Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teaching teenagers to sing the heteropatriarchy

I met my girlfriend as a teenager on an opera summer school. I told her I was a lesbian, and we sat on a bench, in the moonlight, after the show, and held hands. That was the moment I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with her.

That’s not quite true. Who knows anything about the future when they’re that age? And besides, we’d met before. And we did not actually get together until a year or so after we’d grown out of youth-opera. But still. We sat together, in the moonlight, with the echoes of the singing fading from our ears. That much is true.

By the time we were going to opera summer schools together, I was more-or-less out in my identification of something I had not yet learned to term queer. Lesbian was far too simple a term; for a start, it did not encompass the enormous crush I had on the man conducting the opera, his expressive eyebrows and sure, gentle hands.

(To this day, I have a bit of a thing for conductors. Queer for people who make music happen, you might say. And I have said, musicality being a far more fundamental part of what makes me tick in a relationship than genitalia. And I’m not the only one who’s said it, either; I can quote academics, like Suzanne G. Cusick in Queering the Pitch, who’ve said it too. Music is sexy, and everyone knows it. I certainly know it.)

In fact, the very first time I met my girlfriend was on an opera summer school, or at least a music and drama summer school. We were about ten. It was a production based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha. The only time in about ten years of youth music and drama that the performance featured anything other than a white hero.

We said ‘how’ a lot, and we conflated the unique cultural traditions of multiple groups of Native Americans into one homogeneous mess, which we assumed to be historical rather than contemporary. To the credit of the people running it, the production ended with the symbolically danced genocide of Hiawatha and all his people, signalled by the arrival of white soldiers (who, incidentally, were all played by girls). In fact, it was only when I was checking Wikipedia while writing this blog post that I realised that that’s not how the poem ends, that in Longfellow’s version Hiawatha tells his people to embrace Christianity...

I remember two things about my character in Hiawatha. Firstly, my solo, which I can still sing to this day. And secondly, the fact that I was one of only three people made to wear dresses. The casting was almost gender-blind; by which I mean most of the girls played men, because there were very few boys. Some of the girls played genderless personifications of abstract constructs. There were three actually female characters, Hiawatha’s love interest, her grandmother, and me. I was playing the village singer. Even for the people behind this mixed-gender musical theatre performance, thematically, singing was for girls, in dresses, to perform.

My girlfriend, who I met that week for the very first time, was cast as the personification of famine. My girlfriend has always been what I will call, not resorting to the invisibility of euphemism, fat. She cried, certain that she was being mocked.

She is unhappy. I am uncomfortable in the dress I would never have chosen to wear. Here we are, ten years old, and already learning body fascism, gender policing, cultural homogenisation. Already feeling the sting of it. All through the medium of youth opera.

I am politicised now. I question the things I learned, accidentally, then, along with the notes and the steps. But how many of us will unlearn those unconscious lessons?

Later, the part that always got to me was the fact that everything we performed, everything, ended with a heterosexual wedding. Except, that is, for Dido and Aeneas, which ended instead with death.

Is it worth noting that it was Dido and Aeneas was what we had been performing, my girlfriend and I, before the night when we sat and held hands under the stars? Heterosexual love is rejected. Death, says Dido, explicitly, is the only other option.

But not for us. Not for us.

We’d been cast as witches, of course. Along with the other fat girls, frizzy-haired girls, queer girls. And we had fun with it, too. Laughing at our triumph; mad and bad and powerful, and, for once, undestroyed by the narrative, unpunished for our freedom, revelling in the destruction of others.

I remember, so damn vividly, that the girl who played Dido was blond. I tried, back then, not to care. I tried to pretend it did not matter to me.

You can’t help but take the hidden messages away. In all my years of youth opera, I was never once cast as the heroine. I played a poisoner, one year, in Beggar’s Opera; and an alto one at that, despite my soprano voice. I played witches and unnamed women; I was characterless or I was evil. If I was very lucky, I was simply cast to play men.

Very few of the young people I sang with wanted to be opera stars. Only a handful remained musicians after childhood. I know of people I used to sing with who these days are policemen, social workers, politicians. Who take the lessons they learned from opera into the wider world. Lessons gained from performance: teamwork, confidence, success, ownership and responsibility. And the other lessons, too, whether they want them or not.

Later, I started teaching on these youth opera courses. I never got to choose which operas were going to be performed; it was a while before I realised that even had I had free rein to choose, I would not have been able to do any better. The heteropatriarchy would still have triumphed with a double wedding and a perfect cadence. One ending, one possible narrative. No matter how queer and colourful the cast, no matter how politically aware the director, no matter how much we wanted our music to be transformative, the tyranny of the happy ending locked us in.

We tried as hard as we could, myself and the young female director I worked with. I remember a production of Gondoliers, where we framed the happy ending pose around the two central men, played by girls, the larger holding the smaller in the air, staring into each other’s eyes. A queer image; a female-centred image, visually. Narratively, the erasure of the women who should have mattered, the women they were going to marry whatever our staging said. No way to win; the narrative impossibilities are scored and underlined, in the music.

And so we need new music. New stories. New possibilities of performing our new selves. Because what are the other options? We end up teaching a new generation to sing from the same heteropatriarchal hymn-sheet. Or we do not sing at all.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, yes, this EXACTLY.

    I'm a composer and a working singer, and I really hope that someday we'll be able to make this music happen. And considering the sheer amount of sopranos and mezzo-sopranos out there looking for something to sing about while basses and tenors remain in high demand, it's about time we wrote operas for these thousands of talented women to leave their marks on. I have written three libretti already, stories beyond the scope of the tragedy or comedy of Boy Meets Girl, with roles for women that do more than ornament their way through their own erasure, and if more composers write with the expansion of opera's definition in mind, we might just be able to revitalize the medium.