Through Countess Geschwitz’s glasses. Lesbians at the opera.

Geschwitz - screenshot from Pandora’s Box

‘Gay’ and ‘opera’ are often named in the same sentence. At times, they are almost used as indicative synonyms – a man who enjoys opera is by default gay, and for many gay men, being into opera is something that comes without asking. To this link between ‘gay’ and ‘opera’, we owe the fabulous figure known as the opera queen. (as far as examples go, I’d like to name my own baby brother. The Queen of the Night has nothing on him, except maybe eyeshadow and fake lashes)

Not just among viewers, also among people on the producing side of opera, there are a lot of openly gay men: directors, singers (more or less out) and even managers. A former colleague (a straight assistant director) used to put it this way: “There are straight opera houses, and there are gay male opera houses. And then there’s Innsbruck and Kiel.” (the latter two, at the time, apparently being under lesbian management).

Gay men and the arts – opera in particular – are linked by popular judgment. Just like gay men stand for being creative, well-dressed, the perfect shopping guide and overall a girl’s best friend (and thinking of my brother, I’d have to sign all of the above).

Lesbians, on the other hand, stand for bad haircuts, flannel and a general lack of humor.

Contrary to gay men, lesbians are apparently not considered a relevant opera demographic. If you go to a performance, you’ll find couples of gay men discussing the hotness of Jonas Kaufmann production of the (gay) stage director during the breaks and afterwards they’ll be the ones lined up at the stage entrance, waiting for the diva’s appearance. (and Jonas Kaufman’s, too)

Meanwhile, the only lesbian in sight is most likely the set design assistant who at the exact same moment will be standing backstage with her thumbs hooked into her tool belt, if she isn’t operating any heavy machinery. Honestly, most lesbians I’ve met in opera were set design assistants. If you want to be daring, a costume assistant here and there.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love gay guys, and I love going to the opera with them, but… – wait, I need to get upon the third balcony for the next bit (acoustics, you know…) – WHERE ARE THE LESBIANS???

This is a call on all frequencies for the opera dyke – on, behind and in front of the scene.

Statistically, it is not very credible to assume that in every major opera house, there is just ONE lesbian to be found at all times, and that she’s the one who is the set design assistant.

Granted, there are a few lesbian stage directors, but in comparison to their male counterparts, they remain very few and much less talked about. There is the rare sight of a woman in a suit in the audience, often alone (and most likely at Rosenkavalier performances). And there are a few lesbian singers and even fewer of them are out (with notable exceptions, two of which are married to each other. Heh.) – in general, the out ones aren’t THAT famous, and the famous ones aren’t THAT out. In fact, the only one really, REALLY famous one who has been “outed” (in a damaging, unfair way) remains Brigitte Fassbaender (of course, with that voice, who would care how she identifies? Every queer person can identify with her sound, so let’s leave the woman out if it!). – Being out on the opera stage seems to equal being out in professional sports – and whereas male opera professionals and female athletes are often associated with a possibility of being gay, it seems to be the opposite for female opera singers, just like for male athletes.

Of course, whether artists are gay or not and whether they are out or not has nothing to do with enjoying opera. It’s only a sad side note that apparently, being out can still be detrimental for a career in a field as gay as opera.

And opera isn’t only for its queens – it has much to offer to lesbian and bisexual women, as well:

For one, divas. Hello! The boys might identify with her, but we’d actually go for her.

Two (and this should actually be reasons one to five): trouser roles. They weren’t invented as something gay (in fact, at the time they came to be there wasn’t an anthropological model on the map that would have labeled anyone as gay), but if you’re going to the opera as a lesbian today, you can’t help but consider them a candy store. And you just need to buy a ticket to be locked up with them all night. Sure, trouser roles are supposed to be guys, but what we see is a woman in pants going after another woman. Sounds like a perfectly lesbian thing to me.

The only out lesbian role in opera might be Brangäne Berg’s Countess Geschwitz, but there is lesbian subtext galore. It made us happy for six years on Xena. Why not in opera?

Cherubino? Check.

Octavian? Double-check.

ANY Baroque opera hero sung by a woman? *utter glee*

The way Brangäne takes care of Isolde in “Tristan”? …devoted friendship? Uh-uh. Not in my dreams.

I’m bored with being the only woman screaming her lungs out next to our gay brethren on the third balcony when Catherine Naglestad or Vesselina Kasarova have their curtain call. Dear fellow opera dykes: Holler back. Please.

