally gives a voice to all these suppressed things…” She trails off. “Now we can move in the other direction and actually talk about desire.” ¶