One day a woman locked in Einar Wegener’s body decided to tear down her prison. Had she chosen to act on the decision, the deed would have been referred to as suicide. She even set a date for herself: 1 May 1930. She had tried everything, but the doctors, instead of helping her, tried to forcibly treat Einar. They diagnosed him with either neurosis or schizophrenia, recommended a lobotomy and treated him with X-rays. Einar, exhausted by the treatment, was in anguish and so was Lili living inside him. When the anguish – described today as gender dysphoria – reached its peak, hope sprang up suddenly. The difficult case was taken up by the famous German gynaecologist Kurt Warnekros, a pioneer of gender-affirming surgery. No one before him had taken the risk of “completely transforming” a man into a woman. No one before had trusted him so desperately. The first surgery took place in February 1930. After the second Einar ceased to exist and the woman freed from him was issued a passport in the name of Lili Ilse Elvenes. We do not know whether she ever used the surname Elbe: perhaps this was a later invention of journalists seeking to commemorate the river flowing through Dresden, where Dr. Warnekros’ clinic was located.
A few months after the fourth procedure – groundbreaking from the medical point of view – the patient’s body rejected the transplanted uterus. And yet Lili welcomed death with calm and gratitude for the brief period spent in the body she had always dreamed of. She died on 13 September 1931, at the age of just under 49. Before her death she said that Einar had wanted to die for a long time: so that Lili could awake to life. This harrowing story, told by herself and compiled by a friend who hid under the pseudonym Niels Hoyer, was published as a book shortly after her death. The Danish original Fra Mand til Kvinde (Man into Woman) was immediately translated into German, an edition followed by two independent translations into English. Lili’s tragic fate, discussed before the war mainly in terms of a moral sensation, kept returning from time to time in other contexts: in the middle of the last century on the wave of discussions about new methods of surgical gender reassignment, in the early twenty-first century – after the publication of David Ebershoff’s acclaimed novel The Danish Girl, subsequently filmed by Tom Hooper. The critics received Ebershoff’s debut with mixed feelings: although the author created a vivid story about the power of love, the essence of marriage and gender models, he let his imagination run wild, obscuring the already vague story of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, who may have married Einar precisely because someone else lived in his body.
Photo: Edyta Dufaj
Both were talented and both very young when they fell in love with each other. They met at the Royal Danish Academy of Arts, having arrived there from provincial towns and conservative communities in the south of the country: Einar was the son of a spice merchant, Gerda – of a Lutheran pastor. He won acclaim as an author of atmospheric, impressionistic landscapes, while she dedicated herself primarily to illustration and portrait art combining Art Nouveau and Art Deco and characterised by ambiguous, decadent eroticism. It was apparently Gerda who awakened Lili in Einar – by prompting him to replace Anna Larssen, a popular actress at Copenhagen’s Folketeatret, during one of Gerda’s portrait sessions. Innocent dress-ups became a ritual. Dressed in female attire, Einar began to go out with Gerda for walks, to attend exhibition previews and social gatherings, with Gerda introducing him as her husband’s cousin from Jutland. Lili was given her own set of clothes, settled in the marital bedroom, but was afraid to come out in the stifling atmosphere of Puritan Denmark. The couple’s move to France proved of little help: Gerda flourished as an artist, but Lili felt increasingly bad in Einar’s hated body. Deliverance came with Dr. Warnekros’ offer. Lili emerged from the shadows as a mature woman and lived her entire new life over the course of fourteen months. The marriage was annulled. Lili became infatuated with a French art dealer, Gerda married an Italian pilot. Everything fell apart after Lili’s death. Gerda’s marriage turned out to be a mistake. The artist spent the last years of her life in poverty, forgotten, drinking herself into a stupor and supporting herself by selling hand-painted greeting cards. She died shortly after the outbreak of the war, at the age of just 54. She may have always loved the woman in her husband.
If Tobias Picker – author of six operas based on famous literary works, most of which were commissioned by major American theatre companies – had wanted to cash in on the success of Ebershoff’s novel, I probably would not have gone to the premiere of his Lili Elbe at the Theater St. Gallen. However, from the very beginning this project promised to be extraordinary. Just before the outbreak of the pandemic, Picker – then artistic director of Tulsa Opera in Oklahoma – cast the transgender Lucia Lucas in the role of Don Giovanni. The baritone-singing Lucas began the transition process in 2013, went through a hell, purgatory and heaven similar to that of Lili Elbe, and seemed to Picker the perfect performer for the opera he decided to compose especially for her. The libretto was written by his husband Aryeh Lev Stollman, a neuroradiologist at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital, using primarily the book Fra Mand til Kvinde; the dramaturgical side of the whole thing was handled by Lucas herself and direction – by Krystian Lada, who “discovered” Lucas for himself back in 2019, during the Brussels premiere of Unknown, I live with you.