I’ll do my part. And I’m not above promising posts with hot mezzos in pants while I’m at it. You shell out 100$ for a ticket, you have the right to drool, as far as I’m concerned (respectfully, of course).

When I first stumbled upon Wayne Koestenbaum’s “The Queen’s Throat”, I was jumping up and down with excitement at reading its tagline: “Opera, homosexuality and the mystery of desire”. After reading this thoughtful and articulate account on gay opera fans, though, I found one thing to be missing from it: lesbians.

I’m leaving you a prime example of queer female opera heaven. I dare you to come back afterwards and tell me that opera was NOT invented for dykes.

30 thoughts on “Through Countess Geschwitz’s glasses. Lesbians at the opera.”

  1. very much like the tag little red ranting hood ; ) and at least you can file that text under the Page 89-161-thing *fg* sleep tight tonight!


  2. I’m not an opera fan, but find your comment quite interesting. I guess we’re still having “man’s” and “woman’s” restricted areas in manyfields, [either straight and/or homosexual guys], old cliches and gender divisions. A lesbian, above all, is a woman and women are still far behind reaching equal sex opportunities and possibilities. And whether lesbian or straight, women are still living in a patriarcal society and many of them having male chauvinist [“machista”] cobwebs in their minds. Sorry, you know, I’m an old fashioned feminist still. Glad to find you’ve got a blog, you’ll see me around a lot. Samantha


  3. Opera dyke here. I’m lucky to live in Paris (France) where we have some good productions even if I don’t go as much as I would like to. And I totally agree with your post.


  4. You know, sometimes I wonder about Norma and Adalgisa… Those two duets they sing to each other make me wonder why they’d have any need for men at all! 😉


  5. @Smorg: a prime example indeed, thanks!
    …and you mean Norma and Adalgisa aren’t the actual couple? Really? Bugger… I thought at
    Sì, fino all’ore estreme
    Compagna tua m’avrai.
    Finchè il tuo core a battere
    Io senta sul mio cor, sì.

    there could be no more doubt… 😉


  6. @Clovis: hm, perhaps it’s not gay to love Netrebko… But to love opera? – All my male opera connections are either gay or work in the field, as well. Or both.


  7. marvellous! And believe me I’m shouting my lungs out … please don’t forget to write the promides counterpart to Kestenbaum!!! How do you know about Fassbaender/Innsbruck ? Arte you sure ? And how ? Interestingly, parterre mentions in a comment that Bartoli is a lesbian since ” a very good friend dated her 10 years ago ” – anything ? Details ? or just gossip ?


    1. …still working on the Koestenbaum counterpart, thanks Julian 🙂

      Innsbruck and Kiel: I can only cite my former colleague who has/had connections to both houses.

      Fassbaender: Since I enthusiastically wrote this call to action three years ago, my posting politics have changed a little: LGBT coverage only of singers who are explicitly out (when I wrote this post, I thought BF was explicitly out).
      But whether true or not, it is documented in the press that Fassbaender was outed and had to fight repercussions because of these assumptions. Anything else is her business and not mine.

      It’s different with singers who are out on their volition, like Pieczonka, or Charbonnet, or Daniels, or Jaroussky or Racette/Clayton.

      As for Bartoli – I really don’t know. Personally, I don’t think so and would file it under “gossip”, but even if there was something, it would be none of my business unless she made a press announcement. Respecting the singers’ privacy is something we care about greatly here at “Eye Bags”, so when it comes to gossip and hearsay, I’m a boring spoilsport. 😉


  8. Just a little observation: I’m (part) Italian, and in Italy, men who like opera aren’t necessarily presumed to be gay. I think that is because opera is viewed as a mainstream form of entertainment rather than just for particular segment of society, such as gay men, the very wealthy, etc. In fact, sometimes opera singers are portrayed in the same fashion in the media as pop stars are (and ironically, Italian opera singers have a much greater chance of making a name for themselves outside Italy than Italian pop stars – unless these pop stars decide to sing in English (ex. Lou Bega). But here in Canada where I live opera does have a following in our local gay community, though by no means are all opera-goers gay.


