Opera has played with ideas of gender since its earliest days. Now the first openly trans performers are taking to the stage, and operas explicitly exploring trans identities are beginning to emerge.
BERLIN — The figure of the nurse Arnalta is almost as old as opera itself. In Claudio Monteverdi’s saucy Roman sex comedy The Coronation of Poppaea, this motherly confidante spurs the eponymous heroine on to ever more lustful encounters, singing her advice in the voice of a tenor. The tradition of a man playing an older woman in a comic role can be traced all the way back to the comedies of the ancient world, which Renaissance-era writers looked to for inspiration.
The Popes in Baroque Rome decreed that, supposedly for religious reasons, women should not sing on stage. But they still enjoyed the spectacular performances of castratos, supporting them as patrons and sometimes even acting as librettists. The tradition continues today in the form of celebrated countertenors, and some male sopranos perform in female costume.
“I don’t know what I am, or what I’m doing.” This is how the pageboy Cherubino expresses his confusion at the flood of hormones he is experiencing in his aria in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro – one of the most popular operas of all time, full of amorous adventures and sexual misunderstandings. Cherubino cannot and does not want to choose between a countess, a lady’s maid, and a gardener’s daughter. He sometimes wears women’s clothing himself, and in modern productions the music teacher even chases after the young man.
The role of Cherubino, the lustful teenager caught between childhood and manhood, someone who appears trapped in the "wrong
body, is traditionally performed by a woman, usually a mezzosoprano. The audience is used to this convention, also seen in Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier or Siegfried Matthus’s Cornet Christoph Rilke’s Song of Love and Death, first performed in 1984.
But what does it mean for an opera singer to come out as a transperson, when playing with gender has been such an integral part of the repertoire for centuries?
When the Vienna State Opera staged Olga Neuwirth’s Orlando in 2019, based on Virginia Woolf’s iconic gender-fluid protagonist, the New York-based trans performer Justin Vivian Bond played Orlando as an androgynous child and a night club singer. Even in Italian opera houses, which are thought to be more conservative, trans performers have played the flamboyant comic speaking role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment.
So far, the shift has been confined largely to minor roles. But baritones like Lucia Lucas and Sam Taskinen, who live as women in their daily lives, are also seeking to embrace their female identity on stage.
He wanted to write an opera about Stonewall
Lucas says uncompromisingly, “I’m trans. I don’t want to perpetuate any cliches. I want to be taken seriously as an artist.” On stage she still performs male roles with gusto, and she has even played the greatest lothario of all, Don Giovanni, in her native USA – in traditionally redneck Oklahoma of all places. The story of this groundbreaking performance was told in the documentary The Sound of Identity.
Lucas, who chose the name Lucia as a nod to Donizetti’s tragic heroine and refers to herself as a “female baritone”, has also played the role of Public Opinion in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, and the high priest in Samson and Delilah. She has also performi at the Metropolitan Opera.
Are the parameters changing for queer performers in traditionally puritanical America? For starters, there is a blurring of gender identities: does the man singing onstage with a female voice identify as a trans man in his daily life, and does the baritone who plays male roles live as a trans woman? Openly trans stars are still exceptions, and European opera houses are seemingly beginning to discover them only now. Two new, very different operas, both centring on trans title characters – Lili Elbe and Strella – are now being performed in St Gallen and Athens.
Jan Henric Bogen, the visionary artistic director of the opera house in St Gallen, commissioned Lili Elbe – the first major opera about a trans person – for the reopening of the brutalist concrete theatre after years of renovations. It is the seventh opera by the Grammy Award-winning American composer Tobias Picker, and his first to be performed in Europe. The 67-year-old Picker’s librettist is his husband Aryeh Lev Stollman. Lucia Lucas – a longtime friend, whom he cast as Don Giovanni when he was artistic consultant at the Tulsa Opera – acted as dramaturg.
Picker has wanted to compose a piece especially for Lucas for some time. At first he wanted to write an opera about the Stonewall riots of 1969, which were a turning point in the fight for LGBT rights. But in the end he decided to focus on the life of Lili Elbe.
Elbe was born in Denmark in 1862 and, although it is believed by some people that she had both male and female sex organs, she was raised as Einar Wegener. “He” became a painter, as did his wife Gerda. In Paris, the bisexual Gerda painted her husband as a female model called Lili, hiding her sitter’s true identity. In 1930 Wegener was the first trans person to undergo gender-affirming surgery.
