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Subject: Re: Why Gay Opera History is important Part III WAGNER
From: Albert Innaurato <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Albert Innaurato <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Tue, 12 Jun 2001 16:31:36 -0700

text/plain (269 lines)

--- Gretchen Ehrenberg <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> In reference to Robert Peters observation that
> Richard Wagner was not gay:
> Robert,
>         Yes, I was about to make the same
> observation.  I would add that not
> only was Wagner most definitely NOT gay, he was a
> manipulator who would heap
> praise upon on those who would be benefactors, like
> our beloved Kini (Ludwig
> II).
Well, yes and no. I think one must beware of reading
back our sense of "gayness" into earlier times.

"Homosexual" is a word invented in the 1890's and not
in common use until after the First World War.

It was the Wilde trial that created a sense of
"homosexualists" as a sub-culture, outside the norm
and criminal (not only violating statutes against
"immorality" but involving male prostitution and

The "gay movement" took that as it's starting point.
They saw "Gayness" (as opposed to same sex play or
love) as an "identity" of a group of potentially
disenfranchised and oppressed people, separate from
the majority.

That is different from seeing same-sexuality as a
taste, indulged where appropriate in a given culture,
probably at some points in Western History by a large
number of eminent men. (No one seems to have cared
about women until recently, so one assumes they
diddled one another often with impunity).

But Wilde did not think that way, that is that he was
"gay" in our sense (he married, loved his wife and
adored his two sons)and it's unlikely that anyone born
before 1900 would have thought that way, whatever they
got up to with whichever sex. Earlier societies tended
to integrate people more.

Cities before the 1860's were very small, nightlife
existed in only a few places and was dangerous (you
were more likely to get your throat cut than your
rocks off). Within societies ruled by extended
families and kinship ties (Greece, Rome to the end of
the Empire, many periods in European history) there
was (still is in some places) a line drawn between
public duty and private pleasure. The first always
involved men creating legitimate male heirs and
behaving like men "in public" and in terms of "public
duty" like fighting wars. The second could include
anything indulged by those same men, so long as it was
really "private".

Neither Jesus nor the more influential Saint Paul very
likely would have seen anything wrong with a one on
love between two people of the same sex (Paul clearly
loved Barnabas). They would not have conceptualized it
as we do, or separated it from the common range of
"earthly experiences". However, either or both could
have (and probably did) preach restraint, care and
self-questioning as indeed Plato has Socrates do in
the Symposium (the result is not anti-sexual, but it
goes to deeper questions of personal responsibility
and experience).

As for the Jewish influence on Christianity, one must
remember the virulent "anti-sodomy" rules -- whatever
"sodomy" would have been taken to mean in context --
are not more severe than the rules against eating pork
and shrimp or having sex with one's wife when she is

Again, a difference needs to be made between our
society and theirs. Promiscuous or anonymous sex of
any kind was linked to Pagan sects (where on feast
days anything went as part of the worship of a given
god) and seen as threats to the homogeneity of the

Within the Hebrew communities at any point, same sex
love was probably seen as typical as it usually is
where women are closely guarded and girls are totally
segregated from men. Only someone who did not marry
and reproduce legitimately would have been in for
trouble, under some but possibly not all conditions.
Thus the Old Testament has two of the most beautiful
same sex love stories, David and Jonathan and Ruth and

"Gay identity Politics" though popular is group think
and Barry is right to question it. Beethoven may or
may not have had same sex experiences but he also
seems to have had documented experiences with female
prostitutes and as Barry mentioned the wives of some
patrons. His sexuality would have been a matter of
impulse and opportunity and probably went in a number
of directions as long as he was sexually active
(probably not nearly as long as most people are today.

Life expectancy for males averaged about 45 in his
time, and 40 would have seemed like the beginning of
old age).

As Barry also pointed out many people (but especially
those who become active in the arts) indulge same sex
play or even affairs without becoming "gay" the way
the political types understand the term. Sometimes
it's opportunistic and probably was in the past,
sometimes it's a particular and private connection
between two people which has little to do with
genitals (and that goes for the occasional "gay" man
in my experience who fell fully in love with a genital
female and experienced much happiness as a result,
without losing a strong appreciation for male beauty
or acts that are most arousing when indulged between

But it is rarely clear what sexual behavior has to do
with the specific results of creative work. Is g minor
different when a gay composer uses it? Does that mean
it's a g minor chord who lusts after another g minor

When it comes to "plots" that may or may not reflect
the creator's personal experience, one is in dangerous
waters. Most opera composers have chosen or been
forced to chose from popular and typical texts (Verdi
may have been the bravest since neither Le Roi s'amuse
nor La dame aux Camillias automatically suggested

