Last Spring I tucked myself into a particularly sweaty corner of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, perched on a thin, hard bench with a Red Stripe, and witnessed something powerful. Lucia Lucas, the extraordinary female baritone, sang extracts from Binary Optional, her song-cycle performance exploring gender fluidity through song. The crowd (non-opera-buffs on the whole) adored Lucia; her performance captivated, holding the room and communicating something unique and important. Speaking to me later, Lucia explained the rationale behind her performance: ‘If I say I am a butch, femme, queer lesbian who does drag to pay the rent and has no choice but to perform my AMAB* gender due to testosterone poisoning, it doesn’t click with my audience. If, instead of telling them, I simply show them, I can feel like I am being authentic and hopefully they will pick up more.’
Through performance, Lucia ‘queers’ classical repertoire (arias by Bizet, Britten, Purcell and Adams among others) to speak to identities beyond those of the works’ original contexts. She imbues the music with a sense of her personal experiences (experiences shared by many in the LGBTQI+ community) and as such she speaks to life and to a lived identity. Lucia explains, ‘Queers have had more luck simply expressing, rather than explaining, their gender.’ This, I think, gets to the heart of it: expressing, rather than explaining.
Song is uniquely powerful in this ability. It speaks beyond its constituent parts to the essence of an experience, communicating something of a felt existence. As Lucia describes it, ‘Music has a way of sending a current, through which words have additional meaning attached.’ Music mirrors our internal architecture, reflecting the psychosexual: music can be ‘masc.’ or ‘femme’ – it builds, climaxes, and releases… What’s more, it does so beyond the complicated messiness of physicality, affording a safe space for queer-identity expression. If queerness is what José Esteban Muñoz describes as ‘a structuring and educated mode of desiring that allows us to see and feel beyond the quagmire of the present’, then music, certainly, aspires toward this utopia. LGBTQI+ people, like any marginalised group, must build their own worlds; construct their own ways of being. Music uniquely offers a means of world-building, of world-less optimism, that is both within and beyond us. Song – as Lucia’s performance demonstrates – reaches beyond the here-and-now of our lives toward something approximating emancipation, what Muñoz calls ‘a forward-dawning futurity’, ‘a longing that propels us forward’.
In pop music, queer artists have long constituted a prominent vanguard. From mainstream acts such as Sam Smith, Olly Alexander or Muna, through Frank Ocean and Mykki Blanco to more experimental artists including Arca, Perfume Genius, Anohni, Fever Ray or Serpentwithfeet, pop music (taken quite broadly) offers a space for artists to be authentically themselves. Curious about what pop offers the LGBTQI+ community, I spoke to Alim Kheraj, pop-music and queer-culture writer for Dazed, GQ, Attitude, and i-D among others. He suggested that pop music’s lack of defining boundaries means that it is queer unto itself. ‘It avoids any, shall we say, heteronormativity or binaries,’ he explained, ‘mutating and changing in any way that it chooses. It also, I feel, borrows a lot from its surroundings, sometimes wearing its influences on its sleeves. Like queer identities that, sometimes, pick and choose what they want from mainstream society, pop, too, picks and chooses what sounds it wants to favour.’ Particularly interesting, I thought, were Alim’s ideas about the listener: ‘There’s an element of escapism.’ he said, ‘For queer people, clubs and bars become sanctuaries, and so pop music that caters to that also becomes a sort of escapist sanctuary. It’s a fantasy, too.’
In art-music and opera, things, I think it’s fair to say, have been less radical, but then so much of the repertoire is historic and much is without text or visuals (which doubtless extend a work’s transgressive potential). In his book, The Queen’s Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum offers an idiosyncratic journey through opera’s queer past, whilst elsewhere Phillip Brett compiled detailed queer-musicological analyses of Britten and others. Both offer interesting perspectives, but are, I think, for the most part after-the-fact ‘queerings’ of a more staid repertoire. Where contemporary composers have overtly explored LGBTQI+ identities they have, for me, largely fallen short. Take, for example, Roger Scruton’s casting of a baritone for a lesbian character in his 2005 opera, Violet – a mis-casting that surely utterly fails in the exploration of a nuanced LGBTQI+ identity? Elsewhere, Mark Simpson’s Pleasure – an opera set in a gay club’s toilet – although well received on the whole, suffered from its poeticised text: as Richard Bratby wrote in The Spectator, ’It just makes the whole thing seem (the old libel) exotic and irrational.’ Similarly, in avoiding the club-music so central to its setting – opting instead for what The Telegraph called, ‘a score that froths itself into a fearful late-Romantic lather’ – the work fails to speak beyond the ivory-tower of the opera stage and resonate with any lived queer experiences.
One composer who, for me, succeeds in reaching beyond the cosseted hierarchies of art-music is Phillip Venables. I asked Phillip why he thinks there is a lack of queer-identity expression in contemporary-classical music: ‘I think it’s either because composers don’t put their own identity expressions in their work,’ he said, ‘or because the identities are not very varied. Either way, it’s a great shame, because a whole range of opportunities are being lost in terms of the breadth of style and range of content. Consequently, the political and social relevance of opera / art music is limited.’ Contrasting this with other musics, Phillip explained, ‘Pop, drag or club performances often come from the opposite direction: their identity expression is politically engaged, socially relevant, etc. But a lot of that work perhaps isn’t the most challenging or interesting in terms of aesthetics (there are many exceptions, of course).’ Phillip aims for the best of both worlds in his music: ‘I think the combination of the aesthetics of opera / art music / theatre (yes I would definitely include that in my work) plus the social relevance of drag / performance art can be a really explosive and exciting mix.’
Art-music should, I agree, be the ideal arena in which to explore marginalised identities; its radical aesthetic is rich in transgressive potential. Queer experiences are often complex and difficult to describe, and so a complex (and sometimes difficult) art-form is well placed for exploring the idiosyncrasies of those experiences. However, it is too often about the music and not what that music can speak to. Lucia Lucas’ performance, by contrast, spoke to enormous, complex and formative experiences (‘Depression. Finding love before transition. Risking everything to align with my true gender. The happiness of being able to retain a relationship through transition…’) – experiences too complex and raw to explain but vitally important to communicate. She summarised the importance: ‘Art is therapy. Not conforming to society can be exhausting, and queer art is an important outlet.’
I couldn’t agree more; queer art is vitally important, now more than ever. As our rights and relative freedoms have burgeoned over the last half-century, the spaces for, and means of, enacting those rights and freedoms have become ever narrower. Since the 1960s, assimilation has, broadly, been a process of conforming. What once constituted a vibrant counterculture is now, in parts, subsumed within the mainstream. Of course, it is churlish and naive to romanticise the ghettoising of the recent past, however – inevitably – what is suppressed through the process of sublimation becomes brittle. Statistics bear this out: since 2006, 58% of queer spaces in London have shut. What’s more, homophobic attacks are up 80% since 2013 (up 147% in the months following the Brexit vote) with 4 out of 5 LGBTQI+ people having been a victim of a hate crime. Legislation has a proclivity to placate those it endeavours to liberate; tends to quiet the dissenting. Art – particularly complex, challenging art – has an obligation to unquiet; to portend the losses of homogenisation and to celebrate the idiosyncrasies of the marginalised. As heteronormativity prevails, as queer venues close at an unprecedented rate, and as sections of society veer toward a reactionary right, it seems to me vitally important that we foster and nurture the creative apparatus for liberated, rich and varied identity expression. Art speaks; it should speak to, and for, all.
*assigned male at birth
Illusions (Phillip Venables and David Hoyle)