The most prestigious of musical forms, opera is also traditionally the most absurd, the most irrational. No musical dictionary could ever deal adequately with the nonsense of opera. It is true that other forms of musical activity—or of life in general—are equally shot through with absurdity: ridiculous jokes about violists and equally ridiculous but true stories about deranged conductors are a sufficient testimony. Nevertheless, in orchestral life competent violists are the rule rather than the exception, and rational conductors may be discovered, while a certain extravagant absurdity is inseparable from opera, and even helps to define it.
Opera ought not to be reasonable, and this expectation of essential lunacy governs the genre and regulates the behavior of everybody concerned with it. A soprano who does not give herself the comic airs of a prima donna betrays her public; an operatic director who does not add some irrelevant and distracting piece of stage business will be viewed with suspicion and probably set his career in jeopardy. I remember a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore in Naples, in which the tenor, unprepossessing musically as well as physically, finished a performance of “Di quella pira” by stepping forward to the front of the stage, facing his audience with a bold stare, and, after a deep breath, bellowing the unauthorized but frequently sung high C for no less than half a minute, to his own evident satisfaction and the delight of the public. This is a central aspect of operatic life with which The New Grove Dictionary of Opera does not attempt to deal, but it was an incredible moment that almost everybody had come to hear, and this wonderfully unmusical feat rejoiced their hearts. It was what opera was all about.
Certainly the most useful of all reference books on its subject to date, Grove’s Opera will give us the plots of all the operas about which one could be reasonably curious, but it will not tell us which Tosca, when throwing herself to her death off the Castel Sant’Angelo, bounced back above the battlements from the trampoline hidden beneath; or who was the first tenor to ask “When does the next swan leave?”; or which famous two-hundred-pound soprano has prudently written into her contract that no director can make her move or gesture if she doesn’t want to—and she generally doesn’t (one director solved the problem that he felt this seemed to present by having an entire production of Ernani take place in a dim penumbra in which one could only vaguely perceive the principal singers). Grove’s Opera will list the cast for the premiere of Salome, but will not divulge which great soprano made it clear that she wore no under-clothes during the Dance of the Seven Veils. Yet these are important issues in the economy of opera, and they help us to see why comparisons of the stars of opera with the great actors and actresses of the legitimate stage always seem oddly out of place, as if opera were not really a serious dramatic art; opera singers, however, are very like movie stars—at least, that is how they behave, how they are promoted, and how we think of them, even if they rarely look like movie stars.
The articles on individual operas are the glory of Grove’s Opera: no other dictionary of music has ever given so full an account of the libretto scene by scene, along with some details of each work’s conception and initial productions. There is, understandably, much less musical information than we found in the parent New Grove: I am not sure whether editor and subeditors of the Grove’s Opera consciously decided that opera buffs are less interested in music than the readers of the twenty-volume general work, but if so, they were probably right. Technical terms are largely avoided. Some of the writers, however, take pleasure in telling us what key different parts of the opera are in. This is, I believe, a British trait, and the opera volumes seem much less influenced by transatlantic musicology than the heavily Americanized general work.
Perhaps the British are proud of knowing what key a piece is in, a gift not granted to all scholars. In the article on Richard Strauss’s Elektra, David Murray writes: “The key declines to a curdled B flat minor, however, and the tempo to a dim, sluggish pulse, as [Elektra] calls upon her father…. ” “Her sister pleads her own tearful despair, in mellifluous E flat…. ” “Electra agrees that a sacrifice is justly required—at once the music pulls itself together in stark C minor…. ” “Brother and sister embrace, speechless; the music churns for a long time before reaching haven in soft, glowing A flat…. ” It is evident from a phrase or two in his other articles on Strauss that Murray has a genuine feeling for what large-scale key structure can effect, but he seems to have been constrained here to hold this understanding in check, and supply only picturesque detail.
Clive Allen, too, wants his readers to know the key of every number of Der Freischütz, but other authors do not feel obliged to offer even this much musical detail. Nevertheless, one should be grateful for the clarity with which the plots are recounted, and many readers will be pleased to discover at last what actually happens in Il Trovatore, about which Roger Parker writes appreciatively—although calling the duet of Manrico and Azucena at the beginning of the final scene “narcotic” will give the wrong idea to many readers.
