Queering the Classics: How Artists are Reclaiming Iconic Works Through an LGBTQ Lens

by Naveen Kumar

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday January 4, 2022
Originally published on December 23, 2021

Company XIV's 'Nutcracker Rouge.'
Company XIV's 'Nutcracker Rouge.'  (Source:Mark Shelby Perry/Company XIV)

It took nearly 300 years for an openly trans woman to appear in a leading role on the U.S. opera stage. Lucia Lucas, a professional opera singer who is trans, became the first when she starred in the title role of "Don Giovanni'' at Tulsa Opera in 2019. Lucas played the role dressed as a man with her baritone voice, as conventionally written, and like she has many others. Her ability and willingness to play traditional roles in a classical way has been essential to forging a sustainable and successful career.

"You can't force the entire business to change for you," Lucas tells EDGE. "When I came out, friends and colleagues said, 'What are you going to do now?' I said, 'Did I say I was going to quit?' With each performance, I don't hope to break ground, but normalize people whose identities don't necessarily line up with the characters they play on stage. The shift in mentality is the change I hope to inspire as it is more lasting than one performance."

While the live arts have always been associated with queerness, from the prevalence of queer creators and fans to certain traditions of gender play on stage, explicitly trans characters or same-sex love, for example, are all but entirely absent from canonical texts.

Increasingly, that's starting to change. Over the past 10 years, a growing number of queer-inclusive interpretations of classic works have been filling up season calendars. These deliberately imaginative revivals perform a corrective function, reinstating queer people into cultural contexts where they were previously — and inaccurately — erased.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 'Oklahoma!'
Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 'Oklahoma!'  (Source: Jenny Graham)

Oregon Shakespeare Festival's acclaimed 2018 production of "Oklahoma!," directed by Bill Rauch, imagined Aunt Eller as trans and Curly as a queer Black woman. This summer, at New York's Shakespeare in the Park, The Public Theater presented playwright Jocelyn Bioh and director Saheem Ali's "Merry Wives," in which young lovers Anne and Fenton were queer. And a take on "Carmen" at Chicago Opera Theater in September cast openly queer opera star Jamie Barton in the title role opposite Stephanie Blythe in drag as Don José.

In the world of dance, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo has grown into a worldwide sensation since its 1974 founding as a comedic drag ballet company, proving that men could perform classic works en pointe. Austin McCormick's Company XIV celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2021, applying circus, Baroque dance, ballet, opera, live music, and lavish design to create immersive performance experiences such as its annual "Nutcracker Rouge."

These productions, and others like them, go beyond merely dressing up a character as queer. Instead, with careful consideration of how queerness can color a character's place in the story and the nature of the story itself, they aim to reshape how we think about classic texts — and about the humanity of queer people.

Tales we see repeated again and again exert a powerful influence over public imagination. (Consider, for example, how integral "Romeo and Juliet" is to how we conceive of young love.) Queer interventions on canonical texts can carry significant cultural weight, moving the dial on how audiences think about the world and queer people's lasting place in it.

Conservatism and Queerness Collide at the Opera

Lucia Lucas
Lucia Lucas  (Source: Josh New)

In their play on gender, certain historical conventions of opera might be considered to have a queer bent. Pants roles, or male characters written to be played by women, and the bygone practice of castrati, male singers castrated before puberty to maintain their high voices, might be said to disrupt, if not challenge, strict delineations of gender in performance.

But there's a knowingness to these practices that doesn't necessarily ask audiences or creative teams to think differently or more expansively about gender.

"People often talk about how opera has always been queer," says Lucas, who is based in Germany and works internationally. "But that doesn't necessarily mean they embrace queer identity off the stage; that's just what the piece calls for."

Lucas has starred in productions that she feels successfully played on her trans identity, such as Le Grade Pretere in "Samson et Dalila" at Staatstheater Darmstadt in 2015. Such productions are artistically successful when there's a thoughtful concept at work, she says, rather than when Lucas might show up on the first day to see renderings of her character in a dress and a mustache.

Lucia Lucas as Le Grade Pretere in "Samson et Dalila."
Lucia Lucas as Le Grade Pretere in "Samson et Dalila."  (Source: Staatstheater Darmstadt)

"Then it's on me to figure out how to make sure that it isn't offensive," she says.

