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QOOTM: Un ballo in maschera - March 2024

Welcome to my first ever Queer Opera of the Month (or as I've dubbed it for easier typing, QOOTM) post. Every month I will cover a different opera with queer history and context behind it, going over the plot, history, music, and impact. For the very first edition, I'm going to be covering Verdi's Un ballo in maschera. I'm actually currently working on music from this opera, so I hold it close to my heart. Let's get started.

Verdi is one of the most prolific, well-known, and important composers in all of opera history. His works include, but are not limited to: Otello, Aida, La traviata, Rigoletto, and Macbeth. Even if you don't think you know anything by Verdi, you most likely recognize some of his tunes, like the brindisi (or drinking song) in La traviata, or La donna e mobile from Rigoletto. I have previously talked about his work, Aida, and the racial issues surrounding it. If you're interested in that, you can find it on my page.

We aren't here to cover that today. We are here to cover an opera from the middle of his career, showing both the passionate vocal writings of his early works, while also displaying much of the evolution of his career and musical writing style. Un ballo in maschera, or A Masked Ball, is an 1859 opera in three acts composed by Giuseppe Verdi with a libretto by Antonio Somma. The libretto is based on the libretto of the historic opera Gustave III, ou Le bal masque, by Daniel Auber with libretto by Eugene Scribe (While that opera also has clear queer history, I'm not talking about it today. I can in the future if you all wish though!)

The opera is based on the 1792 assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, who was shot at a masked ball and later died. It took over two years from the time of commission in Naples to its premiere at the Teatro Apollo. This is due to the amounts of changes the show had to undergo, before becoming the version of the opera it is today because of censorship regulations and political controversy. The opera began as Gustavo III, based on the Auber and Scribe work, set in Stockholm. It then became Una vendetta in domino set in Stettin, before finally becoming Un ballo in maschera, set in colonial Boston. In the mid-20th century, it became more common to return the opera to the original Stockholm setting.

Now you may be asking me, "Jonathan, what does this have to do with queerness? How is this opera queer?" Or you may not. I mean I can't hear you. Either way, I'm getting there. Give me a second. Let me give you background. 

King Gustav III was rumored to be gay. Many writers note his indifference to women, his closeness with men, especially his courtiers Count Axel von Fersen and Baron Gustav Armfelt. His own sister-in-law believed that he was queer, claiming she had seen him attempt to pick up men, and that he was helping spread homosexuality across the country. 

So now we get into the actually opera. Un ballo in maschera did remove some elements and signs from the Scribe libretto that alluded to the homosexuality of Gustav III. It did, however, introduce new signs. New codes. Specifically pertaining to the character of Oscar.

Oscar, in the show, is the page of the king. Interestingly, despite Verdi's disinterest in the use of travesti roles (also known as trouser roles, where women play the part of a man in a theatrical production), the role of Oscar is played by a soprano. Not only this, he sings some of the highest notes in the show, especially as he expresses his grief at the thought of the character Riccardo, or Gustav III's murder. If you're interested, here is a 2016 Seoul production of Paola Santucci performing Oscar's famous aria, Saper vorreste. In  this aria, he teases over the masked identity and appearance of Riccardo.

David A.J. Richards, a human rights scholar, wrote that, "Verdi goes as far as one could go within the repressive conventions of his period to portray Gustavo (based on a widely known flamboyantly homosexual ruler) as either a gay man or, at a minimum, a bisexual man" and that "Verdi's art embraces all forms of sexualities". In a 2002 article in the Cambridge Opera Journal, Ralph Hexter, a professor of classic and comparative literature wrote about how the homosexual elements of the opera relate to the ideas of masking throughout the show.

Several productions also draw out the suggestion and ideas hidden in the show. Most notably, the 1959 Royal Swedish Opera staging by Göran Gentele has the character of Gustave III having an affair with Oscar while the events of the opera take place. This is similarly done in the 1993 Berlin staging by Götz Friedrich. 

Unfortunately, though I wish I could, I cannot provide you the ability to view these stagings. If you ever have the chance to though, go see Un ballo in maschera. While the queer history of it may not be played up for you (as it does ultimately depend on the director's vision), hopefully you can still appreciate it for its history and what it has done.

To conclude, I will give you a link to see a recording of the full opera with Luciano Pavarotti here. If there is ever a composer, show, or song you wish for me to cover please let me know and I shall get to it when I can. 

Take care my friends.


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