A few of the articles on composers are held over from the parent dictionary, among them Friedrich Lippmann’s satisfying Bellini and Daniel Heartz’s very fine piece on the eighteenth-century composer Traetta, but most are newly written for the opera volumes. Richard Taruskin’s Mussorgsky has a special brilliance, Richard Osborne’s Rossini a special elegance, and Julian Rushton’s Mozart a special density (although his suggestion that Mozart could have ended the great sextet in Don Giovanni in a key other than E flat is not supported by any precedent in Mozart’s practice—and anyway, as the French say, if my aunt had them, she would be my uncle).
Some other entries are more controversial: Barry Millington’s Wagner is not as powerful a performance as Carl Dahlhaus’s was in the larger New Grove, although it is an excellent piece of work. He tends, however, to underplay much present critical work on Wagner and to overemphasize his own research, in particular the oddly British obsession with what key a piece is in. It is clear that Wagner used certain tonalities symbolically, but it is not so crucial an aspect of his art as this new dictionary makes out. Millington also finds it significant that the second scene of Das Rheingold begins in D flat major and that the last opera of this tetralogy, Die Götterdämmerung, ends in D flat major, but this has little to do with keys. The second scene of Das Rheingold begins with a vision of the newly built Valhalla, and the tetralogy ends with another vision of Valhalla in flames; the same leitmotif arrives in the same key. Nevertheless, this is not a framing device (and dismissing the E flat major of the opening scene of Das Rheingold as lying outside the form is unconvincing). In fact, the end of Götterdämmerung—in texture and orchestration as well as harmony, key, and motif—resembles, not the second scene, but the last scene of Das Rheingold, with the entry of the gods into Valhalla; and it is a dramatic effect, not a formal frame, to end both the first and last operas of the tetralogy in a similar way.
Only in Die Meistersinger and Parsifal is a whole opera by Wagner conceived as a completely closed tonal structure, and the third act of Parsifal is remarkable as a slow progression from B major back to the A flat major of the Prelude to the first act: the Prelude to the third act continually suggests B major while always falling into B flat minor, and the music resolves the ambiguity only with the straightforward B Major of the Good Friday Spell—even here, we can see that the role of tonality in Wagner is not that of a classical frame but of a process. Millington’s attempt to ascribe framing devices to Wagner obscures the energetic scene of harmonic movement, which is more significant.
Millington’s contention that the pedantic musical arbiter in Die Meistersinger, Beckmesser, was intended to be understood as a caricature of a Jew has received a good deal of attention, but it has only a little more than a grain of truth. His argument runs briefly as follows:
1) Wagner disliked Jews and claimed that Jewish composers wrote music with all sorts of unmusical characteristics.
2) Beckmesser is a bad musician whose music has similar characteristics.
3) Therefore Beckmesser is Jewish.
This is confirmed by an esoteric pun in Act One, referring to a Grimm fairy tale about a Jew, an allusion which nobody has detected before Millington.
The fact is, Millington is probably right about the pun, an example of Wagner’s disgusting anti-Semitic humor, and Beckmesser was originally intended as a caricature of the critic Edouard Hanslick, who had a Catholic father and a Jewish mother (it is, of course, the mother that counts). It is also evident, however, that no effort was made by Wagner to carry this anti-Semitic element any further in the opera as it stands; beyond the pun, which passed unnoticed, no pejorative allusion to Jews can be found elsewhere in the work. Hans Sachs’s final aria in praise of pure German art, which will protect German cultural identity even when Germany is conquered by foreign troops, is directed against the French: not even Wagner’s paranoia dreamed up an occupying army of Jews. Millington’s supposition that-Beckmesser’s serenade is a parody of Jewish cantorial style is unconvincing, and Wagner does not try to make Beckmesser sound Jewish, as he does with Mime, the greedy, timorous dwarf in Siegfried (as others have observed, here is where Wagner’s anti-Semitism has genuine musical expression).
The extent to which Millington’s research has run away with him can be seen when he writes:
The irregular phrase lengths, false accentuations and disorderly progress of the Serenade depict Beckmesser’s agitation and supposed artistic sterility, and should not be regarded as symptomatic of an “advanced” musical style.
