Those of us who have lived through the civil rights movement, the women's liberation movement, the gay rights movement and the struggle to find a cure for AIDS understand that large numbers of people working together can, indeed, create change in the fabric of our society. Social unrest leads to political activism and, with lots of hard work, forward movement. Although positive results often seem few and far between, over a longer span of time, the progress of any social cause is often quite impressive.
Think, for a minute, how public pressure and the lobbying efforts of special interest groups have affected equal opportunity employment practices, the improvement of facilities for the handicapped, and helped our society to understand such difficult issues as Alzheimer's disease, euthenasia and the need for safe sex.
None of this happened overnight. These forward strides were made possible by the tireless efforts of armies of dedicated people willing to fight for the freedom, rights and protection they felt they deserved. Some individuals emerged from the masses to become heroes of the social and political causes for which they fought. Some of these courageous men and women even ended up on the operatic stage.
In 1968, the New York City Opera presented the world premiere of Douglas Moore's Carry Nation, an opera about the woman who relentlessly crusaded against alcohol and liquor. In 1984, to help celebrate its 150th anniversary, the city of Rochester, New York premiered The Woman Who Dared: A Fine Agitation an opera by Zelman Bokser and Cynthia Fuller about suffragette and woman's rights activist, Susan B. Anthony.
Less well-known operas have been composed about Aimee Semple McPherson, the Reverend Jim Jones (whose followers committed mass suicide in Guyana) and the widow (Emma) of Mormon founder and prophet, Joseph Smith. Composer Anthony Davis has even announced his plans for Tania, an opera about the 1972 kidnapping of Patricia Hearst.
Black history continues to make interesting strides in opera. In 1985, the Virginia Opera presented the world premiere of Thea Musgrave's Harriet Tubman: The Woman Called Moses. In 1986, the New York City Opera presented the world premiere of Anthony Davis's X: The Life And Times of Malcolm X. In April of 1991, the New Jersey State Opera will present the world premiere of Frederick Douglass, a new opera by Ulysses Kay. Composer Terry Hayes has also written a "docu-opera" about Paul Robeson.
Alas, as we all know, there have been few, if any operas written about an openly gay character -- much less anyone associated with the gay rights movement. However, history is in the making and I'm happy to break the news to readers of one America's longest-lasting gay publications through this column. While in New York last month, I dined with Michael Korie, the talented writer who, along with composer Stewart Wallace, crafted Where's Dick? (which received its world premiere from Texas Opera Theater in June of 1989). The team has since premiered a successful performance piece entitled Kabbalah and begun work on an opera about Hedda Hopper. Although their plans to write an opera based on Sara Schulman's People In Trouble have been temporarily shelved, Korie & Wallace were recently commissioned to compose an opera about Harvey Milk.
That's right, folks. An opera about Harvey.
For many years, Milk wrote the political commentary for this newspaper. And, although none of us ever wanted to see him assassinated, martyrdom has its curious perks. Harvey's legacy has led to an increased gay presence in City Hall while inspiring multitudes of lesbians and gay men to come out of the closet. His achievements spurred Randy Shilts to write The Mayor of Castro Street. Emily Mann's play about the Dan White trials, Execution of Justice, has been staged by university and community theater groups around the country. Recently, The Life And Times Of Harvey Milk won the Academy Award for best documentary film.
Now, Harvey Milk -- a devout opera queen -- is about to enter the operatic repertoire. Plans currently call for Harvey! to receive its world premiere in Germany in the Fall of 1992, followed by an American premiere at one of our nation's most daring opera companies in the Spring of 1993. At present, however, there are no concrete plans for this opera to be performed in San Francisco.
Lest people get prematurely hot under their politically-correct collars, let me explain that before this project was even commissioned, the San Francisco Opera's repertoire was locked into place through 1994. Although I have informed SFO's management of the Harvey Milk project, the San Francisco Opera is still waiting to learn if 1995 is the year that the City and County of San Francisco closes down the War Memorial Opera House to perform the structural repairs necessitated by last year's tragic earthquake.
It would be a genuine tragedy for an opera about Harvey Milk not to be performed in this city. Therefore, I urge those readers who are (a) devoted to maintaining Harvey's memory, (b) take pride in the achievements of San Francisco's gay community and (c) understand what Harvey always stressed as "the need to give people hope," to take positive action at once. Don't let an opportunity like this slip through your hands because of laziness, disinterest or any lack of communication between the San Francisco Opera and the gay community. If you wish to see Harvey! performed by the San Francisco Opera, sit yourself down and write to the company's General Director today. In a non-confrontational manner, urge him to enter into a joint venture with the co-commissioners of Harvey!
In your letters -- especially those of you who are subscribers, single ticket buyers and donors -- stress that the San Francisco Opera has a responsibility to be sensitive to the cultural diversity of the community it serves. State the reasons why, as a member of the San Francisco Opera's audience, you wish to see this new work performed on the stage of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House (where, in case you've forgotten, Milk's funeral service was held). Don't be shy about explaining how performances of Harvey! could help the San Francisco Opera to strengthen its ties with a crucial part of its constituency while bringing a younger audience into the opera house.
Last, but not least: State what you would personally be willing to do (in terms of volunteering your time to the San Francisco Opera, donating money, coordinating group sales or hosting a fundraising event) to help make performances of Harvey! by the San Francisco Opera possible. Address your letters to Mr. Lotfi Mansouri, General Director, San Francisco Opera, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA 94102 and seal them with a gay kiss.
The ball's in your court.
Play to win.
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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on December 20, 1990.