Shortly after the curtain rises on Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s opera, Harvey Milk, a young Harvey makes his debut in the standing room of the Old Metropolitan Opera House, which he comes to realize is also his debut into New York gay culture. As a huge blowup of Maria Callas’s face slides into view and the orchestra thunders a variation of Scarpia’s chords from Tosca, the well dressed men of the standing room line up facing the audience. “Who are these men without wives,” young Harvey wonders as he stands with the men. In the first act of the opera, set, according to the program, in “The Closet,” the Met standing room represents closeted pre-Stonewall gay culture. Well dressed, affluent men for whom the opera represents a twilight zone between their daytime assimilation into straight society and their nighttime, secret gay lives, cheer their favorite diva. Coming out is joining this elite, cultured society. Harvey grows into a successful New York stockbroker, closeted homosexual, and opera queen. One side of the raked pink triangle on which the action is played in Christopher Alden’s staging of Harvey Milk in the joint production of the Houston, New York City, and San Francisco Operas is a row of closet doors. The closet is maintained not only by the fear and wish to maintain privilege for those within, but also by the brutal, homophobic police keeping those doors closed. To come out of the closet one must fight the police as well as oneself.
Harvey is a Jewish gay man who grows up during World War II. What does the holocaust have to do with him? What does his Jewishness have to do with his gayness? In Harvey’s mind—and on stage—there is a symbolic joining of the [End Page 118] well dressed, closeted opera queen and the holocaust victim as Harvey realizes he must be as open and proud of being “a man who loves men” as he is of being a Jew. At the rear of the stage a giant six pointed star is made from the joining of a pink triangle and a yellow triangle symbolizing those two images of Nazi oppression and extermination of Jews and gays. Harvey, like every gay man with a sense of history, knows that the Nazis weren’t our only enemy—when the Allies liberated the concentration camps, they put the homosexuals back in jail. Out of this synthesis of Harvey the Jew and Harvey the homosexual comes Harvey the gay activist who will join the drag queens fighting the police at the Stonewall Riots which provide the climax of the opera’s first act.
The beauty and power of Harvey Milk is this theatrical distillation of ideas underlying gay history, particularly its combination through the title character, of opera, Jewishness, and gayness. Those Scarpia chords identify a brutal chief of police, and the opera queen turned gay revolutionary must stop cheering Tosca the diva cop killer and become her. At the end of the opera, after Harvey has been murdered, his mother returns to place candles at either side of his corpse as Tosca does for Scarpia. In this opera, as in Tosca, the police still win.
Opera in the age of the closet was diva...