For eight weeks every summer, the BBC proms are the place to see the world’s best musicians for as little as six pounds. One of this year’s biggest names was the American mezzo soprano, Jamie Barton, soloist for the last night of the festival. Barton is both openly bisexual and vocal about the need for people of all shapes and sizes to appear on the operatic stage. After dazzling with arias from Carmen and Samson et Dalila, she re-appeared to lead her audience in a rendition of Rule Britannia in a dress specially designed in the colours of the bisexual pride flag, and instead of the customary Union Jack, she flew a rainbow pride flag as she sang. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was not the only one to abandon the Union Jack and there many more than usual EU flags in evidence too). Many would argue that a message of openness and acceptance regardless of sexual orientation is just one way of expressing the quintessential Britishness that the last night of the proms celebrates - though of course the word ‘hijacked’ was not entirely absent from comments on videos of the moment posted on social media.

Jamie Barton in a performance of Wagner's 'Die Walkuere'Instagram @jbartonmezzo

Barton has since been in New York singing one of the title roles in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice at the Metropolitan opera; not the ill-fated Euridice, however, but her husband. This is just one of the many ‘trouser roles’ regularly sung by women. Mezzos play everything from emperors of Rome to sexually frustrated teenage boys and drunk, entitled Princes. So in opera, women loving women is common, if, of course, they are dressed as men.

Nearly three centuries passed between what is usually considered the birth of opera and the first openly gay character on the operatic stage, Countess Geschwitz in Alban Berg's Lulu which was premiered in 1937. Whilst this is by no means miles behind other arts forms, the world of opera has not exactly been overwhelmed with LGBTQ+ characters since and by far the majority of operas staged today are from well before this point. At first reading then, the outlook for diverse representation on the operatic stage is bleak. This is one of the reasons why Barton’s bold statement was so celebrated in many quarters, and pushed quietly under the carpet in others.

"If any bigger waves are to be made then we need to start reimaging the staples, the classics of the operatic repertoire"

Newly-composed pieces are certainly a way to start diversifying opera. For instance, Conor Mitchell’s ‘Abomination: A DUP Opera’ has just finished it run at the Outbursts Queer Arts Festival Belfast. Fusing opera with drag, cabaret and political satire, it tells the story of the interview given by Iris Robinson, then a DUP MP and wife of Northern Ireland’s first minister, Peter Robinson. Speaking with Steven Nolan on Radio Ulster in 2008, Robinson called homosexuality an ‘abomination’. These performances were about as close to the political cutting edge as opera can be, coinciding almost exactly with the legalisation of abortion and same sex-marriage in Northern Ireland.

Instagram @fionashawfanpage

Sadly, modern operas are not the ones that keep the opera companies in business, and if any bigger waves are to be made then we need to start reimaging the staples, the classics of the operatic repertoire. Sometimes all it takes is for a director to exploit possibilities already there, as Fiona Shaw proved with her recent production of Massenet’s Cendrillon at Glyndebourne. Shaw, known to more of us as Carolyn from BBC’s Killing Eve, is herself married to a woman, the economist and memoirist Sonali Deraniyagala. Her Cinderella (Daniele de Niese) has complicated feelings for another servant girl in the palace (Kate Lindsey). In a dream, she meets and falls in love with her Prince Charming (also Lindsey). Realising this was all a dream, she tries and fails to take her own life. When she recovers, she is met by the servant girl, who she realizes is her true love.

"In opera, women loving women is common, if, of course, they are dressed as men."

The story of another lesbian couple is coming to the Cambridge Opera scene later this term. Green Opera’s ‘Fillu’ will tell the story of Robert and Clara Schumann’s daughter Eugenie and the struggles she faced to be united with her lover, the Austrian Soprano, Marie Fillunger. They will pair readings of letters between the lovers with dramatized performances of songs by the Schumann family and their close musical circle. So often in such songs, protagonists are male, and women are looked at, desired and remembered but not given a voice. With a few changes of pronoun, Green Opera will be reclaiming these songs to give lyrical voice to two women whose true voices were so muffled during their own lives.

These are just isolated examples and these are by no means the only are by no means the only LGBTQ+ characters in opera. Perhaps with the next generation of artists and directors opera will be transformed in more ways than this, and one day, Barton’s successors might sing a female Orfeo at the Met. 

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