"I think the best thing that queer and trans performers can do is ignore [conventions of gender that are constricting to them]," Lucas says. "If I were only allowed to play trans characters, that leaves me very little material to work with." When Lucas isn't playing a trans character on stage (there are currently less than a handful of operas with trans characters), she recognizes that her identity alone broadens the field of representation.

"If I never played a trans person onstage, the fact that my headshot is me, in life, and my bio has my pronouns — I think that alone is a net positive," Lucas says.

Chicago Opera Theater's 'Carmen.'
Chicago Opera Theater's 'Carmen.'  (Source: Michael Brosilow)

For Chicago Opera Theater, making the art form more inclusive and reflective of the modern world has become an artistic mission. "I strongly believe that the greatest works of art or literature are the ones that we have the ability to keep reinterpreting again and again," the company's music director, Lidiya Yankovskaya, tells EDGE.

This fall, that meant a presentation of "Carmen" starring queer mezzo Jamie Barton in the title role and Stephanie Blythe, as her tenor alter ego Blythely Oratonio, in the part of Don José. "Jamie in many ways embodies what Carmen is today," Yankovskaya says. "She is someone who's really vocal about her sexuality and gay rights, who is very much herself and refuses to be placed in a box or told by society how she should look or act," qualities she brought to her characterization.

Fresh interpretations like these are essential to the future of the form, Yankovskaya says. "That's what makes these works last; they are not dogmatic or specific to a very narrow period of time or cultural place."

Shakespeare's Myths About Love

(l to r) MaYaa Boateng and Abena in 'Merry Wives.'
(l to r) MaYaa Boateng and Abena in 'Merry Wives.'  (Source: Joan Marcus)

Perhaps no classic body of work better exemplifies the power of reinvention than Shakespeare's. Like opera, the gender play of Elizabethan performance is baked into the Bard's texts, most obviously with women's roles written for male performers, the recurring trope of cross-dressing, and comedy rooted in social conceptions of masculinity and femininity.

Artists and scholars have long riffed on and reimagined his plays to reflect a changing world, an obvious testament to the texts' staying power. "Merry Wives," presented by the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park in 2021, was one recent production that incorporated queerness in a way that both enriched the story and telegraphed a contemporary message.

"Perhaps because [director Saheem Ali] and I are both African and understand how taboo queer relationships are in nearly every African society, it was a choice we both felt proud of," playwright Jocelyn Bioh tells EDGE. It was Ali's idea, Bioh says, to make young lovers Anne Page (Abena) and Fenton (MaYaa Boateng) queer.

In the comedy's secondary plot, Anne's parents push her to marry one male suitor or another, including David Ryan Smith's Doctor Caius, who also turns out to be queer. But Anne only has eyes for Fenton. "Almost nothing about the Fenton and Anne storyline changed except for Fenton's gender, and it made that story feel so much deeper," Bioh says.

The happy ending, which finds Anne's parents welcoming Fenton into the family, thus becomes a powerful message about acceptance. The hope is perhaps that "any parent, African or not, would see that their child's happiness is always the most important thing," Bioh says.

For theaters to continue staging Shakespeare's work, which they undoubtedly will, Bioh considers reinterpretation essential. "Otherwise, I don't know why else we should even bother," she says. "It is high time to reclaim these old, antiquated narratives."

Director Jessica Thebus reimagined the Fezziwigs as a same-sex couple in the Goodman Theatre's annual production of 'A Christmas Carol.'
Director Jessica Thebus reimagined the Fezziwigs as a same-sex couple in the Goodman Theatre's annual production of 'A Christmas Carol.'  (Source: Liz Lauren)

More artists are continuing to do so in unique ways. Playwright Leanna Keyes's "Two Ladies of Vermont," for example, presents a take on "Two Gentlemen of Verona" that changes the underlying identity of the characters to women in a modern comedy that plays on stereotypes about lesbian relationships.

This winter's 44th annual production of "A Christmas Carol" at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, adapted by Tom Creamer and directed by Jessica Thebus, includes a queer characterization of Fezziwig, Scrooge's erstwhile mentor. "This year's inclusion of a joyful queer couple in a pivotal scene — their kiss under the mistletoe is actually the only kiss in the show — was incredibly emotional," says Lauren Emily Whalen, author of the YA novels "Two Winters" and "Take Her Down," which offer modern, queer retellings of Shakespeare classics. "If I'd seen that as a kid, it would have made all the difference in the world," Whalen says.