“Supposed artistic sterility?” Millington is so carried away with his vision of Beckmesser as a persecuted Jew that he ends up by thinking of him as a real person, not as a character created by Wagner, and imagines that Wagner is wrongfully denying creative powers to a real musician. But Beckmesser is a fiction, a wicked, bigoted critic in an opera, and he is what Wagner made him. His serenade, however, is a miracle of invention: it is stupid, awkward, and bad, but like Mozart’s “Musical Joke” it is fascinating and a delight to listen to; it seems to predict a style of music which escapes the norms of Wagner’s age, just as the whole tone scale in Mozart’s violin cadenza in the “Joke” foreshadows a new music while it makes fun of a violinist with intonation problems. And Wagner himself is swept away with enthusiasm for the serenade and bases the entire finale of the second act on it, a finale which is his greatest ensemble.
I have not attacked Millington’s exaggeration in order to depreciate his research, which is important, but because I believe that the overemphasis is bound to have fearsome consequences. I foresee the mad glint in the eye of some stage director demanding that the part of Beckmesser be modeled on Fagin in Oliver Twist, and then it will inevitably be only a short step to a production centered upon the rehabilitation of Beckmesser as the oppressed Jew, undeservedly mocked and reviled by the proto-Nazi populace of Nuremberg.
Most of the articles on individual composers, including Millington’s, are, like the articles on individual operas, strong and very satisfactory if rarely original or provocative, but the general articles are, sadly, more uneven. Aria, for example, has four authors (with help parenthetically indicated from three more). The first part, on the seventeenth century, is an antique relic by Jack Westrup preserved from the earlier dictionary. The eighteenth century, however, is treated with up-to-date brilliance by Marita P. McClymonds, who provides a clear and useful summary of all the different aria forms and a wonderful fund of information in an elaborate and readable essay. On the nineteenth century, Julian Budden is more perfunctory: although the aria forms of Rossimi, Bellini, Verdi, and Meyerbeer are as conventional as the eighteenth-century patterns, if not more so, we are given little help toward comprehending them. We could all use that help: in Roger Parker’s otherwise splendid article on Verdi, he writes
[Verdi] was occasionally encouraged by the dramatic situation to construct lyric movements of extreme formal simplicity. The final section of the Aida-Radames duet (Aida Act IV) is a most telling example. This passage, first sung by Aida, is repeated literally by Radames and then repeated again by both characters in unison.
This is, however, not an original construction of Verdi, but a return to an exceedingly common pattern for the cabaletta (or final section) of a duet, found many times in Bellini and others. It is not the extreme formal simplicity which is particularly remarkable here, as that is rather the rule than the exception in cabalettas, but the intensity of Verdi’s melody, and the use of a slow lyrical cabaletta in place of the usual brilliant coloratura. (In his article on Verdi, Parker actually describes the nineteenth-century aria with greater detail and accuracy than the article on Aria does.) After Budden’s contribution to the discussion of aria, Andrew Clements then dismisses the twentieth century in two paragraphs. The entire entry is a patchwork affair, in which any editorial concern for consistency is missing.
We might have expected more care in an article as important as Aria for a dictionary of opera. There are, however, many fine and many extraordinary general entries, and I enjoyed Piero Weiss on Opera Buffa and Will Crutchfield on Ornamentation. The latter is full of good things, but I would have liked some indication of how ornamentation changed between Mozart and Rossini, and above all between Rossini and Bellini. Certain ornamental practices continue beyond their usefulness or their relevance; the study of performance practice needs to become more critical, and take account of the difficulty that performers and singers have in adapting themselves to changes of style, and we must guard against the fallacy of thinking that if a certain musical practice (like adding Rossinian ornaments) did not die out, it was therefore appropriate.
The entries on singers (and there are thousands of them) are less useful than they might have been because of the refusal of the editors to include even a selected discography. Occasionally a record is mentioned in the text, but there is no systematic policy; this is like writing about a composer with only an incidental and passing mention of any of his works. (Apropos, the entry on Der Rosenkavalier praises the Schwartzkopf-Karajan recording, but passes in silence over the great early set with Lotte Lehmann, Elisabeth Schumann, and Richard Mayr, which is musically more distinguished, and famous as one of the milestones of opera recording.) The entries on singers are largely uncritical, but they will come in handy if you want to settle a bet about, say, where Rosa Ponselle was born.
