World’s first major opera about a transgender historical character is premiered

11 December 2023, 17:23

LILI ELBE Picker – Theater St. Gallen

By Siena Linton

The story of 20th-century Danish painter Lili Elbe is told in a new opera, marking the first major opera production about a transgender historical figure.

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A 20th century artist, and one of the first known people to undergo gender confirmation surgery is now the subject of a major opera, starring baritone Lucia Lucas.

Lili Elbe was a Danish landscape painter, born in 1882, whose story was famously told in The Danish Girl, the 2015 film starring Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, after first being published as a book by David Ebershoff in 2000.

Now, in 2023, Elbe’s story is being told once again in a historic first for opera. The production, titled simply Lili Elbe, is the first major opera to be written about a transgender historical figure.

Cast in the title role is American baritone singer Lucia Lucas, who herself made history in 2019 when she became the first trans woman to perform a principal opera role as Mozart’s infamous lothario, Don Giovanni, for Tulsa Opera in the US.

Read more: Transgender baritone makes US debut in Don Giovanni

TRAILER | LILI ELBE Picker – Theater St. Gallen

Lili Elbe was the brainchild of Grammy-winning American composer, Tobias Picker, written with Lucia Lucas in mind to play its lead role.

Picker had discovered Lucas on YouTube several years earlier, and invited her to audition for a similar project he had in mind, before casting her for Don Giovanni on the spot. “It’s a great dramatic baritone voice,” Picker said of Lucas’ talent. “It has a depth of emotion and it has enormous power.”

When Picker later approached Lucas again to play Lili Elbe, she accepted, but insisted that she – or another trans person – was involved in the production of the opera. “I don’t want to walk into a room on the first day of rehearsal and have no idea what’s going on,” Lucas told Queer Guru TV. “The story is too important for that.”

So, Lucas worked with librettist Aryeh Lev Stollman to ensure that the story felt as real and respectful as possible. “There are so many parallels between Lili and my story,” Lucas continued.

“We wanted to make it [as] up to date as possible, with today’s advocacy language, making it a pleasant experience for any trans performer to perform. Because often when I’ve had to put my own identity, or an identity so similar to my own, on stage, it hasn’t been a great experience.”

Read more: The under-recognised composer who became the first openly transgender Oscar nominee

Gerda Gottlieb’s portrait of a woman, thought to be Lili Elbe, playing a card game.
Gerda Gottlieb’s portrait of a woman, thought to be Lili Elbe, playing a card game. Picture: Alamy

The opera follows the story of Lili Elbe’s transition and exploration of her identity, alongside her relationship with fellow Danish painter Gerda Gottlieb.

The pair met whilst they were both students at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, and the story goes that Elbe began to socially transition after she stepped in for a model who was late for a sitting for Gottlieb.

Elbe and Gottlieb moved to Paris, where Elbe could begin to live publicly as a woman, passing as Gottlieb’s sister-in-law, and where they both hoped that Gottlieb’s painting career could really take off.

In 1930, Elbe had plans to take her own life, until she met German doctor and sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld. Later that year, she travelled to Germany to begin a surgical transition.

In what Picker described as his “most transcendental work”, the opera’s premiere on 3 December 2023 marked the re-opening of the historic Theater St Gallen in North West Switzerland.

“It is different from anything I have written,” he said. “It is about the eternity of the earth, the eternal beauty of the earth, about rebirth and the continuation of life.”

Lili Elbe is available to watch for free via OperaVision until 8 June 2024.