The operation was performed at the Magnus Hirschfeld Institute of Sex Research in Berlin. As a consequence, Lili and Gerda’s marriage was dissolved by King Christian X of Denmark himself, and Elbe was issued with papers in her new name. In 1931, a few months after her fourth operation, Lili Elbe died of complications from surgery. She is buried in Johannstadt in Dresden.
Lili Elbe’s life story, Man Into Woman, published in 1931, was the basis for The Danish Girl, a biopic released in 2015, in which – in a decision that is now criticized by many activists – Eddie Redmayne performed as Einar/Lili. Lucia Lucas’s performance as Lili in the opera is convincing mainly due to her powerful vocals, even though visually she bears little resemblance to the historical Lili Elbe.
Luicia Lucas and troupe in their performance of Lili Elbe's opera
Experiencing being a woman
In Picker’s two-act opera, directed by the visionary Krystian Lada, she embodies Lili perfectly, as well as allowing her own experience to shine through. Over the course of two hours, culminating in a riveting, melodramatic death scene, the story is brought movingly to life.
It is the story of a great love that overcame all obstacles, and therefore rightly takes it place in the opera canon.
Lili becomes a kind of Orpheus figure when, after a failed uterus transplant (at the age of 49) she disappears into another world, without looking back. And despite all the obstacles placed in their path, she stays close to Gerda (played by Sylvia D’Eramo) even after she remarries.
Picker’s distinctive score, which draws on a broad range of influences from Stravinsky to the present day, via the Downton Abbey theme and cabaret music, is magnificently conducted by Modestas Pitrenas. The opera puts people and their fates in the spotlight; the sung performances are deeply touching; the ballet dancers reflect Lili Elbe’s experience of being a woman, as well as representing Gerda’s paintings.
Elbe experiences both support and opposition from wider society – as well as her disapproving sister and mother. King Christian X of Denmark’s intervention is also striking, while the ending – in which Lili, who feels she can only truly be a woman if she can be a mother, basically steals the womb of a vulnerable fellow patient – is truly shocking.
Lili Elbe is a timely and relevant opera that deserves to be widely performed, although Picker has made it a condition that the title role should only be played by a trans – or at least non-binary – artist. It is the story of a great love that overcame all obstacles, and therefore rightly takes it place in the opera canon.
As well as Lucia Lucas in the title role, the production also features Finnish female baritone Sam Taskinen as her brother.
Happiness at any price
This level of trans representation is not entirely unprecedented, as a Greek production of Strella recently featured three trans performers in an ensemble of twelve. The highly acclaimed production by Michalis Parakakis, which premiered last season at the Greek National Opera, is now being performed on the experimental Alternative Stage of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. It is a vibrant mix of spoken word, melodrama and music, just as fluid as its title character, inspired by the Oedipus myth.
The opera’s title comes from combining Stella – the name of an iconic Greek film by director Michael Cacoyannis, which premiered in 2009 at the Berlinale – and the Greek word “trella”, which means madness. In an understated but impressive performance, Letta Kappa plays the title character, a young trans sex worker and night club singer who embarks on an affair with Yorgos (Michael Psyrras), a murderer recently released from prison. Yorgos is searching for his long-lost son, who disappeared from his native village 15 years earlier, and eventually realises the shocking truth that this “son” is actually Strella, who was aware of her father’s identity all along.
Unlike the original tragedy, after all the shocking revelations about love, acceptance, and the insanity of demanding happiness at any price, Strella has a happy ending. Perhaps partly because Strella’s idol Maria Callas (played by Anastasia Kotsali) acts as a kind of guardian angel. The unusual but thrilling story sometimes feels brash and crude, but the masterful direction of George Koutlis makes it mesmerising nonetheless.
Conductor Konstantinos Terzakis and his ten musicians 10 brought into the action again and again – in the drag club, in the film sequences – and the lively score contrasts with abrupt cuts and painful verism. A squirrel dances around, a child toddles past, and in the end everyone celebrates together, in a cross between Christmas and a polyamorous carnival.
There is a long history of gender-nonconforming characters in Greek mythology – as far back as Hermaphroditus, the intersex son of Aphrodite and Hermes. A ballet about Lili Elbe is currently being performed in Salzburg, and a musical about her life is also in development. Even Beethoven’s Fidelio, the first opera to be performed in St Gallen when the theatre opened in 1968, features a cross-dressing soprano in the title role.
And it is thus that opera is starting to embrace trans identities. As Picker puts it, “I would like the audience to take away the message that all of us are siblings.”