Ilene Sameth: From Closeted Opera Singer to Lesbian Diva

“I really had a powerful voice. But I couldn’t continue and feel like a whole person,” Sameth told GO.

From her early days as a up-and-coming mezzo-soprano Opera performer to producing her own screenplay, this lesbian diva has seen it all. Ilene Sameth told GO that the impetus for her most recent passion project “BANDWIDTH” was the desire to tell her compelling life story. A true Opera star – Sameth made her Carnegie hall debut at age 25 and sang in Europe and the Middle East throughout her career. Though she had accomplished all of this success she had this nagging feeling that there was more in life for her – a world where she could feel free to love who she loved.

Courtesy of Ilene Sameth

As a lesbian opera performer in the 80’s and 90’s, Ilene was under so much pressure – to be a certain size, to date certain people and to exist in a certain light. “A big part of the story is what it was like to be a lesbian at that time,” Sameth said. “There were no out lesbians. It was a very closeted time and that was a huge pressure in my life. Even if you Google lesbian opera singers today, it still seems to be. Patricia Racette is an out lesbian and so is her partner – but it has been very difficult for others. Opera is a very closeted world and that was a devastating time in my life.”

A large portion of the play is also focused around the changing demands put on women Opera singers in the 80’s and 90’s – when Sameth was performing. “The typical narrative was women was a certain size, usually large. In the 80’s things began to change and suddenly, singers who were large were told that wasn’t acceptable anymore. We had to have bodies that reflected the characters we were playing,” Sameth explained. Women were under a great deal of pressure to lose weight in order to get the roles they wanted but also not get burned out by the extreme physical demands of being an Opera singer.

When I asked Sameth what was the deciding factor to end her flourishing Opera career she said it was simple, it was about her happiness. “I was very good at singing. I won competitions against some of the best, I really had a powerful voice. But I couldn’t continue and feel like a whole person,” Sameth told GO.

Courtesy of Ilene Sameth

Going from Opera singer to non-profit management at the worlds largest LGBTQ Synagogue was a huge juxtaposition for Ilene. From feeling closeted and fearful, yet acclaimed for having a powerful voice – to finding her leading voice within the Synagogue was an introspective process for Sameth. And largely what inspired the story behind “BANDWIDTH.”

Co-written with her partner Barbara Raab, this one woman play is meant to show the ups and down – the emotional roller-coaster – that was the life of a closeted Opera singer turned out and proud LGBTQ advocate.

“This is my first time performing a full production in about 25 years,” Sameth continued. “Of course it’s a little nerve wracking. At the same time, I’m excited to be able to step out onto Dixon place stage. It’s such an important theater for the queer community. It’s amazing how Ellie Coven supports young artists – both young in age and young in development of new works. I’m thrilled and honored.”

The first showing of “BANDWIDTH” sold out in 10 days and has now been asked back for Dixon Place’s annual Hot Festival in July. “We’re excited about the response the show has garnered. It’s more overwhelming than I could have imagined.”

Tickets are still on sale for the July 11 show – don’t miss out on this life changing performance.