Alan Turing, the gay mathematical genius who broke the Nazi Enigma Code in World War II and who was chemically castrated after being convicted of “gross indecency” in 1952, is the subject of a new opera which will have its first NYC concert performance this Thursday, Jan. 12.
The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, composed by Justine Chen with a libretto by David Simpatico, is the first full-scale opera about Turing’s life and hopes to do justice to Turing’s story and especially his sexuality.
Turing’s life has been the subject of musical endeavors before. In 2014, the Pet Shop Boys premiered their A Man From the Future, an “orchestral pop biography” about Turing and in 2015 composer Nico Muhly premiered Sentences, a 30-minute oratorio for orchestra with the counter tenor Iestyn Davies singing a libretto by Adam Gopnik.
However Turing’s story is most widely known from the film The Imitation Game starring Benedict Cumberbatch, though some felt the film obfuscated his sexuality and desexualized him in an attempt to make the story more mainstream.
David Simpatico, librettist for The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing explained to The Daily Beast, “One of the things I had trouble with, the film and the screenplay, was that it completely asexualized him. He was not a sexual creature in this movie. He was in the closet. That couldn't be more opposite. He was completely out. He was out upon meeting people. He would say, ‘How are you doing? I'm a homosexual. Will you have a problem with that? No.’ He was out to everybody. The movie makes it feel like he had something to hide.”
Lawrence Edelson, the founder and producing artistic director of American Lyric Theater, an incubator for opera composers, librettists, and their new work, originally commissioned The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing for ALT in 2012. He has purposely never seen The Imitation Game but agrees with Simpatico’s take on Turing’s open sexuality.
“Turing never was embarrassed about his sexuality,” Edelson told The Daily Beast. “He never really tried to hide it. That's a really fascinating thing to see somebody who, in a very different period, was actually very open about his sexuality and had multiple relationships. While many in society saw him as ‘other,’ Turing himself did not.
“Justine and David shine a light on in this opera that really show that he was not only ahead of his time scientifically, but that he was ahead of his time in his own acceptance of who he was sexually and socially.”
In researching for the opera’s libretto, Simpatico found that Turing’s intellectual gifts and sexuality were completely intertwined--not at all like the asexual and singularly numbers obsessed nebbish portrayed in The Imitation Game.
Simpatico explains, “It’s like getting a hard-on talking about equations. He would get sexually stimulated working on his math. It wasn’t like he could separate himself.”
The idea of fusing sex and intellect on stage is not an easy one but Simpatico feels it is intrinsic to Turing’s character.
“Turing had no division between his sexual, sensual, physical carnal self and his intellectual, cerebral, interior self. What we tried to do through all the scenes in the opera, was to entwine his sexuality with his intellectual capacity and say this is the same person.
“We know about what his intellectual legacy is and what his life was. We wanted to balance it up a little bit and see who was the person? Who was the emotional, sexual person because his sexual reality wound up being his downfall through no fault of his own.”
Justine Chen, the composer of The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing, also agrees with Simpatico’s take on Turing’s sexuality.
“I think he’s very innocent about it [his sexuality] so I think he’s very open with it and I think that’s his innocence. That’s his relationship to his sexuality: He’s first very open and candid about it and then he fully realizes that it’s a bad idea in society to be so open. In that society people will hunt you down and chemically castrate you.”
Chen, an Asian female in a field historically dominated by white men, discussed with The Daily Beast a not dissimilar feeling of “otherness” that she has often felt in her professional life.
“People have assumptions about Asians or females… for example that I’m the singer, I’m not the composer. Or I should be writing works about women, or writing work about Asians, or writing works about Asian females, or writing works that have Chinese tunes in them even though I’m American. I didn’t grow up with Chinese folk songs in my ears. I’m not even Chinese. I’m Taiwanese.
“It's just so heavily embedded in everything, especially as I'm in a predominantly male profession as a composer.”
While Turing had the option to hide his “otherness,” Chen and many others cannot.
The opera is called The Life and Death(s) because the creators chose to present four different versions of Turing’s death at the end of the opera.
The first is the standard accepted historical version of Turing committing suicide by eating a cyanide-laced apple. The second is an accidental death due to Turing’s accidentally ingesting cyanide. The third is what Simpatico calls “The Assassination” in which he is murdered by governmental agencies because he knew too much: a theory that some still believe. In the final version Turing doesn’t die but instead uploads his consciousness into a sort of cosmic proto-internet which Simpatico calls “the binary universe of ones and zeros.”
As a gay man, Simpatico found the experience of exploring Turing’s life greatly empowering and hopes others can find the strength he did in Turing’s story, especially in the current political climate.
“I came of age in the ’80s and the ’90s when, really, walking down Fifth Avenue holding your boyfriend’s hand was a huge political statement that you had to be ready to defend. You had to declare yourself constantly. You know, walking across the street and being called a ‘fag’ just because… And still that’s happening.
“Investigating and learning about Alan Turing's life gave me a sense of power about self-determining my own life, about being true to my impulses. That's on a sexual level. That's on an artistic level. Following him and learning about what he did and how he kept fighting and kept experimenting, and not wasting any time that was given to him, and not bemoaning his outcast state, just opened my eyes and made me feel more comfortable about being who I am.”
The Life and Death(s) of Alan Turing is on Thursday. Book tickets here.