The Phantoms of Opera's Divas


The Queen's Throat: Opera,

Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire

by Wayne Koestenbaum

Vintage Paperback

271 pp.


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.