Commentary Magazine


“Harvey Milk,” Etc.

Harvey Milk, an opera by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie about the life and violent death of America’s first openly gay elected public official, premiered in Houston earlier this year and made its debut at the New York City Opera in April. It is not the first opera about a homosexual to be presented by a major American house; that distinction belongs to Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which received its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1974. But Harvey Milk is the first large-scale opera to reflect explicitly an important new cultural development: homosexuality, once a comparatively shadowy aspect of the world of opera, has now taken a place of honor at center stage.

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There have always been homosexuals in and around opera, and it seems probable that they have always been “overrepresented” there (to borrow a term from the lexicon of affirmative action) in much the same way they have been “overrepresented” in the world of theater as a whole. Similarly, there has long been a cult of opera among many homosexual men (and among a surprisingly large number of lesbians). Nevertheless, unlike ballet, opera has not been widely viewed as an art form dominated by homosexuals. Nor, at least in cities large enough to support an opera company, is listening to or attending opera considered anything out of the ordinary.

In recent years, however, this has begun to change. Prior to World War II, only one important opera composer, Tchaikowsky, was homosexual, and then hardly in a public way; since 1945, most composers who have specialized in opera have been gay, including Britten, Gian Carlo Menotti, Hans Werner Henze, and Michael Tippett, the four leading figures of the pre-minimalist postwar era. And with their increased public acceptance, homosexuals now also occupy more conspicuously high-profile positions in the institutional world of opera than ever before, from agents to directors to conductors to critics.

Not surprisingly, the public impression of opera lovers has also begun to change. The stereotype of the “opera queen” (the homosexual slang term for a gay man who loves opera obsessively) first became familiar and, so to say, domesticated through Terrence McNally’s The Lisbon Traviata (1989), a play about two gay men who prefer opera to life. In 1993, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, a book by an English professor at Yale, Wayne Koestenbaum, received much favorable attention for its rhapsodic description of the opera-queen mentality.

Given these developments, it is logical that opera on stage would itself eventually reflect the growing offstage influence of homosexuals—and that this change, when it came, would constitute a drastic departure from traditional norms of operatic content.

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The subject matter of opera is and always has been dominated by portrayals of heterosexual love; virtually every pre-1945 repertory opera is in some fundamental sense a love story. The monopoly of this theme was first systematically broken by Britten, most of whose operas are about persecution, not love. Several librettos set by Britten contain homosexual symbolism, and two, The Turn of the Screw (1954) and Death in Venice (1973), deal more or less straightforwardly with the subject of pederasty (Britten suffered throughout his adult life from pedophiliac urges).

Other homosexual composers, too, have experimented with thematic material not obviously related to the standard boy-meets-girl/girl-dies axis around which traditional opera revolves. They include Menotti in The Medium (1945) and The Consul (1949), and Virgil Thomson in Four Saints in Three Acts (1934) and The Mother of Us All (1947); both Thomson operas had librettos by Gertrude Stein. But what had heretofore been missing from the stages of major opera houses was a work with an explicitly homosexual theme presented in unabashedly pro-homosexual terms. That gap has now been filled with Harvey Milk.

Milk is an iconic figure among American homosexuals. In 1969, at the age of thirty-nine, he “came out of the closet” and moved from New York, where he had been working on Wall Street, to San Francisco. There he became a popular figure in the local gay community, entered politics, and in 1977 ran successfully for city supervisor. Another supervisor, Dan White, an ex-fireman enraged by Milk’s homosexuality and obsessed with his political triumphs, shot him and Mayor George Moscone to death at City Hall in 1978. Dianne Feinstein (who is also a minor character in Harvey Milk) succeeded Moscone as mayor, subsequently becoming a major figure in California politics; Milk became, and remained, a gay martyr.

This brief outline is the stuff of a gay-pride pageant, which is roughly the form taken by Michael Korie’s libretto, up to and including the on-stage candlelight procession with which it concludes. Its suitability for operatic treatment is more problematic. Even the grandest operas are ultimately about private matters: love, betrayal, death. Politicians, by contrast, lead public lives and serve public ends. Accordingly, operas that seek to dramatize the lives of public figures usually do so by focusing on their private conflicts.

The first act of Harvey Milk, which tells the story of how Milk (played in both the Houston and New York productions by baritone Robert Orth) came to terms with his sexuality, embodies just such a conflict. To be sure, Korie has stooped to laughably crude symbolism: Milk walks around in handcuffs until he finally meets Mr. Right (with whom he sings a love duet) and dares to risk his Wall Street job by participating in the Stonewall gay-liberation riots, at which precise moment he breaks free. But most opera librettos are notoriously crude—the subtlety, if any, is in the music—and the plot line crafted by Korie is compelling enough to bring the first act to fitful but believable life.

This is not to say that it is unpolitical. On the contrary, like the rest of the opera, it is an exercise in blatant agitprop. “I stand up for myself as a Jew,” Milk sings in his first-act aria, one of the many places in the libretto where direct parallels are drawn between the victimization of Jews and the condition of homosexuals in America. “Why not as a man who loves men?” But in this first act Milk still retains the outlines of individuality. Only when his interior conflict is resolved does he cease to be an individual and become a symbol, an idealized stick figure who lives not for love but for politics.

