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As every opera fan knows, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin does not feature a single openly gay character and is all about straight romance in the Russian countryside. The libretto is based on Pushkin’s eponymous verse novel. Both artists had a knack for reading human emotions not as spontaneous or private, but in their social context. LGBT people are often all too aware of the social context in which they have to, manage to, refuse to, or simply cannot fit in.
There isn’t much of a plot to follow for the dashing Eugene. In the words of Richard Taruskin, elucidator sans pareil of all things musical: “Dandy from the city meets open-hearted country girl (Tatyana), she is smitten, he brushes her off. Six years later he is smitten, she married.” What makes the opera so confusingly interesting is the subplot involving a local lad, a sensitive poetic soul who is in love with the country girl’s sister, who barely features as a character at all. “Dandy and poet fight a pointless duel and friend is (for no good reason) killed.” The dandy flees, travels around Europe for three years, and comes back to submit to society’s pressure; he confesses his ‘love’ for Tatyana. She is deeply unhappy in her marriage, but accepts her fate. Nothing queer there, you may say, only misery.
Except that the duel and dialogue between the men is so obviously not about the women they claim to love. Why introduce the subplot at all? It’s dramatic, but it has nothing to do with the main characters, unless you allow, in a flight of fancy, the possibility of dandy and poet being the real lovebirds of the tale, something that would have been impossible to write about, not to mention produce on stage, at the time.
The duel then is a metaphor for gay love-making? The killing as moral victory over homosexual urges? It makes a lot more sense than two men fighting over a woman only one of them claims to fancy—and then only from afar. In the language of Tchaikovsky, the duel is dramatic, undoubtedly the highpoint of the opera; yet it is entirely irrelevant to the plot. Unless…
Here then, is the ‘real’ plot, as I see it: Gorgeous hunk from the city falls for handsome country cowboy but cannot own up to his lust. Finally, there is massive rumpy-pumpy in the hayloft (the pointless duel) but in the circumstances of the time, the gay lovers cannot be together (the even more pointless killing) and must hide their love from society. Eugene spends a few years moving around Europe (a bit of clubbing in Paris, lusty affairs with the local lads in London, one supposes) and then, disappointed by the gay dating circuit, returns home to accept the straight-jacket (pun intended) of society and tells Tatyana that he ‘loves’ only her. Man goes back into the closet, his gay escapades are behind him, the cowboy lover dispatched to romantic memory. The opera suddenly makes perfect sense!
Musically speaking, Tchaikovsky makes use of what I irreverently like to call the ‘gay sixth,’ invented by Schubert to express his own queer inner world. In Tatyana’s famous Letter Writing Scene, they help build up the profile of an inner world in turmoil, and describe a love that cannot be. The sixths, along with the other artifices, the local (private) progressions (guilt feelings) and modulations (adaptation to society), allow the composer to employ a subsidiary key which spans the entire music as a sort of invisible layer (the gay world, the unspeakable feelings of a man for another) around the classical circle of fifths (hetero norms of society). Schubert used his tools to great effect; Tchaikovsky, in the closet, understood them well, but destroyed some of the sixths by resolving harmonies at numeral instances; but they are there, in all his music, all the way to the end, a sublime band of beautiful, hidden queer subculture.
Other clues: the entire opera is without dramatic scene changes. Everything happens in the privacy of the home—away from the public eye. It is, in fact, a look into a man’s closet, from Act I all the way to the finale. The lyrics too are easily read with a double meaning. Tatyana, putting the homoerotic love into words on behalf of Eugene, sings—or rather, writes—phrases every gay man will recognize as momentary glimpses of a coming out, an infatuation, a search, and endless self-doubt.
Why, oh why did you visit us? Buried in this remote countryside,
I should never have known you, nor should I have known this torment!
Who are you? My guardian angel or a wily tempter? Put my doubts at rest.
Maybe this is all an empty dream, the self-deception of an inexperienced soul,
and something quite different is to be…?
But so be it! My fate henceforth I entrust to you;
in tears before you, your protection I implore, I implore.
Imagine: I am all alone here! No one understands me!
Are we allowed to do this? Take an obviously straight plot and read all kinds of homoerotic elements into it? I think we are.
The opera clearly echoes Tchaikovsky’s private life. To hide his homosexuality, he married Antonina Milyukova, who had a schoolgirl crush on him. The marriage was torture, and he ran away to Venice, where he wrote the 4th symphony, one of the archetypal pieces of gay sentiment in art. “The Fourth Symphony, fate hanging over our heads like the sword of Damocles—the first theme, that despairing feeling. Would it not be marvelous if one could live only in one’s dreams—the second theme,” the composer explained.
Even so, everything I have said about Eugene Onegin can be easily refuted. Making Tatyana the spokeswoman of a gay heart is somewhat strenuous—every unrequited love in the history of the world, expressed by a woman, can be read as a gay lament. But bearing in mind that the composer had male lovers, and must have had some urge to express his true self, I think the reading is perfectly admissible.
Plus, as long as straight people insist on ignoring or ridiculing even the most obvious gay allusions in literature, poetry, film and art, and prevent artworks featuring gay characters from being shown (compare the fuss about ‘Glee’ in America, or google ‘Opera North – Beached’) I think we have a right to invade their turf with a queer eye for a strapping Russian dandy and his cowboy.
After all, sooner or later even the straightest of them must realize that it doesn’t really matter who you love, as long as you are on the side of love.