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Gay Love at the Opera: Houston Grand Opera’s Prince of Players

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By Donalevan Maines

An “impossible love” between two men in the 17th century is at the heart of Prince of Players, says London-based theater director Michael Gieleta.

Why, it’s downright operatic, which is why Houston Grand Opera (HGO) commissioned master composer Carlisle Floyd to pen the story of Edward Kynaston and his romance with George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Kynaston was the last British actor to play female roles before Puritan laws were changed to allow women on stage.

17th-century Love Michael Gieleta, out director of Houston Grand Opera’s Prince of Players, says the relationship in this opera “is not just about boinking; it’s about love.”
17th-century Love: Michael Gieleta, out director of Houston Grand Opera’s Prince of Players, says the relationship in this opera “is not just about boinking; it’s about love.” Photo: Albert Zawada/Agencja Gazeta

It’s the first time for the internationally praised Gieleta to direct in Houston, and he feels serendipitously blessed to be at the helm of Floyd’s opera, which is based on Jeffrey Hatcher’s 1999 play Compleat Female Stage Play. Hatcher also adapted his play for the 2004 movie Stage Beauty, which starred Billy Cruddup as Kynaston.

As soon as Gieleta learned about Compleat Female Stage Play, he told me in a phone call last month, “I immediately wanted to direct it in Britain.”

Gieleta had trained at Oxford University with the movie’s director, Richard Eyre, and then apprenticed at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Theatre, and the Royal Opera House, where everyone reveres Kynaston. “He was in the old-school tradition of . . . I don’t want to say ‘artificiality,’ but that degree of the craft that preceded modern acting, where each gender now speaks for itself,” says Gieleta.

About Stage Beauty, he says, “It’s a shame the film came out quite so close to Shakespeare in Love, which got all of the attention.” Shakespeare in Love famously upset Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture at the 71st Academy Awards in 1999, with Gwyneth Paltrow winning Best Actress for portraying a young woman who must disguise herself as a man in order to be allowed to act onstage in 1593 London.

Likewise, in Prince of Players, a longstanding law forbids Kynaston’s female dresser, Maria, from performing. Then King Charles II lifts the ban, and Kynaston loses both his job (as an actor who portrays women) and his lover, Villiers, who only wanted to date a star.

In Compleat Female Stage Play, Villiers cruelly dismisses Kynaston by saying, Change your life, Neddy, change what you do. What we do is what we are.”

But in Prince of Players, says Gieleta, “You may find interesting how Carlisle Floyd has pushed the material deeper, treating Kynaston and Villiers with more emotional seriousness. He gets more into their love affair than the play or the movie does, and it hurts more; it becomes the emotional center of the opera. Their relationship is not just about boinking; it’s about love. All of the choices Carlisle Floyd has made in expressing these two characters, I am very happy and extremely pleased about.”

Audiences might be surprised by how things were less sexually repressed in the 17th century than they are now, says Gieleta. “Shakespeare’s sonnets are a crown example,” he explains. “He is attracted by a young man and a ‘dark lady.’ Maybe they will have a ménage à trois, or not. What the poet feels isn’t labeled gay or straight or bisexual. It is a liberal spirit very much of the heart. It is undefinable, nothing is spelled out, much is elegantly suggested.”

Gieleta was born in Rome, and at age six his family became trapped in Poland when martial law was declared while they were visiting relatives. Poland was 50 shades of gray, complete with military police, curfews, and tanks patrolling the streets of Warsaw. “It was a deep experience to be there when the whole Solidarity movement started,” he explains.

He was 11 by the time he was allowed to leave Poland, and his family settled in London.

About his sexual orientation, “I don’t think I ever came out,” says Gieleta. “I never had any reason to make any type of declaration; it wasn’t required.”

However, he says, “I do remember the first time I fell in love, the first time my heart was broken, da-dum, da-dum, the first time I was sexually fulfilled, da-dum, da-dum.”

Costume sketches by Gregory Gale.
Costume sketches by Gregory Gale.

The acclaimed young director is single, and spends many hours on British Airways flights traveling the world to direct various opera and other stage productions.

In November, HGO organized a workshop in Houston so that Gieleta and Floyd could meet with many actors in the cast—plus Gieleta says he had “bits and bobs” to ask Floyd.

“I am trained as a pianist, so I am lucky [that I can] play through the score during my thinking time when I am still full of research and digesting the material,” says Gieleta.

“There is an awful lot of research required, so I learn, learn, learn and read, read, read and watch, watch, watch,” he explains. “At present, I know more about 16th-century parliamentary matters than I do about current laws. Then I will move onto another period with the next project.”

In England, says Gieleta, “I think gay marriage is legal. Yes, it is legal. I’m certain, because I read the other day that a straight couple is suing for equal rights because they can’t have the option of a civil partnership. A more serious issue involves homosexuals and the Anglican Church, but I’m not in the Anglican Church, so it doesn’t affect me.”

Likewise, he isn’t anticipating a walk down the aisle. “My relationship status is that I am free as a bird and loving it. It’s a big subject, whether gay life should follow the pattern made by heterosexuals or whether we should have our own relationship dynamic. Maybe it is because I jump from one project to another that I [enjoy having] none of those horrible legal restrictions that are faced by gay couples who are married.”

Gieleta is looking forward to seeing whether HGO’s production of Prince of Players will attract “a liberal crowd” or “whatever stereotype others may have of Texans.

“I think it is a daring step for HGO to commission this world premiere,” he says. “It shows a great respect for their audiences.”

What: Prince of Players
When: March 5, 11, and 13
Where: Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Avenue
Details: houstongrandopera.org or 713.228.6737

Donalevan Maines also writes about the Oscars in this issue of OutSmart magazine.

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Don Maines

Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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