Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On Being Out

Last October, after one of our performances of Falstaff in Glyndebourne, someone said to me (having spent an entire evening watching me manhandle Nannetta as I portrayed her lover, Fenton), “You are quite convincing as a heterosexual!”. While I know that they meant this as a compliment, and I laughed it off at the time, it touched on a sensitive spot for me. It is not the first time that I have heard a comment like that, and every single time I hear it uttered, I hear the same hint of surprise and awe in that person’s voice.

The moment has stuck in my memory as the season plodded onwards from my sojourn in England, and a couple of moments since have picked at it, causing it to repeatedly place itself in the forefront of my mind. A few months after the Glyndebourne incident, the pianist Stephen Hough wrote this blog post about gay pianists, discussing whether it was possible to tell a pianist’s sexuality from their playing. And then, a few weeks ago, this offensive post purporting that gay actors are not able to play straight was published in Newsweek.

There is a debate about whether a performer should come out – many performers argue that it is important to keep their private lives private so they don't interfere with people’s ability to suspend their disbelief and to buy into their characters more fully as an audience. On the flip side, many people argue that it is important for performers to be open and come out because of their profile, so that they can set positive examples for the rest of the world. I can see both sides of the argument, although (while I do believe in maintaining a sense of privacy) I very obviously fall into the latter camp when it comes to my own life.

I was debating this with a gay friend the other day, who was arguing for the other side, and pointing out that there is a bit of a price to pay in terms of career. I found that, while I would never say that my openness has ever concretely stood in the way of my career, I would say that it has had, in incredibly subtle and hard–to-describe ways, an effect. That comment after my performance in Glyndebourne would never have been uttered were I straight – it would have simply been noted that we had good chemistry and that I had given a convincingly passionate performance. I had to concede to my friend – when it comes to casting, it is important for people to think of the actor or singer in a certain way. In a way, the less a casting director knows, the easier it is to simply assess the artist based on their work. When it comes to my repertoire as a lyric tenor, most of the roles I would be considered for operatically are heterosexual romantic leads. I’m lucky to be in a position where there is nowhere near the same kind of competition and breadth of possibilities that face gay actors.

But all this has me wondering – does it matter? And I find myself vehemently thinking that it should not. Of course, an artist’s personal life and experience informs their artistry, but isn't the point of performing to communicate to as wide an audience as possible, to share part of the common experience of what it is to be human? I think that part of the beauty of music is that it expresses the inexpressible and the indefinable. It heightens emotions that are universally felt and can touch each and every one of us as humans. Why the need to put a performer into a labeled box?

There is a double standard – we easily suspend our disbelief when a 40-year old, white woman plays a 16-year old, virginal, Japanese geisha. We have no problems watching a pudgy, Italian or Mexican tenor wear dark make-up and sing Othello. We can watch endless hours of actors in their mid-to-late 20’s portraying angst-ridden, privileged high-school teenagers on the CW. We know so much about the personal lives of so many heterosexual stars. We know how politically left-leaning Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are and how many children they have had and adopted, we know that Renee Fleming is a divorced mother of two, we know all about Jennifer Aniston’s latest break-up – yet none of that seems to matter when we watch these people’s performances. Nor should it, really.

A young singer asked me the other day on Twitter: “is it harder for us gays in the opera world, getting gigs and such? Not to mention being a tenor and gay?” I wasn’t sure how to answer him in a tweet, but my initial instinct was to say no, it is not harder. That initial reaction is based in the way I try to think artistically – I attempt to be grateful for all of the experiences in my life, doing my best to keep my focus on what opportunities I have had, rather than the ones I didn’t. Yet it’s a question that has been posed to me twice before – once when I was interviewed by the Advocate, and once when I came out to my parents years ago. When I have mentioned this to people, they almost always laugh, saying, “but there are so many gay people in opera!” Sure, in some ways that is true, but more often than not, I look around the room on the first day of an opera rehearsal and note that I am the only gay person in the cast. And while I consider myself lucky to work in an extremely tolerant work-environment, it is a reminder as to why it is that much more important that I perform to the best of my abilities at all times. Hopefully that will show people that a person's sexuality really doesn’t matter – despite the fact that we live in a world and a society in which it seems to.


Lou said...

I think even if there is some price to pay it's not as big as the price you may pay by not being true to yourself and who you are as a person. And personally, I'm proud of you for being open about things. I think it takes courage and is something I'll always look up to you for.

avecvoix said...

Beautiful post, Nikko.

Daniel Buchanan said...

Cool, thanks for sharing. I especially appreciate your point about how we suspend belief in so many ways already in opera. The characters we play are so diverse and different from ourselves to begin with, so why should it come as a surprise when someone can play a character onstage opposite their sexual preference? It seems silly to even mention it.

BigBob said...


A friend of mine (who is on the Portland Opera board) directed me to your blog. I really enjoyed reading this post, and was wondering if there's a way I might post it to FB?


Bob Mensel

nick said...

Thanks so much, guys! BigBob - by all means, please post away on FB!

Purity McCall said...

What a wonderful and thoughtful post - and *what* a wonderful parting comment: "Hopefully that will show people that a person's sexuality really doesn’t matter – despite the fact that we live in a world and a society in which it seems to.". Brava!

Unknown said...

Totally agree with the Lou - coming out is a one way journey - could you push yourself back into the closet without it affecting your art?

It's the same gripe I get when the media mentions a high achieving woman then qualify it with age and marital/motherhood status (as in Hilary Clinton, 62 year old mother of Chelsea and wife of Bill).

Think of yourself as simply being honest and having integrity with yourself, your audience and your art.

From one gay girl in music hoping to be in your position in a few years: You go boy! You pioneer the way! XOX

Matt said...

Thanks for the very thoughtful post... I'm glad that I took the time to Google you after our Beethoven dress rehearsal last night! (-:

Smorg said...

It is a shame that homosexuality is still an issue to some indeed (more in some places than others). Hopefully we are seeing the tail end of it and will soon transition to the 'so you're gay, so what?' mode. Every thoughtful post like yours help bring that closer to reality, I think. Thanks very much and Teu-Teu-Teu! :o)