A Spanish Hour? is queering opera

In the early 1900s, a clockmaker’s wife plans to meet up with her lovers while her husband is out of the house. Hijinks ensue and both lovers end up stuck inside clocks, forced to somehow make their escape without the clockmaker catching on to his wife’s agenda.

That’s the premise of Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera L’heure espagnole — but what if it revolved around Queer people in 21st-century Toronto?

When UBC Music Associate Professor J. Patrick Raftery first saw the opera in the ‘70s, he noticed parallels between its storylines and the experiences of people in the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. He imagined playing around with the voice types to experiment with the genders of the characters and started thinking about a rewritten script integrating elements of contemporary Queer culture.

Around the beginning of the pandemic, he worked with his friend Peter Tiefenbach to develop the libretto for a reimagined version of Ravel’s work. They received grants from the Canada Council of the Arts and BC Arts Council and ran a libretto workshop in 2022.

Now, the rewritten English version titled A Spanish Hour? will be staged at the Chan Centre on July 27.

Coming into this project, Raftery had never worked on a team where everyone identified as part of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, and this was the perfect opportunity to change that. Regina Symphony Orchestra conductor and Vancouver City Opera Artistic Director Gordon Gerrard joined the project — then the hunt to find singers began.

“Getting the cast was tricky actually, because I set this parameter for myself that I wanted professional, out singers with management,” Raftery said. “It was tricky because there’s lots of people in different communities [that are] not as comfortable being out.”

Raftery, who’s been singing for over 50 years, has never had the opportunity to play a Queer character — and often hid his identity as soon as he stepped into the audition room.

“I wanted directors to see me as [being as] viable as possible so that I was a tool for them, which is also part of how we were trained then … My generation was trained to lose yourself in the role and put on a mask and be somebody else.”

Taking on a character drastically different from yourself is part of the appeal of being a performer, but it’s also exciting to sing roles that align with your own identity. Raftery believes that there has been a shift in this area; that younger generations of opera singers are starting to take more control of the parts they’re singing and seem more inclined to want to represent themselves in their art.

Left to right: Spencer Britten, Simran Claire and J. Patrick Raftery.
Left to right: Spencer Britten, Simran Claire and J. Patrick Raftery. Courtesy Spencer Britten, photo by Taylor Long

Funnily enough, three members of the cast — Spencer Britten, Andrew Love and Madison Craig (whose fiancée Simran Claire is also part of the production) — are all Raftery’s former students.

In his UBC studio, Raftery encourages students to find a balance between respecting tradition and encouraging exploration. While scales and vocal exercises are a tried and true necessity, being limited to singing repertoire by cishet white men isn’t — all of his students are asked to perform at least one piece composed by a woman and are encouraged to find pieces that speak to who they are in one way or another.

It may not seem like much, but classical music is an industry married to tradition and deeply rooted in histories excluding certain identities. It can be rigid and resistant to change, so even a small step outside the box can have a huge impact.

Raftery noted that one of the best parts of working with an entirely 2SLGBTQIA+ cast is being in a room where everyone is operating on a similar wavelength. They come from similar backgrounds, understanding the references and not needing to spend as much time learning about why their characters act a certain way.

Opera is known for its affinity for tragedy, and so is most Queer media, which often centres trauma and conflict. It’s important to represent the difficult side of growing up Queer, and because creating art can be a powerful coping mechanism, this pain often trickles into portrayals of Queer people in media. But what if we want to step away from that and explore the lighthearted, humorous sides of this community?

Raftery brought up Netflix teen rom-com Heartstopper. It’s not the most profound piece of writing, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously and may be the exact kind of Queer representation we need most right now.

“I wanted to make something that was joyful and fun. I think that certainly my circle of friends and my community is a lot of fun, even though we have to sometimes fight for our place in the room. There’s a lot of fun to be had, so I really wanted to pick a piece that was not super dramatic at this point.”

That’s why Ravel’s piece made for the perfect base material — nothing really happens. It lets the characters’ personalities and references to Queer culture shine through and reminds audiences that being Queer doesn’t have to be dramatic.

In fact, after years of resistance, a bit of mundanity is a blessing.

“I never thought in my lifetime that there would be gay marriage. I never thought in my lifetime that gay people would be allowed to adopt children, or all sorts of things that are happening in many countries,” Raftery said.

This production is special because it marks how times have changed — a team of openly Queer people can now come together and engage with a script that accurately paints the daily realities of their lives. Not only are Queer people slowly gaining more basic freedoms that people like Raftery never expected to have, they are even beginning to see themselves painted in a positive light in the media they create and consume. It’s yet another step towards not just accepting, but appreciating diverse identities.