To freely and fully embrace all possibilities

Questions for Queer Opera singers and stage director Rebecca Herman

Queer Opera is nearly upon us. This weekend’s trio of concerts at Portland State’s Lincoln Hall Studio Theater feature opera scenes and art songs, all given the QO twist, and if you can manage to escape from The Empire these shows’ll rock your socks right off. Queer Opera: Experience is two nights of opera scenes, this Saturday and Sunday; Queer Opera: Song is a Sunday afternoon’s worth of English art songs.

You’ve heard enough from me already, so I thought it was time to let the gang speak for themselves. We spoke by email with stage director Rebecca Herman and four of the singers performing this weekend; their answers have been condensed and edited for clarity and flow.

Today’s guests:

  • Rebecca Herman, Opera Stage Director and Producer, she/her.
  • Sam Peters, soprano, they/she. Performing as The Count in Le Nozze di Figaro, Alcindoro in La Bohème, and Mercedes in Carmen.
  • Lisa Neher, mezzo-soprano, she/her. Performing as Idamante in Idomeneo and as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.
  • Lydia O’Brien, mezzo-soprano, she/her. Performing title role in Carmen and Colline in La Bohème; singing “Let Beauty Awake” from Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel.
  • Madeline Ross, soprano, she/her. Performing as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Singing William Walton’s “Daphne.”

Arts Watch: What is the earliest musical “a-ha” moment you can remember? A song, an album, a concert, a class, a performance, etc. The thing that caught your ear and made you stop and say, “wait a minute, this music thing, I want to do that for real.”

Rebecca Herman: I was 7 or 8 and couldn’t sleep one night. I came downstairs and my parents were watching a PBS broadcast of the MET production of Das Rheingold. I was mesmerized. They had recorded all 4 operas of the Ring Cycle on VHS (remember those?) and I spent a year obsessed. I loved the thematic music and the epic stories about gods and giants and humans and greed and love and betrayal.

When I wasn’t actively re-watching those VHS tapes, I was casting friends and family in the roles and creating whole productions in my head. I didn’t know at the time that I was already directing, but years later when I started really considering directing as a career I thought back to that time as my first interest in production.

Queer Opera’s brain trust: Chuck Dillard and Rebecca Herman.

Lydia O’Brien: I’ve been involved in music my entire life, so I never really had an ‘a-ha’ moment, at least that I can think of. I had sort of the opposite of that, though: the first few years of college, I vehemently avoided any mention of becoming a music major (due to issues from middle and high school), and I was so depressed and unsuccessful that it was pretty clear I couldn’t not do music and remain true to myself or feel fulfilled in any way.

Lisa Neher: The local junior high put on Peter Pan and we went to see it. It was great! I couldn’t believe young people like me got to be on stage and act and sing. I was hooked immediately and tried out next year for the Wizard of Oz and was cast as Dorothy. I’ve been telling stories on stage ever since.

Sam Peters: I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember and I don’t know where my early confidence stemmed from–other than my family was amazingly supportive. I do remember when my confidence transformed into something new. In 2002 or 2003, I auditioned for (and made) a middle school honor choir at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

In the first rehearsal, Z. Randall Stroope–lauded composer and conductor–walked over to me and stopped the rehearsal to tell the conductor that I should be moved to the front row because I had a lovely voice and should be moved to a position to better help lead my section. At the time, I didn’t quite realize who he was or what it meant, but I could tell he was important and that people with no personal attachment to me could believe in my talents.

Madeline Ross: I grew up in Portland and was involved in theater and musical theater and choir and band growing up, so I was very engaged musically. For the “Senior One Acts” in high school, my friend and I wrote and directed and produced a musical that was so much fun. There are many other moments for me–like my first staged opera experience in college, or the first few voice lessons I taught–but that one sticks out to me as a moment where I really could say: “Yes, I can do this!”

AW: “Queer” means so much more than sexual orientation—what does it mean to you, whether personally or in the context of opera, music, the arts, society, and so on? How has this production differed from other performances you’ve done?

O’Brien: “Queer” to me is about confidence. It’s about really owning who you are and living your life freely.

Herman: I think of queer as a bit of a catch-all phrase that allows one to quickly say “I don’t identify or fit into the heteronormative majority” without having to get into the nitty gritty of exact orientation and potentially have to defend or explain more specifically how one identifies.

Peters: Queer is resistance. It’s a rejection of heteronormativity, of gender roles, and the binaries that surround our world. It’s freedom. For me, being queer is how I describe my sexuality. It is fluid, as in I’m constantly pulled to new people regardless of gender expression, identity, sexuality, etc. It allows me to freely and fully embrace all possibilities.

In opera, it’s a complete rejection of the oppressive structures set forth by its long tradition–yet, it’s also a way of transforming these innocuous traditions like pants roles into real opportunities to showcase queerness. Opera wasn’t queer because the audiences and companies refused to frame it as such. Opera’s always been queer.

Queerness is relatively new to me. For a long time, I didn’t question my identity or examine my sexuality or have the language and understanding to really see who I was. In elementary school I rejected traditional gender roles, and as a small protest was a boy for my 5th grade Halloween party. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a boy. That year especially, I faced a lot of harassment from boys in my class surrounding my athletic ability and short hair. The costume was a way to say FUCK YOU. I can be whoever I want to be.

Almost 20 years later, I am living every day as a rejection of the oppressive cis-heteronormative structures I rebuked so long ago. I’m agender. I am simply me.

Lydia O’Brien as Susannah and Sam Peters as Figaro and in Queer Opera’s ‘Le Nozze di Figaro.’

