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Wallace's opera about the assasination of gay rights icon Harvey Milk was co-commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, San Francisco Opera, and New York City Opera. It was extensively revised after the initial run in Houston; the recording is of the San Francisco production.
In a brief prologue, we see the assassination of Harvey Milk juxtaposed with the scene of young Harvey being warned by his mother to be careful as he leaves for the opera.
At the opera, Harvey is confused by the "men without wives" he sees in the standing room section. Harvey follows a man in a trenchcoat out of the opera house and into Central Park, as his mother sings about the Holocaust. When young Harvey approaches the man, he reveals himself to be a policeman and slaps handcuffs on Harvey.
Years later, the adult Harvey is living in New York and working on Wall Street, interacting with his gay friends and lovers in his "walk-in closet." Harvey follows a gay German man out onto the street, where they argue about the Holocaust; after a police officer interrupts them, Milk meets a gay radical, Scott Smith, who invites him to the Stonewall Bar. Milk is afraid to go, worried that he will lose his job on Wall Street. Back at the opera house, he thinks about the connection between his Jewish and gay identities and decides that he must embrace both.
At the Stonewall Bar, the drag queens resist a police raid, forcing them to retreat. Harvey finds Scott, and they make love as the riot continues.
In the Castro, in San Francisco in the early 1970s, Dan White, a fireman, complains about the changes to the old Irish neighborhood he knew as a boy. Gay men and women from all over America arrive in the Castro and are welcomed by the gay residents; one of them is Harvey Milk, who introduces himself as the unofficial Mayor of Castro Street. In a montage, various people reminisce about Milk's first, failed campaign for city supervisor, interrupted by dismissive comments from reporters. Scott cheers Harvey up, and then, to help his future campaigns, cuts his hair.
On the street, a gay couple is attacked by a group of young gay-bashers; one of them is killed, and the police do not come. Dan White and Harvey Milk each describe their version of the events in campaign speeches; White blaming the victims for "flaunting" their "preferences," and Milk urges the Castro to elect one of their own to represent them. After the election, newly elected mayor George Moscone introduces the new Board of Supervisors, including both Milk and White.
In City Hall, Supervisor Dianne Feinstein urges White to make compromises; he refuses. Angrily, White watches Milk cast the deciding vote to place a halfway house in White's district, then watches the Board of Supervisors pass a citywide gay rights ordinance. White, frustrated by his inability to feed his family on his supervisor's salary, quits the Board. Harvey urges Mayor Moscone to appoint a liberal to take White's place, but when White changes his mind and returns, Moscone at first agrees; Milk convinces him to reconsider.
Dan White broods in front of the television, eating junk food; at the same time, Milk, at the San Francisco Opera, wishes he had had the courage to come out while his mother was still alive.
On November 27, 1978, Dan White shoots Mayor Moscone. As he enters Milk's office and shoots him, we hear the recording Milk made to be played in the event of his assassination.
On Market Street, people who knew Milk describe and reenact the impromptu candlelight vigil that followed the assassinations. A Messenger shows the young Harvey, still handcuffed, what his death has accomplished; in a symbolic gesture, the opera ends as Milk breaks the handcuffs.
Last update: January 1, 2009