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Meet Three of Today’s Leading Queer Composers

Posted on: June 26, 2023

Queer figures in opera have not always had the easiest lives, as those who have read the previous blog may know. Historically, it was challenging to be openly gay, but now there are numerous composers who do not feel the need to hide their sexuality. In this blog, we will be highlighting some contemporary queer composers whose work is worth exploring. 

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Left to right: Nico Muhly, Jennifer Higdon, Matthew Aucoin

Nico Muhly 
Birthday: August 26, 1981 
Notable Works: Marnie, Two Boys, Sentences 

Nico Muhly has used his platform to write operas that address queer topics. These include Two Boys, which follows a gay couple in a toxic relationship, and the oratorio Sentences, based off the life and work of pioneering gay mathematician Alan Turing.  

The Vermont-born Muhly is one of today’s most in-demand composers, praised for his ability to highlight voices that have been underrepresented in opera, as well as his incredibly fast work ethic. Muhly does acknowledge that his career path has been less fraught than that of many other queer composers thanks to the generation he was born into and his status as a white man from a relatively affluent family. While Muhly is open about his sexuality, he wishes not to be known as a “gay composer” out of respect for the people who are fighting for gay rights every day. Even so, Muhly has been able to tell queer stories in a medium that has not always highlighted them. 

Jennifer Higdon  
Born: December 31, 1962 
Notable Works: Cold Mountain, Women with Eyes Closed  

Jennifer Higdon is another contemporary composer who is openly out and proud of her sexuality. Higdon married Cheryl Lawson in 2014; the two met in high school during band class (where they were both flute players), became close friends, and eventually started a romantic relationship when Lawson started college in 1983. They then both came out of the closet because, according to Higdon, they felt safer to do so once they were out of high school. Higdon, who has a Pulitzer Prize in Music as well as three Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, attributes her creative freedom and ability to share her work to Lawson’s support. The couple established their own publishing company and together they oversee the making and marketing of their musical projects. Their stable marriage led them to be perfect business partners and they have forged works together such as Cold Mountain, an operatic adaptation of Charles Frazier’s award-winning novel, which had its successful premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2015.  

Matthew Aucoin  
Born: April 4, 1990 
Notable Works: Eurydice, Second Nature, Crossing  

Like Leonard Bernstein before him, Matthew Aucoin is acclaimed as both a composer and a conductor. Aucoin has a varied background which includes composition, poetry and playing keyboard in an indie rock band. The Harvard and Juilliard graduate has served as assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera and was the Solti Conducting Apprentice at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 2013 to 2015. In 2016, Aucoin became Artist in Residence at LA Opera, where he conducted his opera Crossing, which recounts an intimate relationship between poet Walt Whitman and a young Civil War soldier, and the world premiere of Eurydice, inspired by playwright Sarah Ruhl’s take on the Orpheus myth. 

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Above: Danielle de Niese in LA Opera's 2020 world premiere of Eurydice. Photo: Cory Weaver.

Aucoin, Muhly, and Higdon exemplify our current era of opera: where a multitude of identities can be embraced instead of hidden, and where diversity among composers and performers in turn enriches the repertoire of this ever-evolving art form. Since the beginning, LA Opera has been committed to advancing the innovation of opera while honoring its historical legacy, and both facets contain an array of queer voices that make our mission possible. It is only right that those voices are recognized.