The subject is ripped from headlines around the globe, whether they’re about Russia’s ban on gay “propaganda”, France’s mass protests over gay marriage, or Uganda’s parliamentary discussion of the death penalty for homosexuals. The new, locally written opera When the Sun Comes Out explores forbidden love in a fictional nation where homosexuality is banned.
We may be more progressive here in Canada—but not so progressive that a lesbian opera has ever been mounted here before. The premiere at this year’s Queer Arts Festival will be the first, its creators say.
“It’s kind of shocking that it’s taken this long,” says veteran conductor, pianist, and composer Leslie Uyeda, who wrote the music for When the Sun Comes Out, speaking to the Straight over the phone. The onetime chorus director for Vancouver Opera admits she has long dreamed of writing a lesbian opera. “There are homosexual and lesbian characters in operas, but there’s never been a bona fide love story for two women and I just wanted to celebrate that.
“Part of its raison d’être is so we can see ourselves,” she adds with passion. “Opera is my thing—I think it’s the most wonderful thing in the world, and it was important to me to write a dramatic work where the love one woman could feel for another was out there. To be on the receiving end of a beautiful love duet—I don’t think there’s anything like it.…I want two people up there with a houseful of people who would be really happy and almost starved to see themselves up there.”
Still, creating the one-act opera was a monumental task. Commissioned by the Queer Arts Festival two-and-a-half years ago, the work was required to have an original story. The first step for Uyeda was finding a librettist, and rather than looking for a traditional playwright, she wanted to find a poet whose heightened language and sense of rhythm would complement her composing. She also insisted the poet be a Vancouver lesbian as well.
She found her perfect match in local poet Rachel Rose, who had never put words to opera before.
“I liked the challenge of doing something completely new to me,” Rose tells the Straight in a separate phone interview. One huge shift was moving from the meditative world of poetry to one of plot and structure. “And I had never collaborated before. I didn’t know how terrific it would be; writing is so solitary.”
Armed with books from Uyeda, Rose also started listening to and seeing as much opera as she could.
“I knew I wanted to write something much bigger than myself,” she says with emphasis. “When you’re given the chance to write the first lesbian opera, you want to go big. I wanted to speak about my values and oppression.”
The resulting work, which was presented in a well-received workshop at last year’s fest, focuses on a love triangle in a country called Fundament-alia: Lilah (mezzo-soprano Julia Morgan), a well-off mother, falls in love with the rebellious Solana (soprano Teiya Kasahara), but their secret romance is threatened by Lilah’s unpredictable husband, Javan (baritone Aaron Durand). Rose says it was important for her to have complicated characters who sometimes have to make sacrifices, like living in a heterosexual marriage, to survive in their oppressive society.
Events going on around the world have been constantly on her mind as the work has come to life. One particularly resonant moment came recently, when Rose’s partner visited her home country of France and one of their three children asked why all the people were protesting in the streets.
For Rose, it’s important to show solidarity with the people who are persecuted around the world. “This is sort of a story of our times,” Rose says with emotion. “Where else if you fall in love can you be executed? It is the big drama of our times.”
The hope, of course, is that When the Sun Comes Out can travel to other stages someday. Although it’s Canada’s first lesbian opera, this project of passion is a clear sign that the art form is shifting into important new territory.
“Opera is less and less only in the mainstream and less and less only for European educated people,” Uyeda says. “There are so many terrific things people are doing in opera with innovative staging and so on, and essentially I wanted to get in on that.”