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LGBT History Month: "It’s a shame that none of the glorious romantic scores we play are about a gay couple"

LGBT History Month explores the history, celebrates the present, and looks to the future of LGBT+ people in the UK. This February, we asked Musicians’ Union members to share their experiences working in the music industry. Here, Glen Sheldon reflects on his life as an orchestral player… 

As we go into LGBT+ History Month, I’ve been asked to reflect on my life as a gay man in the Orchestra profession.

The good news is that it’s not been something I’ve had to actively consider much before. I came into the music profession in the early 90s, around the time I was realising my own sexuality, and it seemed a place where it was spoken about and where I could speak, where I was accepted and encouraged and where I could make friends - and meet my partner.

In the workplace, equality of treatment from managements has been there and run ahead of any legal obligations.

Maybe I’ve just been lucky - and the Union would certainly like to hear about any less positive experiences in the profession.

Watching films of orchestras from the late-60s, when I was born, one is of course struck by an almost entirely male domain. I doubt it would not have been such a welcoming environment then. And for women - let alone gay women - not yet a profession for most even to consider. So my life span has seen a sea-change.

I also run a string quartet that plays at functions and parties and have seen the onset of bookings for civil partnerships and gay weddings, which has been lovely.

I play predominantly for opera. In the company (though not in the orchestra) I’ve only been aware of one transgender person. At the time she was transitioning, I was aware of more bandroom banter and jokes on the issue. A decade or so on, I would hope that wouldn’t be the case now - and that I’d feel able to call it out if I did hear it (or indeed any unsuitable jokes).

Playing opera, I often think it’s a shame that none of the glorious romantic scores we play are about a gay couple - though there are many wonderful male or female friendship duets. But gay characters and themes do now feature in more recent operas - including opera settings of Brokeback Mountain and Angels in America.

However, I am convinced that one of my favourite operas - Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin - stems directly from the composers tortured feelings about his sexuality. The leads we see on stage are male-female (Onegin and Tatyana). The young Tatyana pours out her love for Onegin in a letter, but he dismisses it. By the time he understands and accepts his love and it bursts out in the final scene, she has stepped into the world of marriage and convention and can’t find the courage to leave it. The raw, fevered outpouring of emotion in this music is painful, electric and quite unique.

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Published: 20/02/2018
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