  9. I was raised among divas in an operahouse, many of which were women who didnt bother hiding their orientation for obvious reasons (it was a dressingroom in an operahouse! I mean thats practically an invitation) Theres so much lost in the fourth wall between backstage and the audience where its expected singers put on their mask which is crafted to hide so much of who they are to keep them divine. I’ve had the distinct pleasure of meeting those most out and proud in my art (who you briefly aluded to) and taken from that experience the greatest inspiration. I’m an aspiring opera singer and a writer whose every short story and novel revolve around the same two plot elements, the things I know best ‘opera’ and ‘lesbians.’

    I enjoyed this blog immensely because of that and would be honored to read what you have come up with in story ideas or share some of my own. Thank you for a very good read and inspiration.


  10. Darling, you are not alone!
    Terry Castle (see her article about Brigitte Fassbaender in her book The Apparitional Lesbian) – and the rest of us – completely share your not so secret sentiments and proclivities.
    Great post!


      1. Well, if I had been there I would have bought my ticket and waited patiently in line. Gosh, those were the days….
        btw, have you seen the youtube clips on mozart’s ‘clemenza di tito’ with Elīna Garanča and Vesselina Kasarova ? if you haven’t please do – and I am sure it will be a long time before you will ever get your chin off the floor.
        Best Wishes!


        1. those were the days indeed. I’d probably have lined up with the Gerryflapers, too.

          And, oh, THAT Tito…! The 2006 Salzburg DVD is a much discussed item on this blog, just as in most other White Shirt Blogs (particularly over at Eyes, tha dieu’s, and at the now closed Se Vuoi Pace) – even the White Shirt Logo (designed by Purity) wouldn’t exist without that particular production. Jaw-dropping just about says it all!


          1. ok – so I’m always the last to know – what else is new?!

            then what about this most adorable Cherubino – my my god! the succession of expressions – and that zaftig matron with her heaving bosom…..

            dont know if the link will take – but its that darling little Rinat Shaham singing ‘voi che sapete’


        2. oh yes, that’s a ncie one (thankfully, also out on DVD) – plus more Röschmann to boot! In fact, it seems that whatever Röschmann is in turns out to be a White Shirt feast. Hm, I may have to ponder that in a post… 😉


  11. Canada’s first lesbian opera will be premiered this summer (2013) at the Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver. Come check out When the Sun Comes Out, by composer Leslie Uyeda and librettist Rachel Rose.


  12. I’ve long had a vicarious pleasure seeing these trouser parts in opera — in theatre, we call them “breeches roles” — and enjoyed reading this a great deal. Thanks!


    1. I’ve seen them referenced as trouser roles and pants roles mainly, sometimes as “boys’ clothes parts”, which I don’t find that accurate, but it’s very telling.
      “breeches parts” does indeed seem more common in theatre beyond opera.


  13. Just found you through a 2008 article on lesbians at the opera and am delighted at what I’ve been reading so far there and on the rest of your site. Wish I could find some lesbian opera lovers in Los Angeles but in the meantime will be reading through your articles and stories.


    1. Welcome around! Two of our regulars used to live in L.A. for a bit, and we had an L.A.-based opera singer checking in now and then, too — so there is definitely some White Shirt scene in L.A. as well. I hope they’ll cross your path soon! Meanwhile, we’ll be happy to count you among us here.


  14. True, true. Opera was a vehicle for my coming out to myself many years ago. It is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for us dykes. So, how’s it going with The Pants of the Pageboy? Are we going to read it any time soon?


    1. Since it is not my actual research field, I have trouble fitting it in, but I compensate through rants on this blog. Thanks for stopping by on this post! When I wrote it, I did not know any other opera dyke in person, and now it’s White Shirts wherever I go… wondeful, and all thanks to you all sharing in the conversation.



      1. As you say, you are writing that book here — in the same format as Koestenbaum’s: notes and essays, jottings and ramblings, questions and exclamations and stories. The post-modern enrichment of replies and conversations with readers adds another level to the project. He quotes an account, by singer Clara Louise Kellogg, of her friendship with the woman who first came to her dressing room to ask, “Would you please kiss me?” Kellogg asks: “Who knows what sympathies, what comprehensions, what exquisite friendships, were blossoming out there in the dark house like a garden, waiting to be gathered?” Or online?


        1. perhaps this is the essence of it, indeed: going in thinking to write a book, and coming out with the much richer experience of all of us together weaving a text through our experiences and the tales of them… and what a beautiful fabric it is.


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