Why do many gay men love opera?

Why do many gay men love opera?


norman lebrecht

September 06, 2016

Eleonore Büning, chief critic of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, asks the question.

She qualifies: ‘I am not an expert on gender issues, only an opera critic’. But she goes on to argue that ‘the essence of opera is ambivalence.’

Read her essay here (auf Deutsch).

gay mens chorus washington

gay men’s chorus, Washington DC


  • Jonathan Ellis says:

    I have heard it said that one of the reason gay people love the theatre in particular (whether plays or opera) is because, for ages, gay people were having to “act” pretty much all their real life to hide their inclinations: and theatre training as a result came pretty much naturally, because, well, they had learned to be good at being someone who wasn’t “themselves”.

    Following which would develop a subculture of slang and gesture – eventually learned of, and sometimes followed up, even by straight people in the theatre business, which explains why even a fair number of straight actors are a bit “camp”. (On several occasions I have actually been surprised to find out that a particular person was straight…)

    • John Borstlap says:

      An excellent explanation. Unreality presented as real, and maybe somehow representing a deeper truth of the human condiction: on stage, strong emotional involements are acted-out and the music exposes the undercurrents.

    • Lynn says:

      To even speculate about whether gays or straights like opera is, well, stupid. Frankly, were I to judge audiences and participants based on my personal experience, I’ve actually found that the distribution of gays in the audience or as singers is a bit below the average. In my opera time, I’ve only known two gay singers. And our opera company only had 1 gay board member out of a dozen. And of course, in all cases, nobody gave a damn.

      And before I have to make the time-honored statement “Some of my best friends are gays” a little intro… When I was just a teen I got introduced to jazz and “beatnik” coffee houses and spent lots of time hanging around with a guy who was a tenor in our church choir who happened to be gay. I was reared by pretty sharp parents for depression-era folks, who had a very progressive grasp on society. And as a result, my friendship with Royce was never questioned. And Royce was not a “chickenhawk”, he was not interested in younger men, and had a life companion anyway. But the story… for someone growing up in the late 50s I was deeply involved in the music, art, and performance arts world, and as a result met many gays. Thankfully, my folks didn’t raise me to be prejudiced and so I saw gays as just other people, nothing more or less.

      I’m probably one of the most hetero guys you could ever meet and have always felt “secure” in myself. Therefore I also never felt it necessary to be “suspicious” or “watchful” around gays. Some were jerks, most were not. I related to them as individuals. Gays are just like anybody else — most are totally “inert” when it comes to opera or classical music, liking pop music (although usually a different “flavor” of pop from straight folks). But in either case, gays in my experience are neither more or less “artistic” than straights. It’s an individual thing.

      Anyway, as I stayed in touch with the arts (even though my education was in hard sciences — chemistry and math — and I made my living mostly in hard-core research) I sang in chorales and later, opera, also hung around with some ballet folks (dated a few “black swans” in my time, heh heh) and other artists, gays were just part of the fabric of the arts community. But they were neither “better” nor “worse” than hetero folks.

      To assign “gayness” to opera is, well, idiotic. Hell, most opera composers have been pretty virile men and to a great degree, womanizers. Do I have to mention Mozart, Puccini, Debussy, Verdi? Ha! Even in modern opera we’ve got a mix of personalities, Philip Glass for example straight, Benjamin Britten gay.

      So what?

      • Steven Holloway says:

        First, the discussion is about opera-goers, not singers. Secondly, you obviously missed the rather shocking POV documentary about the backstage shenanigans at the ROH. That most egregiously brought opera house administrative workers into the picture. Lastly, for an explanation from the horse’s mouth, as it were, read Charles Rosen’s explanation for why gays, such as himself, love opera. There’s a trifle too much on record for you to dismiss this as mere speculation.

    • Dan P. says:

      I’m not sure how without verifiable data anyone can generalize regarding this topic. But with that said, it’s been my experience in both arts and business, that at least for the older generations, it was easier to be out in an arts environment than in a business one, since one’s position in the business world depends to a great degree on “fitting in” rather than on standing out due to some perceived difference. You have to consider that in many places it is still perfectly legal to fire someone for being guy and even where not, management can find a reason. Despite many changes in society and what people may say, conformity to stereotype is still the order of the day in many areas of society.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Agreed. And the phobias concerning ‘other people’s incomprehensible’ private interests only developed with the appearance of monotheistic religions, as paranoia in the service of religious suppression with the instrument of guilt and deviation.

