Singular instance (perhaps not if we staged more Venetian Baroque)? Elena Tsallagova (Calisto) and Vivica Genaux (Diana) on the brink of some love duetting in Cavalli’s “La Calisto”, Strasbourg 2017]
It’s May 17th, it’s IDAHOT – International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (and Queerphobia at large). It’s a day to remember that we all have bodies, and that how we read or shape or stage these bodies, how we live our truths in relation to them, and to whom these our bodies react (and how), does not make anybody or any body more valuable or ‘truer’ than the other.
Bear with me, this is going to get sappy.
Just yesterday, in between enthusiastically discussing the English Concert Ariodante tour and seeing Dehggi and Agathe figuring out a joint venture of Prina Fangirling in Halle via these pages, I stopped to think, “I am so lucky to have this place with you all.” A place where my queerness isn’t policed when I talk about opera, and a place where other queer ladies (and friends) get me, and treat themselves, others and their singer favorites with kindness.
I have been out for twenty years and I have been lucky and privileged for much of it, but I remember the early days. That shaky, nerve-wrecking road between inner and public coming out fell, for me, into the 1996/1997 season.
There was no internet to speak of yet. I was still in school, living with my parents. Finally realizing I was gay (“Oh… that’s what it is called what doesn’t happen with guys for me but when I watch Rosenkavalier? Okay, now it makes sense.”) and coming to terms with it was a lonely endeavour: I chickened out of calling the queer hotline at the local AIDS Support Center. The only thing in the media I had to hold onto was a b/w copy of the Ellen Time Cover boldly spelling out “Yep, I’m Gay”. I didn’t know anyone gay (or so I thought), and I didn’t know how to meet anyone gay, either. The only movie I had ever seen (in secret, at night, at very low volume) that featured lesbians was “Mädchen in Uniform” and that ended with the identification figure in a coma.
But I had opera.
I didn’t have names for many things yet and I certainly had no experience in anything resembling romance, but I knew crushes. And I had names for them thanks to opera. I had a pretext as a female body addressing another female body with desire and romantic intentions because I had worn out my “Le nozze di Figaro” recordings over the Cherubino arias, and because I had once seen “Rosenkavalier” on a rare night, at age seventeen, when my mother could not find an argument to deny my watching it (she was opposed, but to protest, she would have had to voice what she refused to acknowledge: “I do not like how you lighten up when you listen to these women sing to each other on screen”). I had – I have mentioned this elsewhere – poured over the “Idomeneo” libretto as a teenager, carried home the tape recording from the music library, and identified with Idamante in my crushes that I, for a long time, did not recognize as crushes. I thought I had to apologize for them, even though they happened to me without my doing: Non ho colpa, e mi condanni.
But there was opera.
The first summer I was consciously out was twenty years ago. It was 1997. Lady Di crashed against a tunnel wall in Paris. And I saw, for the first time, “La Calisto”. I spent most of that summer on the couch at a kind straight musician friend’s place, wearing out his videotape (I think I mentioned elsewhere that he later married the woman he was pining over that summer, and they are one of these couples that still just glow with serene happiness two decades later). “La Calisto” was a big step for me in terms of self-acknowledgement. Before, it had always been a reasoning of “But as long as I identify with the woman in the trousers, it’s actually a man, so I am still drawn to a straight romance, so I can’t be gay!” (I know, I know. Classic denial.)
“La Calisto” was different. “La Calisto” was a woman voicing desire for another woman. And slowly, I came to accept that that was me. And that it could be beautiful (there was so much shame in the beginning).
I also owe that acceptance to opera.
In opera, the mezzos in pants often got to walk off with the soprano, into a happy ending. And once I admitted that, no, I didn’t look at trouser roles like I looked at other male roles, it was a space where I began to imagine that I could perhaps have that, too, one day. The trouser role mezzos weren’t awkward, they were dashing. They didn’t wait for a prince, they were the prince. They were bodies, in their stage context, not shunned for presenting beyond conventional femininity, but being acknowledged, respected and even desired for it. They got to wear white shirts and trousers and they owned them.
I do not identify as trans. But I do not identify with conventional femininity in my self-presentation, either. It is something for which, at times, I get mocking, bewildered or even disgusted stares – on the bus, or in a concert venue foyer. But by now, I own my shirts and my pochettes and my trousers. Opera taught me that, too.
When I bought my first proper man’s shirt, I was in my late teens. I had saved up a bit of money, but I had no idea what my size would be (remember, no internet). And I was too shy and too embarrassed to ask the shop clerk for help, and so of course I bought the shirt far too big. But I treasured it for years, even though I must have looked awkward in it.
These days, I know my shirt size, and I know how to wear my pochettes and I can tie my neckwear in my sleep (and my mother-in-law, who is wonderful, gives me cufflinks for Christmas). I do at times get called out by friends for a bit of old-fashioned chivalry, and it makes me smile because I recognize the echo of the trouser roles that taught me to be the queer woman I am today.
And now and then, in the corner of one of my classrooms or walking next to their parents in the street, I will see a girl (or not a girl) look at me in sudden recognition, somewhere between wide-eyed disbelief and joy, before they quickly look away again. And those looks make all the offended or disgusted ones worth it. And I always hope that these young queers will find their way, perhaps, into opera, or into another environment that gives them representation, hope, and joy.
And this is tied yet another, important point: back then, twenty years ago, I couldn’t begin to imagine that I would ever know people with whom I could share my love of opera, much less from my (gay) perspective. I couldn’t fathom that there would be people who would nod and say “me, too” when I sighed over an Octavian, or an Idamante, or a female-cast Giulio Cesare, or a Contessa. Or the entirety of “Alcina”.
But here you are, and I also have to thank opera for that.
And so yesterday, I stopped and thought about how very lucky I am. And how grateful for your presence in my life. We’ve got liveblogs, and White Shirt venue meet-ups, and alerting each other to concerts and performances, and ‘our’ reviews, and lot’s of “me, too”. That we also are a little hub of queer visibility is just as an added bonus.
Thank you, and happy IDAHOT, wherever you are.