A lesbian love story is at the heart of the opera “Patience and Sarah”


It’s been nearly 20 years since Paula Kimper and Wende Persons’ sweeping operatic lesbian romance, Patience and Sarah, first debuted as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. Now the stirring show is coming back for two nights only as part of NYC’s Pride Celebration.

Based on a book about real-life star-crossed lady lovers by Isabel Miller, the opera follows the love story between two women who fought for love against all odds in the early 19th century America.

 Nadia Petrella (Patience) and Elsa Quéron (Sarah)Patience1Photo by Maria Baranova

So after two decades and tremendous amount of change for the LGBTQ community, what made Paula and Wende decide to bring the show back for these special performances?

“One reason was is that it hasn’t really had the life that I’d hoped it’d have out in the rest of the country,” said Paula Kimper, the show’s composer and driving force behind this revival. “I thought perhaps this smaller orchestration might make it more accessible to colleges and theatres and other alternative venues besides opera houses.”

Another pretty amazing reason Paula had for bring the opera back? “It’s also going to be the 200th anniversary of when the original women went pioneering,” she said. O pioneers!

“The interesting thing about that,” librettist Wende Persons added, “is that the novelist, Isabel Miller, knew that there were these real-life women who went pioneering, one of them being the folk artist Mary Ann Wilson, that’s how we know of her. But because she couldn’t find anything about them, about their real lives, she fictionalized the story and named them Patience and Sarah.”  

Composer Paula KimperPMK4185sqvia paulakimper.com

During this tremendously somber Pride month, and after our community has experienced such a terrible tragedy, Patience and Sarah offers a rare gift in LGBT stories: a happy ending. While I spoke with Paula and Wende prior to the events in Orlando, the fact that the opera shows two queer women fighting against all odds and winning resonates even more so now. Wende, who started working on the opera in 1981, had this to say about the need for a happy ending.

“It was really important to me that it was a happy story,” Wende said. “I’d been reading all this lesbian literature that was so devastating. People either dead at the end or—I remember one book called This is Not For You where at the end a straight woman falls in love with a lesbian and the lesbian is like, ‘No, this is not for you. This lifestyle is too hard.’ [Patience and Sarah] had to be a happy story and it is so important. It really is.”

Patience2Photo by Maria Baranova.

Never seen an opera? A little hesitant? That’s exactly why you should check out Patience and Sarah. With opera companies struggling across the country, and younger patrons becoming more and more difficult to court, I asked Wende and Paula their thoughts on how opera can become more approachable once again.

“Of course a lot of opera houses are having trouble because there’s been an economic shift and people have so much available now, they don’t necessarily want to go to an opera house and listen to an opera,” Paula said. “On the other hand, there are so many companies doing chamber opera, which is what I’m doing, with smaller groups and in alternative venues. We’re the ones who are taking opera out of the opera houses and into a place where people can get to know it.”

“I think the intimacy, being able to be close to it, is so important,” Wende said. “And I think because Patience and Sarah is being made more portable right now and more intimate, hopefully it will be able to be done more often because of that.”

The opera features soprano Nadia Petrella as Patience, and mezzo-soprano Elsa Quéron as Sarah. If you are in the New York area for Pride Week, be sure to put Patience and Sarah on your must-see list.

Patience and Sarah is playing June 23 and 24 at The Players Theatre in NYC. Tickets are available now.

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