Harvey Milk (opera)

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Harvey Milk
Opera by Stewart Wallace
Harvey Milk in 1978 at Mayor Moscone's Desk crop.jpg
The opera's protagonist, gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, photographed in 1978
LibrettistMichael Korie
PremiereJanuary 21, 1995 (1995-01-21)
Houston Grand Opera

Harvey Milk is an opera in three acts composed by Stewart Wallace to a libretto by Michael Korie. A joint commission by Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera, it was premiered on January 21, 1995 by Houston Grand Opera. The opera is based on the life and death of the gay activist and politician Harvey Milk who was assassinated along with San Francisco's mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978.

Background and performance history[edit]

The controversial director John Dew originally suggested the idea for a stage work based on the life of Harvey Milk to David Gockley, at the time General Director of Houston Grand Opera. Gockley then approached the composer Stewart Wallace and his librettist Michael Korie who were looking for new opera subject, having previously collaborated on the dance opera Kabbalah and the two-act opera Where's Dick which had its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera in 1989.[1] According to Gockley, Dew's original conception to stage the work as a musical was "very, very weird, with strange dreamlike drag ballets and the like. He had a distorted idea of the subject."[1] Gockley's relationship with Dew subsequently deteriorated in 1992 when Dew went to Houston to direct the premiere of Robert Moran's opera, Desert of Roses. When both the opera company and Wallace found Dew's concept unacceptable, Harvey Milk took form as an opera instead. The production, jointly commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera, and San Francisco Opera, premiered on January 21, 1995 in Houston. It was directed by Christopher Alden with set designs by Paul Steinberg, choreography by Ross Petty, and fight direction by Michael Kirkland.

The production then opened at New York City Opera with the same cast in April 1995. Both the composer and librettist considered the New York premiere "a debacle". The conductor, Christopher Keene was ill with AIDS during much of the rehearsal period. According to Michael Korie, "Christopher was very committed to this, but my hair went gray. The chorus never learned the music. The stage manager was never around."[2] The production did not open at San Francisco Opera until November 1996. In the interim, John Dew produced the German premiere of the opera at the Opernhaus Dortmund in February of that year. On that occasion it was sung in German and used a completely different staging devised by Dew.[3][4]

Wallace and Korie had revised the opera considerably for the San Francisco performances. Working in collaboration with Donald Runnicles who would conduct the San Francisco performances and SFO's vocal coach Peter Grunberg, Wallace tightened the score, simplifying both the orchestration and the complicated rhythmic notation. The running time was cut from nearly three hours to just over two. Among the changes to the libretto were paring back the role of Dan White (Milk's assassin), trimming the final act, and the addition of two new arias for Harvey Milk.[4][5] The revised version, now considered the definitive one,[4] was premiered by San Francisco Opera at the Orpheum Theatre on November 9, 1996 and ran for eight performances. The principal roles were sung by the original Houston cast, apart from the role of Milk's mother which was sung by Elizabeth Bishop. In the Houston production, Juliana Gonderek had sung both that role and the role of Dianne Feinstein. The November 27 performance was timed to coincide with the 18th annual candlelight march through the city's Castro District commemorating the day Milk and San Francisco's mayor, George Moscone, were killed. The march ended in front of the Orpheum Theatre, and several of Milk's friends and associates appeared in the opera's Act 2 parade scene.[2][6] The première San Francisco production of 1996 was recorded in November and later released on Teldec Records.[7]


Role Voice type Premiere cast, 21 January 1995[8]
(Conductor: Ward Holmquist)
Harvey Milk, gay activist and member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors baritone Robert Orth
Dan White, Milk's assassin tenor Raymond Very
George Moscone, Mayor of San Francisco bass Gidon Saks
Dianne Feinstein, member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors mezzo-soprano or soprano Juliana Gondek
Scott Smith, Milk's Lover tenor Bradley Williams
Henry Wong, Milk's associate counter-tenor Randall Wong
Messenger baritone James Maddalena
Anne Kronenberg, Milk's campaign manager mezzo-soprano Jill Grove
Harvey Milk as a boy boy soprano Matthew Cavenaugh
Medora Payne, an 11-year old supporter of Milk girl soprano Katherine H. Cavenaugh
Harvey Milk's mother ('Mama'), concentration camp inmates, San Francisco supervisors, men at the opera, closet lovers, reporters, people of San Francisco

In addition to the ten principal roles, the opera has over 70 smaller singing roles. Apart from Robert Orth who sang Harvey Milk, the principal cast members also sang multiple smaller roles.[6][8]


  • Wallace: Harvey Milk – Robert Orth (Harvey Milk), Raymond Very (Dan White), Gidon Saks (George Moscone), Elizabeth Bishop (Mama), Juliana Gondek (Dianne Feinstein), Bradley Williams (Scott Smith), James Maddalena (Messenger), Randall Wong (Henry Wong); San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus; Donald Runnicles (conductor). Recorded at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, November 1996; released July 1998. Label: Teldec.[9][10]


  1. ^ a b Swed, Mark (15 January 1995). "A Life Custom-Made for Opera : Harvey Milk, gay activist, San Francisco politician and martyr is the soul of a new contemporary work". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  2. ^ a b Golden, Tim (30 November 1996). "A Gay Camelot Goes Home to Find It's True". New York Times. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  3. ^ Otten, Jürgen (24 February 1996). "Schwulen-Problematik in der Oper". Berliner Zeitung. Retrieved 28 May 2014 (in German).
  4. ^ a b c Mansouri, Lofti (2010). Lotfi Mansouri: An Operatic Journey, pp. 235–237. University Press of New England. ISBN 1555537065
  5. ^ Pfaff, Timothy (9 November 1996). "'Harvey Milk' comes home". The San Francisco Examiner. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  6. ^ a b San Francisco Opera Performance Archives. Harvey Milk. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  7. ^ Cranna, Kip, et al. Libretto and Liner Notes. Harvey Milk. Music by Stewart Wallace. Libretto by Michael Korie. Orch. San Francisco Opera. Cond. Donald Runnicles. Teldec Classics International GmBH, 1998. CD. p. 6.
  8. ^ a b Opera America. New Works Directory: Harvey Milk. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  9. ^ Law, JK (2000). "Recordings: Harvey Milk. Stewart Wallace". The Opera Quarterly, Vol. 16. No. 4. pp 711–715. Retrieved 28 May 2014.
  10. ^ OCLC 38981451

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