The Phantoms of Opera's Divas

BOOK

The Queen's Throat: Opera,

Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire

by Wayne Koestenbaum

Vintage Paperback

271 pp.

$12.00

Does a "gay culture" really exist? Are there general tendencies in the gay a community towards the same cultural icons and institutions? The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and just released in paperback, Wayne poetic sensitivity, at the same time expressing his deep personal love for the world of grand opera.

Koestenbaum, a graduate of Harvard, Princeton and now an assistant professor of English at Yale, makes no pretense of writing from an expert's perspective; yet the wealth of operatic knowledge that he displays is immense. Unlike the expert, who learns to love, Koestenbaum loves to learn all he can about the field. In a country where opera has been "validated" intellectually as a cultural institution worthy of serious study and where opera must rely on snob appeal to sell tickets, Koestenbaum's perspective is refreshing and appeals not only to those with an interest in gay studies but also to those with an interest or merely a curiosity about an art form with a glamorous past and a shaky future.

In an interview, Koestenbaum is genial, affable and frank. He suggest, as does the subtitle of his book, that one of the primary motivations for writing The Queen's Throat is a "desire to explain desire,". And indeed, the book is liberally sprinkled with personal anecdotes that serve to illustrate the many-faceted sensual appeal of the opera world. These range from the visual (such as Joan Sutherland's misaligned and garish lipstick on an album cover or the combination of Renata Tebaldi's ample bosom and her tight costume on the over of Aida) to the aural (Marilyn Horne singing "Mon coeur" from saint-Saen's Samson and Delilah, Anna Moffo's delivery of the single word disvelto in Verdi's Rigoletto) and even the oral (in a discussion of opera as addictive behavior, he calls listening to an entire opera the equivalent of locking himself in the bathroom to eat a quart of ice cream) and the olfactory (the unmistakable smell of his parent's wood stereo cabinet).

This view of opera as overwhelmingly sensuous enhances Koestenbaum's later exploration of opera's artistic ambiguity, the equilibrium between opera's dramatic and musical appeal. One chapter, entitled "The Unspeakable Marriage of Words and Music," describes not an egalitarian relationship, as Wagner dreamed of, but a constant exchange of submissions. When interviewed, Koestenbaum readily admits his lack of experience with European languages, which limits his perception of the true balance between text and music intended by the composer; however, he still manages to capture something of the incomparable and rich sensation that the sung word brings about in the listener, setting it apart from all other earthly sounds.

Koestenbaum's years at Harvard are mentioned often in the book, as the time in his life when he developed both a love for opera and a sexual awareness. During the interview, he fondly recalls an opera club he formed in North House with a (female) love, and her singing a Mozart aria down a stairwell in Comstock. He also notes that he was quick to transfer to Adams house, finding North to be a dead end romantically and socially. He also reaffirms the impression given by his book that his musical life at Harvard was much richer than his erotic life.

Koestenbaum devotes his first chapter to a character analysis of the typical "opera queen." This label (which he readily applies to himself) has a long history and carries with it a complex array of preconceptions. Not only is it associate with the world of gay camp, inhabited by Judy Garland and Bette Davis enthusiasts, but even within the gay community Koestenbaum implies that it succinctly captures the essence of a particular personality (so succinctly that you may see the words "no opera queens, please!" in gay personal ads.)

The discussion of this personality is both humorous and pointed. Koestenbaum seems to enjoy poking fun at the opera queen's voracious desire to know everything and anything about his field, at the sometimes bitchy distrust of other opera queens who may know more than he, but at the same time depicts the label as one result of a society that sees opera as yet another example (along with pornography) of "addictive" and "aberrant" behavior. He appropriately notes that the word "queer" had been used to describe the behavior of opera fans whose passion and single-mindedness knew no bounds some time before coming into its slang currency to denote homosexuality.

Koestenbaum's chapter on "The Shut-in Fan" is poignant testimony to opera's appeal to the pent up and repressed, as well as to the changes that the advent of sound recording brought to the art. With the commencement of Texaco's Saturday broadcasts from the Met and the massive sales of opera recordings, opera was brought into the home, to the joy of the reclusive and antisocial.

Opera's newfound place in the American home necessarily meant that it was supposed to reinforce a larger and vastly more successful cultural institution: Family Values. Koestenbaum's recollection of a recording of Carmen designed for little children strikes a humorous chord in anyone who has wondered how the lithe, scantily clad, and sexually uninhibited gypsy girl of Merimee's novel came to be transformed in the opera houses of mid-twentieth century America into the postured prima donna in the floor-lenght dress whose idea of sexual flirtation is to glue her chin to her chest and to peep out coquettishly from behind a feathered black fan. The initially negative reaction of the audience at Carmen's premiere in Paris (an audience who went to the Opera Comique expecting the equivalent of G-rated "family" opera) did not preclude its later phenomenal success, as more and more Europeans set aside a traditional sense of morality to see the intrinsic value of the work. Sanitization of plots so as to protect moral sensibilities seems to be a distinctly American concept.