  • frank says:

    I cannot read German so have no idea what the article says. However, gay people are generally more intelligent and have better taste than breeders, so it is no wonder that gay people flock to opera– the highest form of artistic expression. The more interesting question is why in the world do the straights go.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A more interesting question is also, why so many straight men wholeheartedly detest opera and passively undergo obliged visits dragged on by their wives. Maybe it’s all about ’emotions’, and their wives feel bitterly neglected in their hunger for emotional talk with their husbands, so they take him to the opera with the unconscious wish to teach him some. But then, since people on stage are betraying and killing each other all the time and commit glorious adultery, this is a quite frightening experience for the husbands – ‘what am I supposed to do?’

      Opera is quite mysterious to a majority of straight man anyway, including composers (Bruckner at attending Walküre where only the pit offered interest to him; when looking-up at the end for the first time he asked: ‘Why are they burning that woman?’)

      • B Bailey says:

        Yet most of the great opera composers were straight, some of them like Wagner were very adept at it indeed, being, unable to keep his hands off other men’s wives. W.H. Auden, gay himself, said that “opera is the last refuge of the grand style” and and gay men are attracted to outsized emotional expression, perhaps the cultural experience of many having to find love on the “down low” accounts for some of it. But I think there is less interest in the serious arts for gays as in every other segment of society. They are more apt to go for pop idols.

  • Jim says:

    Probably for the same reason that make so many straight men love football / soccer, dear Norman. Any clue ?

  • Cubs Fan says:

    As a breeder, it irritates me how many people look at me oddly when I tell them I do enjoy the opera (and symphony, theater, and ballet). There must be something wrong with me! The oddest reactions are from rodeo fans who can’t get their head around the fact that yes, you can enjoy La Boheme on Friday night and then go to Pro Rodeo on Saturday. And are gays really more intelligent than average? Is there proof of that?

    • Maria says:

      “And are gays really more intelligent than average? Is there proof of that?”

      I was wondering the same thing. Interesting how certain comments only seem to be acceptable in one direction.

      So far as the original question is concerned, I think tolerance is part of the explanation. In my neck of the woods, when I was growing up, a gay man would have felt safer, or at least more comfortable, in an opera house (or art gallery, concert hall etc) than in a pub outside a steel works in Sheffield on a Friday night.

      No so much now, I’m glad to stay.

    • John Borstlap says:

      A comitee of experts at the Texas Institute of Technology, representing the diverse disciplines of adenoidal psychology, cultural anthropology, fashion, gender identity expostulation, geographic sociology, neuro biology and Italian opera, has conducted an extensive research programme in 2011 of gay intelligence through elaborate questionnaires and (paid) laboratory tests. But the results and the gay answers were so complex, elliptical and multipartite, that the comitee at TIT had to conclude that the gays represented an entirely different human species which would be advantageous to the community to cultivate its procreation.

      Since the phenomenon occurs through all times and all cultures, and appears strongly to be related to individual creativity and invention, the comitee suggested they had a very secret way of procreation, the nature of which has as yet not been discovered and the testees were quite reluctant to disclose.

  • La Verita says:

    A very over-worked and most likely inaccurate presumption. Do the math: Psychologists tell us that 10% of the human family is non-straight (i.e., L,G,B, or T) – and it is doubtful that 100% of that 10% are opera lovers. If there was a way to measure the percentage of straight men who love opera, there’s every chance that the percentage of straight men opera-lovers within that 90% would proportionately exceed that of the percentage of gay men within their 10%. And needless to say, the presumption that gay men are more intelligent than straight men is truly absurd. There is no verifiable research to support that.

  • Mikey says:

    Considering the existence of “Gays for Trump” I can put the kibosh to the idea that gay men are more intelligent than heterosexual ones.

    However, as regards opera…
    Maybe at one time, a certain generation, would have been more attracted to opera/theatre as those were “safe havens” for gay men.
    Being exposed to opera and great art opens one’s mind to it. You can’t love opera if you’re not exposed to it.

    But the younger generation, now living in a far safer era, have no need for this sort of “safe space”. They don’t get exposed to opera and theatre. how can you love something if you’re never exposed to it?

