The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire. A collection of fragments by Wayne Koestenbaum. Vintage Books (Random House), $12. ISBN 0-679-74985-3 (paperback).

When I opened this book, I expected a gay equivalent of Catherine Clément's feminist interpretation/deconstruction of opera (Opera, or the Undoing of Women). In her work, Clément argued that, although opera reinforces the status quo and invariably punishes female characters (whether they transgress or not) with death or domestication, it can also be deeply subversive, especially when the music and the text tell different "stories". She placed most standard repertory operas within wide cultural, historical, political contexts and, despite her extreme ambivalence towards opera, managed to convey the sublimity and power of the genre.

Wayne Koestenbaum's book has some similarities with that of Clément: Both are written at high pitch (another critic referred to The Queen's Throat as "insightfully hysterical"); both present extremely personalized views, despite their sweeping generalizations; the two authors are clearly learned in both literature and music, intellectuals and denizens of academia; they both touch on opera's hybrid and therefore suspect/marginal status as well as on the crippling, contradictory demands placed on divas in their private and professional lives.

However, the differences between the books are deep and crucial, in form, content and viewpoint. To put it succinctly, whereas Clément's book is swashbuckling and ends in affirmation and reclamation of opera by the other half of humanity, Koestenbaum's book suffers from the illnesses endemic to contemporary mainstream Western literature -- a victim mentality, trivialization and terminal malaise.

By bravely emphasizing his gayness, Koestenbaum preemptively silences many potential criticisms: To react negatively would be homophobic or, at the very least, unkind, given the persecution and discrimination that gays have endured. However, vulnerability and erudition are insufficient for transmission of ideas. Although he unquestionably knows and loves his subject, he manages to make it joyless without rendering it more accessible. The book cannot be followed at all if the reader does not have a detailed knowledge not merely of opera, but of its associated backstage lore as well. The text is laborious even to one familiar with opera, because the collection is a jumble of disconnected fragments. Some chapters have already been published as independent units; no attempt has been made at transition, perhaps in homage to and imitation of one of the author's diva idols, Callas, who did not bother to hide the breaks between registers. Furthermore, he has presented opera stripped of any context except his own experience and sensibility, perhaps to be in stride with current deconstructionist fashions. The voice is breezy and articulate, yet oddly detached and brittle.

Although the author ostensibly centers his analysis on the ambiguous figure of the diva, his real subject (object?) is the opera fan, in his text explicitly a gay male. It is interesting that this book has emerged almost simultaneously with two films that explore a similar theme, woman-as-construct and the appropration of this figurehead by gay men (M. Butterfly and Farewell, My Concubine). Divas are real women but become both more and less so by the inhuman discipline their craft requires and the semi-divine status their admirers bestow upon them, with its concommitant danger of theophagy. Female impersonators (like those in the two films mentioned above) resemble divas in that they project and embody an idealized, unattainable quintessence of femininity. It is the inevitable decline and fall of a diva -- the increasingly pathetic comebacks -- rather than her talent, that seem to claim the particular adoration of her gay fans. There is pathos and grandeur in the idol/devotee configuration, but also fathomless depths of self-hatred and contempt for the idealized female; such fixations have always disempowered women.

The connection of opera to homosexuality has been long and well known, given the phenomenon of the castrato and the various historical prohibitions against women on stage. The aura of the forbidden that hovers around opera and its perceived orgiastic excesses has been a staple theme of literature, although it is not exclusively used to denote socially condemned sexual proclivities; equally often it represents sensitivity, emotional vulnerability or decadence. Whereas Clément's work shows that opera can be induced to yield more flexible and inclusive archetypes, Koestenbaum actually reinforces stereotypes of both homo- and heterosexuals. Claiming selectively parts of both maistream and alternative cultures (gay, but still with most of the traditional male privileges), he consistently glorifies the most banal aspects of the genre which, as is often the case, happen to also be its most pernicious. His symbolism is overburdened and overwrought: there is no hidden meaning or dangerous attraction in the spindle hole of an LP record, and phonograph boxes are not vaginas. He provides no fresh insights by invoking cliches to show connections of opera to gay culture -- the demonization of artists, performers in particular, by middle class society; the homoerotic undertones in several operas; the token heroine and the diva that interprets the role as queen bee or fag hag; the union of librettist and composer, traditionally both male, in a metaphorical homosexual marriage.

Particularly problematic is his gender assignation to the two opera strands (music=emotion=female, text=reason=male). Such classification is artificial and arbitrary: in ideal opera performance, just as in bel canto and folk singing, words and music are fused. By hyperpolarizing and atomizing opera experience, by imprisoning the gay fan in a deserted, sealed room with a phonograph, he has denuded opera of any collective resonance; he essentially concludes that we each are microcultures incapable of communication or cross-pollination. Persecuted minorities of all categories (religious, political, sexual) often further ghettoize and weaken themselves by internal policing and imposition of rigid, restrictive behavior patterns, whether politically correct or defiantly "incorrect". The author is doing a disservice to his fellow opera-lovers, queens or otherwise, by decreeing that passivity, silence and unrequited adoration is their proper demeanor -- incidentally, the traditional command to women. He would do better to exhort them, as William Shatner did for obsessed StarTrek fans on Saturday Night Live (an appropriate forum), to "Get a life!"

Copyright © 1998 Athena Andreadis

  click here for more writings