The desire to keep opera at a certain cultural level in society seems to be one cause of this sanitization. Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to see La Traviata in "Pretty Woman"; the scene is interpreted as her first taste of this high cultural art form. Who cares that the heroine of the opera, Violetta, is a prostitute who leaves decadent Paris for the only true love of her life? The music is sublime (or so the operagoer is told beforehand) and of course, in Italian, love conquers all the nasty little moral quandaries of life. But whereas Violetta will die tragically at the end of the opera, clearly depicted as a victim of her hedonistic lifestyle, Roberts' character will assert her independence from Gere and at the same time win him back. The differing moral judgments of the same lifestyle is ample testimony to opera's anachronistic qualities in modern-day liberated society.

Where, then, is opera's appeal to a group that undoubtedly profits from the liberation of society It is this underlying sense of morality in opera (upon reflection, Carmen's violent death at the hands of her jilted lover makes her more palatable to society in general?) that so closely ties in with a central theme of Koestenbaum's book; opera's appeal to the "other" of society, to those who deviate from the "norm." As the surrogate voice of those who feared exposure and openness, such as closeted gays, opera liberated them, but also ultimately betrayed them, condemning the heroines with which they identified to tragic ends, reaffirming a morality ultimately.

However, while Koestenbaum contends that the opera queen is an increasingly rare species in the post Stonewall world, that the tragic campiness of the opera "addict" is dated, he in no way gives the impression that opera serves little function in a sexually open world. Instead, the relationship between song and the listener is put forth as a vastly complex set of responses that touch on all sorts of unexplored ambiguities in the human psyche.

Another important aspect of the opera queen's personal identity is, according to Koestenbaum, his choice of one diva, "to reign in the opera queen's heart." Koestenbaum's particular choice, Anna Moffo, is an interesting one, and reflects the sort of unquestioning love that characterizes the opera queen. The fact that Moffo is not uniformly respected as a great artist in all opera circles merely contributes to his sense on loyalty. It is the fallibility of the diva, the tension between her polished star exterior and the human being beneath, that ensures her appeal. Divas are subject as well to a society that views them as bizarre aberrations of nature, supernatural vocal powers; as Koestenbaum points out, the "velvet cord" that separated the diva from her richer and socially more elite audience in the 17th and 18th centuries still exists, albeit invisibly, and the diva's fame is hard-won and hard-kept once she is past her vocal prime.

One diva in particular, Maria Callas, is given an entire chapter. "The Callas Cult" discusses what Koestenbaum admits is a gay phenomenon much larger than that of the opera queen. Her life (more, specifically, her affair with Aristotle Onassis) assumed tabloid proportions; she was mainstream enough to be mentioned in Marilyn Monroe movies; and her personality, both bitchy and warm in practically the same instant, is well reputed. He life, in short, was an opera unto itself. In the interview, Koestenbaum agrees that the dead Callas seems even more of a cultural power than she did while she was alive, due to the explosive popularity of her recordings (both legal and pirated.) But, as he points out, she was "dead" long before her actual death--she had stopped singing and shut herself up in her apartment for years to nurse the broken heart betrayed by Onassis--and thus ensured her place as a tragic heroine.

How fitting (and in the eyes of many, predictable) that Tom Hanks in "Philadelphia" should be listening to Callas's voice as he seeks to express why opera means so much to him, a gay man dying of AIDS and bereft of his position in society. Koestenbaum is of the opinion that this scene serves to establish Hank's gay character, an effective use of opera in a "somewhat shlocky" film. Is Hank's character an opera queen ? Certainly not, according to Koestenbaum. No matter how much opera means in his life, "no opera queen's apartment is that organized" and "no opera queen would have opera on in the background", waiting to be turned up at the appropriate moment. Contrast this with Koestenbaum's explanation of feeling "object" before the "subject" of the soprano voice. Tom Hanks never loses center stage of Maria Callas. Were that to happen, his status as hero of the film might be in question; opera would serve no longer as one aspect of his gay personality but as a consuming addiction that stigmatized him.

Thus, the "Callas Cult" draws from a base much larger in the gay community than just opera queens, that of the professionals in smarmy suits, the successful businesspeople, etc. Koestenbaum, though claiming that his book is "an elegy to the opera queen," addresses the larger question of a universal appeal of opera to gays in general. His last chapter, entitled "A Pocket Guide to Queer Moment's in Opera," is a seemingly random (and highly personal) collection of instances in well-known operas that smack of ambiguity and promise beneath the surface.

Opera's ability to express that which can not be understood through other means is the factor which has ensured its survival as an art form to this day. To a society which stressed conformation, it spoke the language of individuality, and it exalted the aberrant. As our society becomes more secure in its heterogeneity, it is difficult to say if opera will find its cultural niche eroded. However, in The Queen's Throat, Wayne Koestenbaum seeks not to speculate on opera's future but to express the glory of opera's past and the drama of opera's present.