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Opera is queer, cool and more relevant than ever at Glyndebourne

Written by gaytourism

A beloved public leader is beheaded triggering the plot. An ingénue bathes in the blood of her rapist. A villainous power hungry brother creepily hits on his sister. Swords clashing. Copious murder, sex and intrigue. No, this isn’t Game of Thrones – this is opera.

Opera has long had to struggle against its reputation as a pleasure for the elitist. When you attend a performance, you might expect the audience to be full of over-privileged chin-optional snobs with names like Theodore and Mimsy.

And, yes, you might get people in the audience who look like the parents of Benedict Cumberbatch. However, crowds are getting more diverse, younger, queerer, and more intrigued by classic culture.

So my boyfriend and I had to go to the biggest opera festival in the world, Glyndebourne.

Exploring opera as newcomers

What started as an initial Google exploring new date ideas, it began as an excuse to get dressed up, enjoy a picnic, and do something that we’ve never done before.

Glyndebourne picnic | Photo by James Bellorini

Ed, my partner, lived close to Glyndebourne growing up. Spying men and women in their finest formalwear laughing and drinking with their bubbles; it looked like a magical experience.

For me, I grew up loving Shakespeare and musicals. I had long wondered whether it was something I would be interested in.

But, really, we were both novices when it came to the actual act of seeing opera.

Just 10 minutes out of the beautiful sleepy town of Lewes, a few miles north of the gay capital of Brighton, we found ourselves driving down the pebbled path into Glyndebourne.

Bow ties on, (black tie is optional but heavily encouraged), our eyes widened as we walked around the estate.

Glyndebourne – the experience

A huge gigantic 600-year-old mansion oversees beautiful expansive green picnic grounds. It is decorated with expertly kept rose gardens, a large lake, and idyllic areas to relax and enjoy the stillness of nature.

While you can opt for a waiter service, with porters bringing you champagne and snacks, we decided to opt for our own food and drink.

There were two intervals during our entertainment, one short to stretch your legs and grab a drink and a long one to feast.

As we sat there, sipping champagne and snacking on sausage rolls, I couldn’t help but feel how romantic, wonderful, and British it all was.

Take a dive into opera | Photo by Joe Morgan

Take a dive into opera | Photo by Joe Morgan

The audience is younger than you might expect, and people really go to Glyndebourne to celebrate. I spotted a woman draped in a custom-designed bright fire orange couture gown that must have had several meters of fabric. The guys looked handsome, the women looked stunning, and everyone smiles. One told me that people will unpack their fine china and crystal glasses before the performance even starts and leave them, just because you know how safe and serene the environment is.

But what about the show?

But what about the actual performance? We went to go see Giulio Caesare by Handel, an odyssey of the Roman emperor’s time in Egypt.

There he meets the joyfully feisty Cleopatra, her scheming boy king brother Tolomeo and the grieving widow and ingénue Cornelia.

Two of the ‘male’ roles, including the lead Julius, are both gender-bent to be performed by women.

Julius Caesar (Sarah Connelly) and Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey) | Photo by Bill Cooper

Julius Caesar (Sarah Connelly) and Cleopatra (Joélle Harvey) | Photo by Bill Cooper

While the supertitles above the production were helpful, the acting was stellar to ensure every person understood the action. The costuming and set design were luxurious and captivating.

A refurbished classic of Glyndebourne, I am convinced this centuries-old opera was directed to be as queer as humanely possible.

I was very happy to see two women kiss – a lot – on stage. It also helped the love was interspersed with singing as perfectly done as possible.

Queer representation at world-renowned opera festival

You could argue Sarah Connelly, an expert performer, is still playing Julius as a male. However, as opera goes, it feels like undeniable representation.

Cleopatra enjoys herself | Photo by Bill Cooper

Cleopatra enjoys herself | Photo by Bill Cooper

And not only that, the other genderbent character Sesto gets a stand out duet with Cornelia.

But it’s not just sapphoric wonder at Glyndebourne, a servant of Cleopatra is clearly gay and in love with a handsome man wearing a kilt.

And I have to admit, before I went I was not expecting to see Destiny’s Child-inspired choreography on an opera stage.

The whole show was a joy from beginning to end.

There is a reason why opera is getting popular with a younger generation. Unlike relics of the entertainment scene, Glyndebourne knows it has to change to survive. And it shows, tickets for under-30s are getting snapped up fast.

Going to the opera festival was a fun, unique experience that I cannot wait to repeat. And considering I’ve never been anywhere near a private school, and neither has Ed, it’s clearly one that isn’t so elitist anymore.

The Glynebourne Festival 2018 continues until 26 August 2018.

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