Tuesday, 18 March 2014

It's Not Over Until ...

… the fat lady sings, so the saying goes, which would be unfair on today’s selection of female lgbt singers. The “fat lady” saying refers to the old stereotypical big Valkyrie of an opera soprano belting out the finale at full volume – a stereotype no doubt originating in Wagnerian opera.

The term “diva” is often applied to singers in a wide range of musical genres though the true diva belongs to classical opera. Opera has long had a queer appeal, especially during the early years when male singer called castrati became big stars of the opera world. Being castrated in the name of their art seems a bit extreme to us today, but in the days when few (if any) female opera singers existed the castrati would take female romantic roles.

No pre-mid-20th-century diva has been positively identified as lesbian or bisexual. Patricia Juliana Smith in her entry “Diva” on gltbq.com mentions several opera singers whose sexuality has been speculated upon. She agrees with leading lesbian literary scholar Terry Castle that these divas had a large female fan base (“lesbian diva worship”, Terry calls it).

One of the singers mentioned by Patricia Juliana Smith in her article is the Swedish-American diva Olive Fremstad (1871-1951). Olive made her name in strong Wagnerian roles, naturally attracting many feminist and lesbian fans. Her sexuality is one of constant debate, not helped by a fictionalised account of her “relationship” with her secretary Mary Watkins Cushing. They lived together for many years, and Marcia Davenport’s novel about them, “Of Lena Geyer”, confuses the issue by making them a couple. Olive married and divorced twice and never had children, which also fuels the speculation about her sexuality.

In modern times there are still few openly lesbian opera singers. One of the top opera divas of our time, Patricia Racette, came out in 2002 and found that there were some fellow opera singers and “fans” who weren’t too happy. Echoes of some experiences found in sport, perhaps? And Patricia is half of an operatic couple. Her partner Beth Clayton is also an opera singer.

A couple of years before Patricia Racette came out Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet and Brigitte Fassbaender were the only openly lesbian singers on the international opera circuit. Jeanne-Michelle, like Patricia, can’t tell if she had lost out on a role because of her sexuality, but “I’ve had suspicions”, she said in an interview in The Advocate.

If being openly lesbian is open to discrimination in opera, then how does it feel to be openly lesbian and blind?

In the past couple of years Laurie Rubin has been making a name for herself in several ways. Firstly as an openly lesbian opera singer. Secondly as a blind lesbian opera singer. And thirdly as an lgbt campaigner. Laurie has never been “in” the closet, perhaps a reflection on the new generation of singers and changing attitudes in opera. Problems have arisen, however, when her partner Jenny, who accompanies Laurie to many concerts and events, is thought of as her “assistant”. Putting people right on the relationship is just part of Laurie’s effort to raise awareness of the lgbt community in opera.

In 2008 an amendment to California’s constitution known as Proposition * was passed. This amendment originated in opposition to proposed changes in same-sex marriages and, similar to the UK’s Section 28 and Russia’s current anti-gay propaganda laws, placed a lot of emphasis on protecting children to justify it. Laurie and Jenny organised a special concert of music by lgbt composers to raise funds for the campaign opposed to Proposition 8.

In a similar note to this, at last year’s Last Night of the Proms, the (heterosexual) star soloist of the night, Joyce DiDonato, dedicated her performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to the lgbt community in Russia in support of their rights in the face of Putin’s laws.

Back to Laurie Rubin for the “final act” in this operatic article. Part of her concert featured excerpts from an modern opera “Patience and Sarah” by Paula M. Kimper and Wende Persons. Based on a novel of the same name by Isabel Miller, “Patience and Sarah” is often described as the world’s first lesbian opera. The plot involves a common theme of two lovers from different backgrounds wishing for a new life together elsewhere despite opposition from their families. The complete opera was premiered in 1998 at the Lincoln Centre Festival.

“Patience and Sarah” has been performed several times since 1998, and because of it’s lesbian theme may have introduced many new fans to opera from the lgbt community who had never thought of going to an opera before in their life.

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