Neher: Queer to me means diversity of human expression. We are so much more than the binary genders of male and female and the binary gender roles that have been pushed onto all of us for hundreds of years. It means being your true self and not having to fit into a box. Musically it means expressing yourself through whatever songs or characters you want, without having to look or sound the way that people have assumed you have to look or sound. It means that hunting songs aren’t just for men and flower songs aren’t just for women. As a voice teacher, it drives me nuts when anthologies for young sopranos are full of flower and lullaby songs and anthologies for young baritones are full of sea shanties and hunting songs.

The difference for me [with this production] is how much of myself I’m invited to bring to these interpretations. Acting is a funny thing in that it’s a blend of your own life experiences with stepping into the shoes of someone else–that’s what makes it so fulfilling. Oftentimes I think the “stepping into someone else’s shoes” part has taken center stage for me. We were asked to send in three art song ideas that we’d enjoy singing, that express some part of our identity, and that made me pause and think. I sing a ton of art song, and I still had to really look at my repertoire list to find something I felt represented me. It’s a subtle but powerful difference being seen as yourself and being asked to bring that self onto the concert or opera stage, and that is what makes this experience special and different.

Ross: I am participating in this project as a queer ally, which requires that I respect others and put myself in someone else’s shoes to experience the world from their perspective. Opera is uniquely equipped to offer that kind of experience to an entire audience of people who get to not only see the action and hear the words of the stories we’re telling, but they get to feel, through the music, the emotions of these characters. Opera is such a powerful tool for understanding and feeling the things others feel. Using it to lift up marginalized experiences is impactful.

As a performer and colleague to all the wonderful queer folx who are involved in this production, being able to be fully “queer” when performing on stage–in whatever form that takes for each performer–is immensely freeing, and hopefully will help ourselves and our audience to use the word queer in the future to name beautiful expressions of each person’s self, as authentically as possible.

In this rehearsal process we are all asked to personally connect with our characters, to find parts of ourselves that mesh with our characters, but more than that, we’re allowed to change things about the characters if they don’t fit with our self identity. For me, a woman who usually plays characters that match my identity/personality pretty well, it is uniquely exciting for me to challenge every aspect of the characters I’m playing and allow myself to disagree with them and find a way forward. It makes me realize that I could have been doing this kind of work all along to more fully connect with the characters I portray.

AW: What is the future of opera, queer or otherwise?

Herman: That is the question that every opera company big or small is grappling with currently. I think if opera is going to continue as an art form it has to be malleable and evolve, just like other art forms. We need to pull it off the pedestal and demystify what opera is and make it accessible to all people, not just some perceived social elite. And part of that is making room for queer voices, trans voices, POC voices, female voices, etc.

O’Brien: Presumably the future of opera will be following in the footsteps of similar art forms such as theater and musical theater. I think new works and/or non-traditional casting and/or non-traditional interpretations (setting, message, etc.) are super important to keep opera relevant and thriving with today’s and tomorrow’s performers and audiences.

Ross: I think the future of opera is still up for discussion. There is a lot of operatic tradition that is guarded by the very wealthy who are happy just the way it is. It is the smaller companies like this one that are ushering in change, and the question is if those companies will have enough funding and support to meaningfully change the art form, or if the very hardworking people pushing and pushing to run these passion projects will get tired without the help they deserve.

My hope for the future of opera is that we can continue to push the boundaries and bring more representation to the fore. With more representation (women composers, POC directors, queer performers and producers, etc.) comes much more interesting stories and much more authentic and immediately important dialogues about our world as it is now, not as it was in the 1800’s.

Neher: I hope opera will follow in theatre’s footsteps and be much more flexible in casting, much faster in presenting new repertoire, and will develop more workshops and readings that allow works in progress to be tried out, modified, and tried out again. I’m a composer and I believe that new works have to be a big part of opera’s future. I think opera will include more and more chamber works for a few singers and a smaller ensemble, and I think that’s a good thing because it allows for more variety of works to be presented in different, creative venues. I hope this will lead to more diverse storytelling by a broad range of storytellers: librettists, composers, performers. I hope it leads to more roles for sopranos and mezzos. Right now there are tons of sopranos and mezzos who want to sing opera, and there are never enough roles for these fabulously talented, trained, and committed artists.

One thing the opera world simply has to do is clean up its act. We have to publicly call out harassment and abuse, and those in charge have to take it seriously and act when singers come forward with stories of mistreatment. We have to seriously look at the standard repertoire and assess if it is helping or hurting people, especially in the areas of violence toward women portrayed on stage. We need to let women, persons of color, and members of the LGBTQ community tell their own stories.

Peters: With the recent success of operas starring or featuring queer/trans characters and stories, people are ready for opera to break free of its rigid past. To stay relevant and fresh to new audiences, opera should change to reflect our current culture. There’s certainly a place for classic operas, but I think opera as a whole can loosen and free itself and be a little gay or a whole lot gay. Until a few years ago, they were still allowing blackface at the MET, so I’d say it’s time for opera to operate in the 21st century and push the boundaries of art.

AW: What is your favorite anything? Song, opera, composer, ice cream flavor, Star Wars character, etc. etc. etc.

Neher: Han Solo all the way. And Han shot first, none of this special edition Greedo shot first nonsense.

Ross: My favorite color is blue!

Herman: Recently, when I need a break from our broken news cycle or opera tunes running in my brain late a night, I find my happy zen place in K-pop and K-dramas. I got hooked on K-dramas a number of years ago when Netflix recommended one to me, and have not turned back. SHINee (pronounced Shiny) is my favorite K-pop group, and I recently loved Signal and What’s Wrong with Secretary Kim.

Peters: My absolute favorite song is “To Build a Home” by The Cinematic Orchestra featuring Patrick Watson.

O’Brien: I’m the WORST at picking favorites, I like too many things!

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Some of y’all might wanna check out 3CR Community Radio in Melbourne. Their tag line is “Queering the Air.”

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