    I’ve read so often comments from younger gay men about “old queens” and their love of musicals, always spoken with such disdain.
    The younger generation of gay men are more likely to love the latest dance club diva and what passes for music at raves and circuit parties.

    • Hank Drake says:

      Well said, Mikey.

      The whole notion of “opera queens” reads like something out of the 1950s. There are all too few contemporary gay men who enjoy what is generically termed “classical music”, and a still smaller subset of those who are opera devotees.

      As for “gays for Trump”, it would be interesting to know if Milo Yiannopoulos is into opera. I suspect he prefers Brittany Spears.

    • John Borstlap says:

      There are documented cases of perfectly straight men who were innocently dragged to a Rosenkavalier performance and came-out with an unexpected gay interest being uncorked by witnessing Octavian being performed by a mezzo soprano. There are other cases, however, where transgenders went into Rosenkavalier perfectly self-accepting and got into a drunken depression after the production in a nearby bar, because of Octavian’s gender change vis-a-vis Baron Ochs – girl singing a boy’s role who dresses-up as a girl. Modern times are already confusing by themselves, no need for opera there.

    • Doktor Avalanche says:

      If you want to be accurate, it’s “Gay for Trump.” (singular)

  • David Boxwell says:

    Straight dudes LOVE opera–when it’s dressed up as rock or rap (i.e. TOMMY, HAMILTON, AMERICAN IDIOT, RENT, etc.)

  • DESR says:

    Who do many gay men love opera?

    Humanising access to hysterical females, but for entertainment rather than for life?

  • MWnyc says:

    I believe Wayne Koestenbaum wrote an entire book on this topic.

  • Gary says:

    It’s a well established fact that opera actually turns you gay. That Benjamin Britten was a right one for the ladies before he wrote Peter Grimes.

    • John Borstlap says:

      True, and Saint-Saens found that after writing Samson et Delilah he had to go to Algeria to fulfill his newly-found interest, and while writing the Ring, Wagner felt driven to walk around in expensive lady’s gear, and performances of his operas at the Munich court suddenly made King Ludwig II cancel his engagement with Princess Sophie of Austria and explore the charms of his footmen in Hohenschwangau instead. Etc. etc….

      It appears however, that Ligeti’s ‘Le Grand Macabre’ has the unexpected side-effect of curing people of any erotic interest whatsoever (which is sometimes being prescribed by evangelical crash courses in marriage restoration).

    • Milka says:

      Not so … at the old Met a well loved Spanish soprano attracted the species in droves
      whenever she appeared , some even took to wearing tiaras and created quite a stir
      on her nights .When politely questioned on this display she replied she had no idea why
      these strange men found her so fascinating, noting it did spoil the evening for others
      as these strange men carried on so in the upper reaches of the old house.The
      observation being they were gay before they got to the opera house and not the other way around .

  • Justin says:

    I am gay and i hate the opera! I would rather pierce my eyes out with a fork! stereotypes suck, just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you like opera and say things like “yaasss”

  • Gerald Martin says:

    I don’t like opera but I do like professional wrestling. Now, what?

    • John Borstlap says:

      Surely this comment will trigger the creation of an entirely new research programme an TIT.

      • John Borstlap says:

        … sorry, there are too many t’s at my keyboard: ‘at TIT’.

      • Max Grimm says:

        Even we heterosexuals lacking the TIT’s most splendid research abilities shouldn’t require more than a one minute Google Image search of the word “wrestling” to realise why a gay man might like it.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Of course, but that is not the main reason for the research, and only the first, preliminary stage. Following true academic mores, questions will be created as to the how, why, in which way, under which circumstances, and its history, and its relationship with findings – if any – in the fields of sociology, anthropology, cultural morphology, neurological cybernetics and theoretical escatology.

  • Lynn says:

    Christian Orlov wrote:

    Eleonore Büning’s essay does a disservice to gay men because it perpetuates several myths that gay men are trying to dispel. Most of us do not want to be women or anything like women. We do not live lives like operas any more than straight men do. We have no more facility or talent for the arts than the heterosexual community. Many of us pump gas at service stations or drive trucks.

    The relatively small number of “opera queens” are no more fanatical or obsessive than their heterosexual counterparts.

    If millions of straight men and women across the world were not “opera queens,” opera would have vanished long ago.


    Well said. Thank you.