Opera is not readily known for portraying inclusion; while many works perform some kind of exoticism seen mostly through colonialist lenses, the locales reflect a mostly Western world and the characters are generally confined to some kind of heteronormative, European sameness. Opera does have its moments; othering, mis-gendering, and bodily discrepancies do appear, mostly in the guise of the otherworldly or magical, in the strange bodies of the castrato or the playful deceit of the trouser role. However, these attempts at difference do not look to address inclusion. If anything, these bodies and voices are isolated and marginalized, if even human. Aside from these instances, the typical operatic character framework does not present difference of a sexual, gendered, or racial kind.
The first half of the 20th century saw the demise of the great operatic heroine and out of the fracture arose a focus on male roles, ensemble casts, and female roles singing in a completely new way. And as opera became a more racially integrated affair, new disconnects emerged while similarly allowing for new audiences to see their bodies presented as operatic vehicles. The combination of extended vocal techniques, technology, and radical staging stood as an operatic representation of a seemingly more progressive society. Opera and contemporary culture, for example, have come drastically close to each other in works like Thomas Adès’s Powder Her Face, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna. New stories are being told and the medium by which composers can often portray the non-heteronormative, the queer, the ethnic, and otherwise unseen is through the voice.
Daron Hagen’s 2003 opera Vera of Las Vegas stands as a meeting of both character and vocal difference set in the underbelly of Las Vegas—a world of strippers, drag queens, INS agents, and gamblers. The opera is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas-lite, recalling the structure of Weill’s Mahagonny-Singspiel. The eponymous character is sung by a countertenor, a voice type that is still integrating itself into current performance practice and repertoire. The operatic countertenor is a construct of the late 20th century, one that is now synonymous with historically informed operatic performance practice. Recent operas that use countertenors, such as those by Glass, Adès, and Benjamin, exploit the fantastical, comic, and regal attributes associated with countertenor performance—a recalling of those otherworldly bodies from 18th-century Italian opera. In Hagen’s opera, however, we see something quite different. Here, a male countertenor sings in drag, performing a kind of inverse trouser role. This is most notable when examining the opera’s premiere which featured opera singer and drag artist Shequida singing the role of Vera Allemagne.
Vera herself is a drag queen, complicating matters further as the type of drag vocal performance to which we might be accustomed—where a drag queen either lip syncs or sings “as a woman”—does not seem to translate onto the operatic stage. The Lacanian disassociation of voice from body that often happens by audiences attending opera is further removed here: not only do we not recognize the voice, we do not recognize the body from which it comes. Just as Strauss’s Octavian makes us question exactly who we are listening to in Der Rosenkavalier, Vera’s many gendered levels obfuscates any attempt at locating an Ur-voice or Ur-body. The character of Vera is African-American, an important aspect to the narrative of the story. The singers who have performed Vera have been primarily countertenors of color including Brian Asawa and Eduardo Lopez de Casas, and in his program notes, Hagen compares Vera to Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, conjuring up images of black bodies performing a kind of transcendent yet palpable otherness. While all of these bodily markers may seem defining, the separation that still occurs with the presentation of the high male voice gives the role an emptiness onto which several bodies can be mapped. Hagen notes that this quality made the role “viable for many more audiences.”
Visibly and dramatically, there is always that flash of maleness, both for the characters within the opera and for the audience as well. We know that Vera is more than she seems. But what some would call the inherent vocal drag nature of the countertenor—a term that musicologist Jelena Novak applies to the castrato—locks the character into a state of femininity, however altered that state might be. This is reinforced dramatically when Vera participates in the act of heteronormative marriage, where she stands in as a bride wed to a male groom. The groom’s awareness of Vera’s double self seems of little issue, reinforcing the female role in this performative marital act for the audience. But despite this final act, Vera’s character is different, and she proclaims as much in her last aria. Her references to Aschenbach and Tadzio, Abelard and Héloïse, display the types of love stories in which Vera recognizes herself, much to her chagrin. The plausibly more well-known relationship of Aschenbach and Tadzio from Thomas Mann’s novella Der Tod in Venedig and popularized in Benjamin Britten’s opera Death in Venice, recalls to those in the know complicated constructions of desire, masculinity, and ephebophilia. For Abelard, the 12th-century French philosopher, and Héloïse, the young French girl of letters, the reference conjures up the secret and illicit, the sacred, profane, mystical, as well as tragic. Vera’s previous encounters with men have placed her in the role of Tadzio and Héloïse, an image she actively denounces while fighting against the realization that this might indeed be part of her truth. She is both normative and non-normative, male and female, empowered and marginalized. And just as those names carry meaning for both Vera and the listening audience, so does her own, as pointed out by John Redmond. Her surname, Loman, connects her back to Willy Loman of Death of a Salesman; she is both the seller and the experience to be sold. She exists as the liminality through which anything is possible.
The ability of contemporary opera to portray radical bodily performances, rather than use race, gender, and voice to uphold ingrained operatic tropes, allows access for underrepresented groups to see themselves depicted on stage. And though, like Mahagonny, Vera presents underbelly and camp, the work is an operatic offshoot of other theatrical arts that present counterculture performance. Vera is a somewhat extreme example—one can look to the male homosociality of Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick as another example of the performing of hidden communities—but it identifies the power of the voice-body construct in opera and its ability to make opera a mirror of a more contemporary audience.
Imani Mosley is a bassoonist and Ph.D. student in musicology at Duke University, specializing in mid-20th century British and American Music, opera, and the music of Benjamin Britten. Her dissertation focuses on the queering of heteronormative operatic tropes in Britten’s mid-century operas and the reception history surrounding their premieres.
1. Daron Hagen, “Vera of Las Vegas: Evolution of a Cult Opera,” https://youtu.be/hGGp5Ko8vRo.
2. John Redmond, “Distrusting the Self,” The Poetry Ireland Review, 71 (2001), 52-57. “For Vera Loman, a cross-dressing lapdancer, nomen est omen … Vera is a seller, in this case of his gender. He/she, like the opera’s setting, embodies the consumerism at the heart of American society; his is a character available for consumption by the other characters; his is an absence of identity, an emptiness reflected by the kitsch casino environment.” (first italics Redmond’s, second italics mine)