Before Lady Gaga, Madonna and Judy Garland, the original divas were opera stars — and there is no greater diva than Tosca.
“I think that everyone loves a diva in the gay community, but the real, original divas — the way the word was invented — were opera singers,” says James McLennan, a gay opera star. “Tosca really is the ultimate diva. She plays a real diva in the show. Her character is a singer, so she’s a star within a star.”
Opera Lyra Ottawa’s (OLO) production of Puccini’s Tosca, at the National Arts Centre, is a must-see, not just for opera fans, but for anyone who loves music and drama.
“It’s a really fast-paced story, the characters are well drawn, the ending is a real shocker,” McLennan says. “It’s one of the biggest twists in opera. It caused a sensation at its premiere and it still does. When people go to Tosca for the first time, the curtain comes down and usually their mouths are still hanging open.”
“I love it,” he says of playing opera’s bad boys. “In my repertoire as a tenor I do a wide variety of parts, from comics to villains, but it’s always fun to get your frustrations out onstage as an evil guy.”
Passion for opera isn’t limited to the performers and audience members. Jim Livingstone, OLO’s production manager, works behind the scenes to deliver the type of lavish production that audience members have come to expect from the company.
“My love of opera is based on the grand scale of it and that it involves all different kinds of art forms: the scenery, the costumes, the singing, the acting, sometimes dancing and even special effects,” he says. “You get everything in one package and it’s just so big.”
Though he is openly gay now, it took Livingstone a number of years working in the arts community before he felt comfortable enough to open up. “I’ve been in the arts since 1978 and was very, very closeted at the time,” he says. “There are an extraordinary number of gay people in the arts, but it was primarily the straight people who kind of said, ‘Come on, it’s okay. We know who you are,’ and I kept denying it.” He came out in 1984 to “tremendous support” from his family and the arts community.
As production manager, he’s a man of many hats and he relishes keeping it all together. “The production manager in one way or another organizes everything that you see onstage — from the lighting to the costumes to the set to even entrances and exits,” he says. “I also end up taking care of the artists. If they need to see a doctor or they need a massage or don’t like their hotel, then I’m the go-to person for all of that, so it’s a very complex job.”
The hard work and challenges required to stage an opera worthy of Puccini’s vision pale in comparison to the trials the characters face — jealousy, emotional torment, torture and murder. The title character of Tosca, played by Michele Capalbo, is a famous opera singer who wants to rescue Mario Cavaradossi from the head of Rome’s secret police. McLennan believes gay audiences in particular root for Tosca, not because she’s fabulous, but because they can relate to her adversity.
“Often, operas will depict women who are sort of put in tough circumstances but who rise above it and who assert their individuality,” he says. “I think there are parallels between that and the gay experience in some ways — being a bit of an outsider . . . but finding our way and celebrating who we are.”