Frida © Hans Gerritsen

Pride special: LGBTIQA+ in opera and ballet

2 August 2021

Text: Laura Roling

Pride is all about being who you are and loving who you want. But what about the art forms of opera and ballet? The vast majority of the classical repertoire originates from a period in which there was no room for the variety of sexual orientations and gender identities that exists in our world.

The search for opera and ballet classics in which LGBTIQA+ stories are told is, at first sight, a rather hopeless one. After all, the classical repertoire mainly showcases the experiences of more traditional heterosexual couples.

Yet that is not the whole story. Opera and ballet are, after all, art forms that have to be brought to life again and again. Unlike paintings or sculptures, opera and ballet always provide room for new visions and interpretations. Indeed, that is what keeps these art forms alive.

Pique Dame


There are countless examples of operas and ballets in which directors and choreographers have chosen to include new perspectives in classical works. Dutch National Opera director Stefan Herheim, for example, incorporated composer Tchaikovsky's struggles with his sexual orientation in his production of Pique Dame.

And when you see Swan Lake by Rudi van Dantzig at Dutch National Ballet, you may get the feeling that there is more tension between Prince Siegfried and his friend than between him and Odette/Odile. More radical is the version of Swan Lake created by British choreographer Matthew Bourne, in which the roles of the swans are performed by male dancers and the work deals with the homosexual awakening of Prince Siegfried. This version was a hit on London's West End and on Broadway.

Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro © Monika Rittershaus

GENDER IN OPERA and ballet

When it comes to gender, opera is a special case. In the iron repertoire, there are plenty of trouser roles, in which female singers (often mezzo-sopranos) sing roles of male characters (almost always young men). Sometimes this is because a role was originally written for a castrato, a voice type that (fortunately) no longer exists, but just as often it was a conscious choice during the creation.

But a conscious choice does not automatically mean that gender becomes a theme in operas with trouser roles. In Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, for instance, one cannot say that with the character of the irascible adolescent Cherubino, sung by a mezzo-soprano, gender identity enters the opera. Cherubino is primarily a young man who develops along masculine lines. The fact that the role is sung by a woman falls under the heading of 'suspension of disbelief'.

In ballet, something like a trouser role would be unthinkable. No other art form has such a hierarchical structure as ballet. In ballet companies, the dancer's table is still divided into various ranks, and within those ranks, into women and men. Gender is also linked to a whole gender-specific movement language in ballet. Women dance on pointe, men do more jumps and a pas de deux is danced by a man and a woman. However, there are more and more choreographers who are pushing these limits. A pioneer in this field is Hans van Manen, who, already in 1965, created Metaforen, a choreography with a male duet and a female duet. In his choreography MANOEUVRE (2020), Juanjo Arqués focuses on male vulnerability, in order to create a more complete and rich understanding of the concept of masculinity. And choreographer Peter Leung transcends gender-specific movements in his (Pas de Deux) (2022) for the Junior Company of Dutch National Ballet. The duet can be performed by a man and a woman, two men or two women.


Metaforen © Alex Gouliaev


While there may not be many LGBTIQA+ themes in the classical repertoire, we have seen an increase over the course of the twentieth century. In opera, the first queer character appears in Alban Berg's Lulu in 1937. Gräfin Geschwitz, like the various male characters in the opera, is hopelessly attracted to the title heroine Lulu. The fact that she is a lesbian is not problematized. She just is, and her obsessive love is perhaps even more genuine than that of the men in the opera.

In the operas of the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), homosexuality, and in particular the social taboo on it, plays a major role. For example, in Billy Budd and Peter Grimes.

Billy Bud
Lulu © Clarchen & Matthias Baus

In ballet, Rudi van Dantzig caused international furore in 1965 with his Monument for a Dead Boy, a psychodramatic ballet about the mental confusion of an adolescent trying to come to terms with his homosexual feelings. The ballet had such an impact that Rudolf Nureyev, the biggest international ballet superstar of the day, approached Van Dantzig to come and dance the work with the Dutch National Ballet.

Nowadays, there are plenty of new operas and ballets being created with LGBTIQA+ stories. At Dutch National Ballet, choreographer Wubkje Kuindersma created Two and Only in 2017, an intimate duet for two male dancers. And Annabelle Lopez Ochoa's narrative ballet Frida (2020) focuses on the bisexual Frida Kahlo, who also regularly engaged in gender play.

Monument for a Lost Boy
Frida © Hans Gerritsen

In the field of opera, more and more new creations are telling LGBTIQA+ stories as well. In 2014, for example, composer Charles Wuorinen's opera Brokeback Mountain, based on the film of the same name, premiered at the Teatro Real in Madrid. In the same year, composer Ricky Ian Gordon created the opera 27, about Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. And those are just two examples.

When it comes to gender diversity, the world premiere of I have missed you forever, at Dutch National Opera in 2022, was a true milestone. This new opera was created by a collective of mainly queer artists and performers and the central theme in the story is a queer perspective: Suppressed, forgotten and out-of-place voices were given the opportunity to speak up. 

What the future holds for opera and ballet in terms of LGBTIQA+? Perhaps a stronger presence of non-normative gender identities on stage and in the artistic teams. They do exist, both in opera and ballet.

This article was written with care, but it is far from complete. For instance. It is possible that important works or issues have been overlooked. Do you have additions or do you want to react? Please do so here.