“There is nothing gayer than being an opera director. Maybe hair dressing comes close,” quips Christopher Alden, in answer to a question about how “out” an artist can be in the opera world.
Alden is in Toronto to direct the new Canadian Opera Company production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. “Probably singers do have to be a little bit careful, still. Conductors, definitely . . . conducting is such a patriarchal thing. It’s ridiculous how few women conductors there still are. There almost has to be a man standing before the orchestra. The conductors probably have to play that game and not be too out, or they lose their patriarchal credibility.”
For a performing art that busts gender unlike any other, opera behind-the-scenes can be a resiliently conservative domain. “Same thing with black male opera singers. There are not very many black tenors around. Could it be because the tenor is the romantic lead who gets the girl? It’s weird. And not that different from a gay guy trying to make a career as a tenor.”
Alden’s new Tito will have something for every shade of the queer spectrum. The four female singers who make the two couples in the story – one a dark tangle of sexual blackmail, the other stable and sunny – is usually what lesbian opera-goers follow the most.
In Alden’s interpretation, at the centre of the piece is the relationship between the young patrician noble Sesto (Sextus) and his mentor and friend, Emperor Tito (Titus). The older man/younger man – the ephebe and the teacher relationships – were very much sanctioned in the ancient world, Alden reminds. “When the younger man reaches a certain age, it is over, and it is time for him to move on and have relationships with women. We meet Sesto at that point in his life in this opera. But the emperor is so attached and so needy that he won’t let go. The key scene, when Sesto is discovered to be a traitor, feels like an intense breakup scene, with the usual recriminations and one guy saying to the other, ‘It’s not you, it’s me.’”
I ask Alden if a consciously queer aesthetic of opera directing exists, and, if so, what does it look like? Alden sees his work in that light, as a contribution to the queering of staging practices. Some gay opera directors may (over)use buff shirtless dancers in their productions or go camp with abandon. Alden’s way is more roundabout. “I feel that maybe for the gay-guys segment of the opera-going audience, some of them aren’t that interested in my productions because they’re too stripped down or serious or politicized.” He does define his directorial credo as a “modern, urban, gay sensibility,” something that was not, he insists, invented in our time.
“The 18th century knew its antiquity well and knew about its sexual mores. I am sure this interpretive layer about the same-sex desire was present in Mozart’s time, as it is in ours.” His ironic and playful approach is very much at home in the operas that were made before the 19th century. “It’s something I’ve been struggling with my whole career. The 19th-century opera is very dark, patriarchal, emotional, devoid of irony. I love Verdi’s operas, but I often fear my approach jars against their nature.”
Eroticism onstage can also be a tool of the queer aesthetic. Here too, however, nothing is straightforward. “Desire is a bottom line of so much opera. But it’s tricky portraying sexuality onstage. There is always danger of it looking fake, because ultimately the performers are faking it – they’re not really turned on by each other. It’s about keeping it believable by not pushing too far. Sometimes less is more. And ultimately, nothing is more erotic than the intertwining of two voices.”
To the globe-crossing Alden, home is New York City and the life he shares with his permanent partner, a staff director at the Metropolitan Opera. “It can be horribly hard to get on that airplane. It doesn’t get any easier with practice. My partner’s work keeps him in NYC, and he’s the one who gets to enjoy being at home. But having a steady relationship for this long, almost 25 years now, is a great thing. It gives you such a solid sense of yourself; it’s a really empowering thing. You take that with you when you go off. Besides, we find separations aren’t always such a terrible thing for a relationship. Maybe that’s why we survived this long.”