Iolanta: Tchaikovsky’s Gayest Opera or an Encoded Love Letter?

Iolanta: Tchaikovsky’s Gayest Opera or an Encoded Love Letter?

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Freud’s psychoanalytic theory states that the rules of morality in human society allow erotic energy only a limited amount of expression. These constraints cause sublimation, a defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses (like lust or passion) get unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions (like violence or making art), possibly resulting in a long-term conversion of the initial impulse.

He believed that the transference of libido into physical acts or other emotions helped people avoid confrontation with their sexual urges. Thus, it makes sense that artists living in repressive societies use creative work as an active outlet for expressing their own passions.

Throughout history, many societies have prohibited homosexuality to varying degrees, and yet, history has also given us many significant composers believed to have been gay: Camille Saint-Saëns, Francis Poulenc, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti and Benjamin Britten to name a few. Many of them mimicked the patterns of straight male life (painlessly?) — they got married and had kids, leaving their affairs for others to ponder in history books. 

Presumably gay composers (left to right): Francis Poulenc, Camille Saint-Saëns, Aaron Copland, Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti

The sexual identities of other composers remain an uncertain but open question — Frédéric Chopin, Vincenzo Bellini, George Frideric Handel, Franz Schubert, for instance. Any closeted person can attest that repression brings with it an internal struggle, causing life to be lived in a constant agony of desire and acceptance; such was the life of the great Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

His first brief engagement to Belgian soprano Désirée Artôt and his later disastrous marriage to Antonina Miliukova left him severely distressed and utterly devastated.

Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Russian composer

But discussion of Tchaikovsky’s personal life, especially his sexuality, has perhaps been the most extensive of any composer in the 19th century and certainly of any Russian composer of his time. Thanks to his brother Modest, who happened to preserve a large portion of his brother’s biography in Pyotr’s over 600 letters to his family and friends, we know of Pyotr’s day-to-day life and his struggles. Many of the letters shed light onto his affections and lovers.

Such scandalous details barely escaped Soviet efforts to expunge all references to same-sex attraction and portray Tchaikovsky as a heterosexual. Even modern Russians often express no doubt that the famous Russian composer was anything but straight; despite his own letters.

Nevertheless, throughout his very prolific artistic career Tchaikovsky composed many beautiful operas that are still performed in the world’s biggest opera houses and concert halls to this day. All his life, he felt oppressed and tainted, crushed by the inability to escape himself and his own desire. His official cause of death (cholera) was equated with suicide, as if he purposely drank tap water during the cholera outbreak in St. Petersburg. Most of his friends later wrote, that he had been depressed and speculated that this was no accident.

A scene from Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta performed by New Opera NYC at the Cowell Theater of Fort Mason Center this April.

It’s remarkable however that during the darkest hours of his life he created  Iolanta, the arguably most hopeful and light opera, portraying love as salvation to human condition. Burdened with blindness, Iolanta — the protagonist, a transcendent damsel in distress saved by a warrior — falls in love and regains the gift of sight, a magical blessing, nothing short finding your own unicorn.

By far, Iolanta is unlike most opera, having a happy ending and a fairy tale storyline. However, a closer examination might reveal parallels between Tchaikovsky’s own “affliction” and Iolanta’s blindness, as well as a hopeful love-conquers-all solution — true fairy tale for the crying heart.

New Opera NYC will present the operas Iolanta and Boris Godunov in a double-bill at the Cowell Theater of Fort Mason Center on April 15 and 16 at 7:30 p.m EST. For tickets visit You can also see picture from their production of Iolanta below.


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