Art is a messy process filled with mistakes and failure.
Unfortunately, we live in a society hell-bent on censoring its artists and sanitizing their work in order to keep everything looking neat, clean, safe, and pretty. One of the most bizarre enigmas in American opera is the fact that while the artistic process requires people to break ground and investigate terra incognita, most of opera's funding comes from conservative sources determined to maintain the status quo.
Artists are, by definition, creative people. Most artists are also sexual creatures capable of expressing themselves, physically and verbally, in a wide variety of sexual terms. "Some people have an attitude about art which insists that it is meant to elevate and should be above daily life," complains composer Stewart Wallace. "But vulgarity and art are not mutually exclusive. When you sing the word 'Fuck,' it gives your work a visceral connection to our daily existence which, dramatically, can be very powerful. It involves a conscious and deliberate attempt at examination by perversion: You twist something on its edge so that you can look at it in a different way. By doing so, the sound takes on a heightened element which makes it very different from the spoken word."
Composer Libby Larsen (whose Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus premieres at the Minnesota Opera in May 1990) claims that the music in her head represents certain kinds of energies and representative rhythms which resonate with American English. That curious term, "American English" offers the key to understanding one of the most formidable obstacles to creating operas within a contemporary context. In the opera world, most funding comes from conservatives who find it difficult to tolerate the use of gutter expletives on the sanctified operatic stage. Those who have grudgingly accepted the social changes wrought by the sexual revolution readily acknowledge the fact that a typical teenager's vocabulary could make Miss Manners blush.
Founded on the basis of freedom from religious oppression, our nation now finds its arts community under siege from conservative Christians. Although perverse thoughts and vulgar sentiments are rampant throughout the operatic literature, when expressed in "American English" such ideas become anathema to the conservative operagoer. How can an art form filled with raw passion continue to grow if it ignores the overt sexuality which has infiltrated every level of our society?
The reason why operas like Power Failure and Where's Dick? are chock full of sexual epithets is the same reason why, in Act III of Nixon In China, Chiang Ch'ing turns to her husband, Mao-Tse-Tung, and sings "We'll teach these motherfuckers how to dance!" Like it or not, sex sells.
At present, prudes like Senator Jesse Helms are eager to deny funding to artists whose sexuality and sexual expression take on any form other than the missionary position. What these people fail to understand is that many artists, liberals, and true Christians find the hypocritical morals and perverse politics of the New Right to be offensive and obscene. Just think how much poorer the operatic and musical theater art forms would be without the contributions of composers like Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Marc Blitzstein, Benjamin Britten, Jerry Herman, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Francis Poulenc, Stephen Sondheim, and Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky. Without gay people working in the field and without them as our audiences, the fine arts in America would dry up and go away.
Back in 1985, when former Editor-in-Chief of Opera News, Bob Jacobson, was co-producing the opera community's first AIDS gala, he stressed that: "The gay audience is a very strong, vocal and even powerful part of the opera public. In addition to all of our gay conductors, directors, and singers, there are a tremendous number of homosexuals who are now running opera companies. While it's possible that a conservative, backward board of directors might say no to an artist who was openly homosexual because they didn't want him in their community, it would be extremely foolish for any opera house not to recognize its gay constituency."
"A lot of gay people work at Houston Grand Opera and, in many cases, my supervisors are gay while the people who work under them are not," notes HGO's general director, David Gockley (who is also president of OPERA America). "An extremely important factor here is that the long hours and personal commitment required of people who work in opera make it very hard for someone raising a family to attend all of the rehearsals, performances and social events that take place on a regular basis."
Although for many years opera's marketing professionals have done their best to recruit minority audiences with special outreach programs aimed at blacks, Hispanics, Asians, seniors, and the handicapped, they can no longer afford to overlook that extremely supportive minority which has previously been avoided like the plague. One of the most interesting things about our current situation in the arts is how it compares to the 1950s, when a lot of Caucasians learned to overcome their prejudices against blacks by working with them, side by side, in the Army. In the arts, gays are simply inescapable.
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This article originally appeared in the November 1989 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.