Perhaps it is more exact to say that love and politics are consubstantial in Harvey Milk. Milk’s lover admits as much when he sings nostalgically of the Stonewall riots: “Just remember that warm night in June./The fire that raged in the street/and the heat inside my heart.” He might as well have said that the personal is political, for that is the point of Korie’s libretto, in which every imaginable feature of identity politics is placed on stage for the audience to applaud. It is not enough merely to believe that homosexuality is normal in order to buy the last two acts of Harvey Milk: one must also be pro-union (the Teamsters supported Milk in his run for City Supervisor), pro-affirmative action, anti-cop, and a registered Democrat.

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Such is the unpromising material out of which the New York City Opera (along with the Houston Grand Opera) made the best possible production of Harvey Milk. Christopher Alden staged the work with exceptional skill and clarity, and Robert Orth gave one of the most vivid operatic portrayals seen in New York in recent years. But Orth, Alden, and their colleagues had next to nothing to work with in the way of memorable music: Stewart Wallace’s score (which received a shockingly disorganized performance from Christopher Keene, New York City Opera’s general director, and the company’s pit orchestra) is little more than an efficient, faceless postmodern pastiche of Stravinsky, film music, and 70′s pop, modestly effective as a backdrop for theatrical action but of no independent interest whatsoever. In the end, Michael Korie’s leaden words and cartoonish characters are forced to carry the entire dramatic burden of the opera, and they are hopelessly unequal to the task. Particularly in the last act, Harvey Milk collapses under the weight of its own sanctimony.

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Though almost entirely unsuccessful as a work of art, Harvey Milk does succeed wholly in accomplishing its principal nonartistic goal: putting homosexuality on stage in American opera houses. The question is, can such operas find a large audience?

The fact that all three of Harvey Milk’s New York performances were sold out in advance hardly constitutes an answer to this question; controversial new operas can almost always draw crowds if they are heavily publicized, and especially if they are given a limited run. A more pertinent fact is that the Metropolitan Opera’s 1994 revival of Britten’s Death in Venice was a box-office flop, as a result of which plans to repeat the opera the following season were reportedly scrapped. And in the case of Death in Venice, unlike Harvey Milk, opera and production alike were highly and uniformly distinguished.

Whether this means opera audiences are simply uninterested in watching operas on gay themes is not yet clear—or, rather, not yet fairly tested. The principal trouble with Harvey Milk is not that it is a gay opera but that it is a bad opera. Death in Venice, by contrast, is much admired by critics, but is composed in a musical idiom that leaves many opera lovers cold, quite apart from the discomfort they may also feel at Britten’s relentless focus on the physical allure of a fourteen-year-old boy.

What will happen when and if a first-rate composer and librettist endeavor to tell a politics-free homosexual love story with the uncomplicated musical and theatrical appeal of, say, La Traviata? It will be interesting to see. Certainly there has never been a successful big-budget American film of a homosexual love story; in Hollywood, homosexuality works only as a “problem” (as in Philadelphia). True, next to film, opera may not be a popular art form, but in a country where state subsidy of the arts is limited, its continued production, too, necessarily depends in the long run on the willingness of the general public to buy tickets.

But even if explicitly gay operas have trouble attracting an audience large enough to make them financially viable, it is unlikely that gay composers and librettists will therefore refrain from writing them, or that opera companies will hesitate to produce them. In the past, major homosexual artists from Tchaikowsky to Tennessee Williams accepted the convention that they had to concentrate primarily (if not exclusively) on the portrayal of heterosexual relationships in order to reach a large public. Such compromises are now regarded as unacceptable by a growing number of younger artists. When the choreographer Mark Morris left ballet (an art form in which male-female partnering is customary) for modern dance (in which such partnering has less priority), he explained: “I got tired of pretending to be a straight guy in love with a ballerina.”

As for reasoned critical objections to specific gay operas, these are likely to be ascribed indiscriminately to “homophobia.” That, indeed, is the line taken by Stewart Wallace (who is heterosexual) and Michael Korie, who in press interviews blamed opposition to Harvey Milk on bigotry. It has been echoed by William M. Hoffman, author of the libretto for John Corigliano’s 1991 opera, The Ghosts of Versailles1 (both Hoffman and Corigliano are openly gay). Hoffman has charged critics who described aspects of that opera as “campy” with being homophobes. Whatever else it accomplishes by way of general intimidation, the charge of homophobia is a useful reminder that gay opera is not merely an artistic phenomenon, but a manifestation of our ongoing culture wars, in which aesthetic quality is subordinated to political utility.

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So one thing is certain: good or bad, gay opera is likely to be with us for some time to come. Both the increasingly homosexual culture of opera and the increasingly politicized culture of homosexuality ensure that it will be treated as a “cutting-edge” phenomenon of impeccable political correctness, one against which skeptical critics will inveigh in vain. As gay protesters like to chant at riots and rallies, “We’re here! We’re queer! Get used to it!” At least for the short run, opera lovers, too, had better get used to it.


Footnotes

1 Reviewed by Samuel Lipman in COMMENTARY, March 1992.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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