Opera's massive queer fanbase rarely sees itself reflected on stage — this series is changing that

Tap This! taps into the queer love of opera at Pride Toronto

Tap This! taps into the queer love of opera at Pride Toronto

Joel Klein as Maria Toilette (Kyla Bailey)

The prevalence of queer artists in the performing arts is well known — but in some disciplines, those queer performers are limited to playing the same heterosexual roles over and over. That had certainly been the case for performers involved in Tapestry Opera's Tap This! series, which is bringing a set of opera performances to Toronto Pride this year. 

With opera plot lines reliant on tropes like suave male lovers, damsels in distress and overbearing mothers, there's been little room for gender non-conformity in most of opera history. For opera's legions of queer fans, they rarely see themselves reflected on stage.

It's a funny thing that there are so many queer musicians that are singing these roles of heterosexual people.- pianist and music director David Eliakis

"I think about how many queers are involved in the arts, and especially for those of us in the opera world, there really are no operas that have roles that are queer-based," says pianist and music director David Eliakis, who planned the series together with Tapestry's artistic director Michael Mori. "When we think about typical opera, composers, Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, there isn't one queer role in there whatsoever."

The three-day "queerated opera series" includes a performance by drag queen/opera singer Maria Toilette; a selection of classical and contemporary opera music sung by four performers, curated and accompanied on piano by Eliakis; and soprano Teiya Kasahara's The Queen in Me, a queer exploration of the story of the Queen of the Night from Mozart's The Magic Flute.

Kasahara has performed the role of the Queen of the Night eight times in The Magic Flute in a career of just over a decade. After working with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's Emerging Creators Unit in 2016, they developed the initial version of the show, which has now evolved into a longer piece.

As Kasahara prepared for each iteration of the Queen of the Night role in traditional opera performances, they "just got more and more frustrated by how two-dimensional she was....First of all, she doesn't even have a name, just Queen of the Night, and [she's] really reduced to representing these kind of iconic symbols, like femininity, emotion, irrationality, the moon, darkness, evil — everything that was opposite to what [Mozart was] exploring, like rationality, enlightenment, knowledge, wisdom and light, everything which was associated with men."

"I felt like I kind of gave her more life or more freedom to be who she really is and that was basically a reflection of me being able to be fully me, as a queer, soprano, butch-presenting genderqueer, in an opera industry which favours the complete opposite: traditional ideas of femininity, traditional ideas of masculinity, heteronormativity, traditional ideas of gender expression," Kasahara says.

Kasahara is also one of the four singers performing with Eliakis in Queers Crash the Opera, a performance of works by queer composers or queer librettists, or dealing with queer themes. Eliakis came up with some of the selections in the programme, but let the performers (Kasahara, Derek Kwan, Catherin Carew and Alain Coulombe) bring some of their own favourites to the table.

The pieces include everything from Tchaikovsky to recent Canadian works like Vancouver composer Rodney Sharman's cabaret piece Crossing Over, about a woman and her relationship with a male construction worker who likes to dress in women's clothing, and St. John's composer Andrew Staniland's Dark Star Requiem, a piece about the AIDS epidemic. The movement from Staniland's piece is "written from the perspective of the virus entering the bloodstream.... It's written in a way that's almost seductive and it's quite haunting," Eliakis explains. Eliakis also took care to ensure all the performers for the series were queer-identified themselves.

Eliakis is interested in exploring the roles of queer people in opera, past and present, and bringing queer stories to new stages. "It's a funny thing that there are so many queer musicians that are singing these roles of heterosexual people and it just seems that now we're finally entering a time that composers are starting to write operas that are wholly queer," he says.

Coloratura soprano Teiya Kasahara

"I dare say it might be harder for queer women than it is for queer men" in the opera world today, Kasahara says. "They still want to hold this idea of femininity for women, for sopranos, especially me, having a higher-sounding voice...[it's] like I'm typecast for that, because of the way my voice sounds, I'm limited to singing only certain roles...the ingenue, the female heroine who dies…. It's not as free as theatre, where you can play a multitude of characters."

Eliakis thinks the opera world needs to evolve by mounting queer stories on all stages, and companies need to be open to risk-taking. "Put Puccini or Mozart on the bill, and you're going to make a lot of money off those, but put a brand-new opera [on], a gay-themed opera, and that's going to be a risk."

"We're better today than we were years ago, but I think we still have very far to go," Eliakis says, "and thankfully companies like Tapestry are helping us do that."

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