LGBTQ+: Opera must have more diverse character representation

Elgan Thomas performing English National Opera production of The Mikado
Mr Thomas played Nanki Poo in The Mikado, a comic opera in which Mr Thomas' character falls in love with a woman who is set to be punished for flirting

A Welsh opera singer has said the art must have more LGBTQ+ representation if it is to survive.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas, 33, from Llandudno, Conwy county, said more gay opera characters must be written.

The tenor singer said he would have "found the language earlier" to speak about his identity if he had seen more gay characters as a child.

He explained there was a "very healthy" number of queer artists but "a drought" in terms of "actual representation".

Mr Thomas said opera was threatened by funding cuts to the arts made by the Arts Council England and the UK government.

The Arts Council England said its "backing for opera is absolute, with more opera organisations receiving funding than ever, and more than £130m being invested in the artform over the next three years".

The UK government department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) said: "Opera, orchestra and other classical music organisations received 80% of Arts Council England's total investment in music in the latest funding round."

Mr Thomas grew up in a small Welsh town during the time of the Section 28 law, which banned schools from teaching about homosexuality.

This law meant generations of LGBTQ+ pupils did not see people like them in books, plays, or films at school, teachers were not allowed to teach about same-sex relationships.

"I knew I didn't fancy women at school, but that didn't automatically mean gay - because it didn't exist," Mr Thomas said.

He grew up in north Wales "which doesn't help matters" he said, when it came to realising he was gay.

"It was a great place to live and grow up, but you can't say 'oh, I'm gay' if you don't have anything to refer yourself to," he said.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas performing in Lysander at the Scottish Opera production
Mr Thomas played Lysander in Britten's version of Shakespeare's A midsummer night's dream, a male character stuck in a love triangle between two women

Mr Thomas said when he went to the Royal Northern College of Music to study he was suddenly immersed in a world of musicians and artists who had been brought up in cities.

"These people were like 'oh, yeah, I came out when I was 16,' and my little Welsh brain just went boom, it was crazy to me," he said.

"In the arts in general there are queer people everywhere, but my point is more specific, it's about the actual representation in a more explicit capacity," he said.

The 33-year-old said he had only ever been to two musicals and had never seen an opera with gay characters, though some do "insinuate".

However insinuation is not enough as it goes over the heads of most audience members, he added.

Mr Thomas said if he had "seen operas that were willing to tell these stories" he would have felt more comfortable putting together explicitly gay music recitals.

He said he has "absolutely no issue playing straight characters" as it has been that way "for a very long time" and he does not "think we need to take that away, we just need to add new stories".

He added opera companies "have worked really hard to improve diversity" but the same stories were "retold because the music is so good".

"If opera is going to weather this massive storm that we're currently in and start to thrive again, we have to start telling new stories," he said.

Mr Thomas said operas should be written with characters that "demand" a diverse cast.

Mr Thomas decided to reveal the queerness of composers in an album, including translated love songs from famous musician Benjamin Britten to his partner Peter Pears.

"One of my main ambitions with it was to find a new audience, a younger audience as well and get people to listen to classical music who might not otherwise."

He said he hopes his album inspires "singers who are younger" to think "oh, I can do that too".

In November 2022 Arts Council England told The English National Opera it would be having its funding halved in April and would lose it all if it did not move out of London.

The Welsh National Opera has had its funding shared between the two Arts Councils of Wales and England for years, but the English organisation's cuts have left the Welsh Opera with less funding.

As a result it has withdrawn from all future performances in Liverpool and is waiting to hear the decision on annual funding.

DCMS said: "Everyone should have access to culture no matter where they live or their background, and public money for the arts is funding more projects in more places than ever before."

"We are also pleased that ACE and the English National Opera have reached a new settlement that will mean more people across the country can experience its fantastic work."