I think it's fair to say that Wagner's sexuality was
complex, that beautiful young men (or boys in late
adolescence)had considerable aesthetic appeal for him
(Siegfried, Lohengrin, Parisfal?) and that may have
meant the occasional indulgence on his part -- but who
can know? When Tristan cries out that Isolde "naht wie
ein Held!" (strides like a man), one might raise an
eyebrow, save that Tristan and Isolde have explicitly
interchanged their genders in act two. Their coupling
(completed only in death)has many odd aspects to it,
including the Oedipal, the necrophilic, and the
hallucinatory. The creator of that version of the
story and the amazing music that articulates it, was
very likely beyond any normal human sexuality or
feelings. That he may have indulged same sex at one
point or another is as irrelevant as the fact that his
second marriage was in many respects a very bourgeois

It's really only with Britten and Tippett that one
sees some connection between plots chosen and a more
or less exclusive sexuality. I doubt Britten with
Pears has as much to do with it as Britten with boys,
and Britten's own likely victimization as a boy.
Certainly his two most remkarable and in my opinion
artistically successful operas stem from that
obsession (Turn of the Screw and Death in Venice) and
both use a purely musical rhetoric that involves
"inversion" and musical lines that twist back on
themselves and a "perversion" of tonality (tonality in
the closet one might say).

In the cases of others on the famous list, who knows
and who cares? Mussorgsky got into more trouble from
alcoholism than from his sexuality (more or less
conceded to have been same sexual).

Tchaikovsky's intense and apparently relatively open
same sexuality, seems not to have figured very much in
his work. His greatest gift -- melody -- is not
exclusive to homosexuals and he scattered it
promiscuously over all the works we know and many we
don't know so well. Onegin probably owes more to
Carmen than it does to Tchaikovsky's "experiences of
frustrated love" -- in fact his love doesn't appear to
have been frustrated very often.

Whether or not Madame von Meck finally realized what
he was up to with all that rough trade and cut him off
for that reason, or, ill, alone and in financial
trouble (relative, we should all have such problems),
fighting with her legitimate heirs, she took advice to
simplify her obligations and thought she'd given him
enough will never be known.

But all the evidence accumulated including recently
suggests the second, more complicated, less
convenient, more human motive.

The Pathetique appears to be a deliberately funereal
work (b minor, "the black key" as Beethoven called
it). One "gay" commentator insisted way back in now
defunct Christopher Street Magazine that some
stretches of the first movement depicted anal
intercourse. Fine, except those were the direct quotes
from the Orthodox burial service. Rigor mortis rather
than erectile hardness seems to have been more on
Tchai's mind at the time. A life long depressive who
had made other suicide attempts, Tchai's suicide (if
such it was, and again there is really no hard
evidence to prove it) may have had a lot more to do
with his state of mind than his sexuality and its
likely consequences (since half the Czarist Court was
same sex inclined more or less openly, and the Court
adored Tchai, it's hard to think there would have been

None of this is to simplify human nature. I disagree
with Barry about Schumann, who appears to have been
bi-sexual (judging from his diaries) and whose
relationship with Clara was cloudy from the start,
despite all those kids. But again what that has to do
with any of his music isn't clear to me. I suspect
Schubert also was a same sexer (there are some code
words in his letters that have been linked to
pederastic slang, but it's also as evident as anything
can be in these matters that he had sustained affairs
with men in his social circle).

That Schubert was drawn to strange material (the
Erlkoenig, explictely a poem about the rape of a boy),
Winterreise, Ganymede (Zeus' male beloved, also
abducted) may have stemmed from his personal sexual
experience. But his ability to realize those poems in
unforgettable ways probably does not. And though
syphilis can be caught and spread through homosexual
commerce, it is thought that Schubert caught his from
a woman.

So there is a disjunction as I see it between our
"gayness" and life as lived long ago. To suggest that
exclusive same sex behavior is a normal minority
adaptation is what should be "taught". There is an
enormous amount of support for that attitude, arguing
from nature (behavior in many species) and from what
we have learned about genes.

To twist or investigate the lives of the long dead, to
launch assertions that can never be proven, proves
nothing and in any case is irrelevant to a gay
person's sense of his/her own normality and human

I doubt any suicidal gay teenager (gay male teenagers
are many times more likely to commit suicide than
others their age) is going to kick his heels high and
cry, "you mean Rimsky-Korsakoff was gay? Yipee I don't
have to die"! A society that is less judgmental and
more supportive of difference can create a more
positive "coming out" experience and that gets us far
away from Opera-L or opera period.

Expect to see this sometime next week if at all.

Emma Albani

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