Photo: Edyta Dufaj
Picker has created an opera of the kind that European composers are often unwilling or simply unable to write: real two-act opera with a linear plot that arouses strong emotions in both connoisseurs and people who come to the theatre for well-told stories. Above all, in Lili Elbe he has given a tremendous opportunity to shine to the singers, led by Lucia Lucas, who spins this treatise on recovered identity with the passion and understanding of a person who can really empathise with her character’s plight. In musical terms Picker does not so much juggle with convention as harnesses it in the service of the narrative: in the theatre within theatre scene, when Einar and Gerda watch a “modernist” performance of Orpheus and Eurydice, he draws on the treasury of Webern’s and Schönberg’s oeuvres; he conveys the atmosphere of the frenzied 1920s by means of references to Weill and Parisian cabarets; he interweaves the whole with threads drawn from the music of Korngold, Copland and Puccini; he dresses the moving finale in a robe of sound with clear allusions to Wagner’s Tristan and the love transfiguration of Isolde.
Krystian Lada presents the story within a space with few props (stage design cooperation by Łukasz Misztal), suggestively lit by Aleksander Prowaliński, as usual building tension with precise acting and expressive stage movement (choreography by Frank Fannar Pedersen). There are clear examples of his directorial “signatures”, like the half allegorical, half fairy-tale pantomime in the prologue: with bachelors and maidens pair up in the open, like princes with their Cinderellas, the maidens find the right shoes, one is left without a partner, little Einar runs off stage with one foot in a boy’s shoe and the other in a shiny pump. Another element that has become an integral part of Lada’s staging are theatrical emanations of the characters’ identities – when Lili awakens in Einar, she manifests herself under many guises: an Androgyne, a pregnant woman, a woman with a beard, and other vague visions of femininity, evocatively conveyed by dancers from the Tanzkompanie St. Gallen. Again, there is a great understanding between the director and the costume designer (Bente Rolandsdotter), who managed not only to emphasise the stark contrast between the grey everyday life in Denmark and the colourful world of bohemia, but also to contrast Gerda’s joyful colour imagination with a melancholic, subdued palette of shades suggesting the sadness of Lili locked inside Einar. A beautiful idea was the final cleansing of the protagonist from the dirt of her previous existence: in a ceremony that brought to mind associations with baptism as well as ritual washing of the body by the deceased’s loved ones.
Photo: Edyta Dufaj
The musical side of the production was overseen by Modestas Pitrenas, who led the soloists, the chorus and the Sinfonieorchester St. Gallen with an assured hand, if a bit too heavy at times. I think, however, that with each successive performance the balance between the stage and the orchestra pit will continue to improve. Among the very large cast special mention should go to Sylvia d’Eramo, as Gerda, singing with a beautifully rounded soprano; the singing- and acting-wise superb mezzo-soprano Mack Wolz in the triple role of Anna Larssen, Wegener’s Mother and the Young Woman; the touchingly lyrical Brian Michael Moore in the tenor role of Lili’s beloved, Claude LeJeune; and, above all, the technically superb Théo Imart, endowed with an extraordinarily handsome soprano countertenor, and singing three extremely varied roles of the Danish Countess, Dagmar and Matron. However, I cannot help it, but what will stay in my memory above all is Lucia Lucas’ harrowing portrayal. Leaving aside her innate musicianship, mastery of nuanced dynamics and articulation, attention to rhythm and melody of phrasing – there is something irresistibly feminine about Lucas’ voice, more sonorous at the bottom of the scale and more widely open at the top than in the case of many performers of the role of Wotan. I have no idea where this comes from: certainly not from the timbre; if anything, then from the intensity and ardour of emotion, not normally associated with “male” singing. This sparkling baritone is clearly comfortable in its new body.
Yet after a long applause I became overwhelmed with sadness: that in Poland we are not yet mature enough to tell difficult stories using the language of opera. And even if we are mature enough, we do not know how to tell them with such sincerity and simplicity. It is either shouting or pathos, or allusion wrapped in black humour. And yet we need moderation so much.