"Any and everyone should see themselves in classic stories," Bioh adds.

Musical Theater's Straight-Washing of American Identity

(l to r) Bobbi Charlton and Tatiana Wechsler on Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'Oklahoma!'
(l to r) Bobbi Charlton and Tatiana Wechsler on Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'Oklahoma!'  (Source: Jenny Graham)

Musical theater in the U.S. has long concerned itself with conceiving of national identity and what it means to be American. From "Show Boat" in 1927 to "West Side Story" 30 years later, American musicals have often centered tensions of belonging and perpetuated mythologies of who is at the center of the country's story. Inclusive interventions to American musicals can therefore have significant cultural power.

"The musical's significance as a source of national pride and identity nostalgically freezes in time a vision of early America as white and straight," Lindsey Mantoan, Ph.D., assistant professor of Theatre Studies at Linfield University, writes in her analysis of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's 2018 production of "Oklahoma!"

As Mantoan defines the term, recuperative casting seeks to "expand early definitions of American identity so that it's more accurate and more inclusive," she tells EDGE.

OSF artistic director Bill Rauch imagined Curly as a Black woman (played by Tatiana Wechsler) and Aunt Eller as a trans woman (Bobbi Charlton), among other interpretive moves that directly shaped the meaning of the story. Mantoan writes that production "[encouraged] audiences to be conscious of the ways race and gender operate with respect to power and community cohesion," in an enduring myth about the American frontier that has historically excluded queer people and people of color.

"We have associations of Broadway musicals and queerness," notably that gay men have often been among its creators, performers, and fans, Mantoan says. "But there aren't a lot of queer characters in these canonical musicals, which is, of course, a kind of erasure," considering both the world they reflect on the many queer people who both create and admire them.

Matt Doyle in the Broadway revival of 'Company.'
Matt Doyle in the Broadway revival of 'Company.'  (Source: Joan Marcus)

Director Marianne Elliott's gender-swapped revival of "Company," which opened on Broadway in December, now includes a gay groom-to-be (played by Matt Doyle) with a hilarious case of cold feet in the song "Not Getting Married Today," usually sung by a straight female character.

Newer entries into the cannon center on queer characters and their particular struggles and triumphs, from Jonathan Larson's "Rent" in 1996 to musicals seen on Broadway in recent seasons like "The Prom," by Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin, and "Jagged Little Pill," by Tony winner Diablo Cody, with the music of Alanis Morrissette.

But the controversy over "Jagged Little Pill," whose creators were accused of erasing the non-binary identity of Jo, played by Tony winner Lauren Patten, during the process of development, demonstrates how strongly queer people, and especially trans people, rightfully feel about seeing themselves carefully and meaningfully reflected on stage.

Stephen Spielberg's film adaptation of "West Side Story," with a screenplay by Tony Kushner, imagines aspiring Jet Anyboys as transgender, with the character played by non-binary actor Iris Menas. The inclusion has led some Middle Eastern countries to ban the film, further demonstrating how powerful and necessary such representations are.

'We Have a Responsibility': The Tangible Impacts of Representation

Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo
Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo  (Source: Zoran Jelenic)

Incorporating queer people into stories that we repeatedly tell about our culture isn't just essential to progress for LGBTQ+ people. It's essential to the future of art.

"We have a responsibility, all other things aside, to start from scratch and to rethink what these works are capable of," Yankovskaya says of canonical texts. "Because opera focuses on emotional impact, in many ways it's more capable than often other art forms of really helping us to feel kinship to the characters on the stage," she says. "Even if we're nothing like them."

Live performance is meant to engender empathy that circulates around the room and in the moment. Clichés about theater bringing people together exist because they're true. Mantoan recalls an audience filled with other queer people watching OSF's "Oklahoma!" "feeling this massive sweep of emotions together," seeing themselves incorporated into a foundational American myth from which they had previously been erased.

There's more to the power of representation than mere recognition. Especially in the context of familiar stories, queer revisions can perform corrective, and even healing, work. Understanding that queer people have always been a part of history forms the basis of imagining a more equitable future. It can also play a very immediate role in the present.

"It's still very hard to navigate this world as a queer person," Mantoan says. "Any kind of text or representation that helps a queer person feel seen and included really matters in the life of that one person."

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on them.us, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.