The entries on historians of opera are almost equally uninformative unless the writer has been dead for more than a century. We are told, for example, something about the ideas of Francesco Algarotti, who was much admired by Frederick the Great and by Lady Mary Montagu. About Hermann Abert, however, we learn only that he wrote important books on Mozart and Gluck but not why they were important, and the bibliography of his writings lists his editing of operas by Gluck and Jomelli, but fails to mention his edition of The Marriage of Figaro, although his preface to that is one of the finest things ever written about the opera, with a brilliant discussion of the structure of Mozart’s finales. We are told that Joseph Kerman wrote a provocative book about opera, but not why it was provocative: perhaps one of the editors of the dictionary would have enjoyed reading it, and could have added one or two sentences about the nature and tendencies of Kerman’s thought. As it stands, the dictionary lumps together a few dozen original thinkers and many hundreds of professional hacks in a gray uniformity.
Cross references are capricious: the entry for Nietzsche quotes some of the things he had to say about Carmen, but the account of that opera does not refer us to it; nor does it list Nietzsche in the bibliography. On the other hand, the article on Don Giovanni informs us that Kierkegaard derived his ideas on that opera from the music rather than the libretto, but it does not tell us what those ideas were. Furthermore, it does not give us a crossreference to Kierkegaard, presumably because there is no article on Kierkegaard.
The gaping void at the heart of The New Grove Dictionary of Opera is the absence of an article on Singing. The editor-in-chief, Stanley Sadie, puts a brave face on this, remarking in the preface that the twenty-volume New Grove Dictionary of Music had no article on “Music.” I am told that committing the first crime makes the next ones easier. In place of a proper article on. Singing there is an enormous bibliography. You may well imagine that a simple list of books that takes up sixty pages of small print contains a lot of junk alongside the few interesting and important items; and since the list is absolutely uncritical, no commentary or guidance is offered.
The result is that the history of singing is badly represented in Grove’s Opera, in spite of a large number of articles on particular aspects of the subject. One example may show what is missing: there is no entry for spianato, a particular style of vocal production in which the voice floats evenly and expressively over the accompaniment. This is a term used in a well-known letter of Mozart to his father, written when he was rehearsing I domeneo, when the superannuated tenor who sang the title role complained about the great quartet (which was Mozart’s favorite number in the opera) that he could not spianare la voce—that is, show off the evenness and beauty of his voice. Mozart was indignant: that was not the proper way to sing in an ensemble, which had to be executed parlando—that is, with a speaking style. Spianato, a term also used by Chopin and by Saint-Saens as well as by nineteenth-century writers on vocalism, is to be contrasted not only with the speaking style, but also with the fioriture, or virtuoso passagework. An operatic term like spianato needed by Mozart and Chopin should not have been omitted. This would not have escaped the editors of Grove’s Opera if they had tried to represent the history of singing in a general way: a reaction away from Rossinian coloratura had a momentary success in the 1820s with Bellini, and profoundly influenced future vocal styles, including Wagner’s.
With all its deficiencies—and what enterprise of this magnitude would not have as many—the new dictionary is a remarkable achievement; it gives pleasure as well as enlightenment. What it mainly lacks is a sense of history: the nonarticle on singing is symptomatic. Even the entry entitled “Opera” has only a thin sense of historical development. Perhaps a sense of reality would be a better term for what is missing, as the lack of any responsible discography indicates. The world of opera, as it must face today’s economic problems, depends on recordings. In the dictionary, opera comes out as a respectable but abstract genre, the various facets of which are treated as if they were synchronic. It must be admitted that a dictionary is forced to classify, to assume fixed meanings where there is very often nothing but a wavering series of associations that changes with every decade. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that the extravagant reality of opera does not break in more often.
Opera is clearly a disreputable or droll form throughout most of its history—from the eighteenth century, when members of the audience played cards or chess during the recitatives, to the nineteenth, when enormously fat sopranos impersonated heroines in the final stages of tuberculosis, and to the twentieth, when Rhine maidens who had to appear as if swimming under water were sometimes suspended upside down by mistake, or when famous nearsighted tenors have peered anxiously about the stage trying to find the heroine.
The ideal of opera, the way it attains a vision of the sublime, cannot be disengaged from its grossly physical side, and this interdependence is realized intensely in the poet Wayne Koestenbaum’s personal celebration of homosexuality and opera. The discovery of his own homosexuality and of his obsession with opera are so inextricably tangled together that it is not always clear which he is writing about. Half autobiography, half essay or fragmentary meditation on the mythical figure of the diva, this book might seem at first sight to tell us less about opera in general and more about Wayne Koestenbaum, whose photograph boyishly solicits our gaze from the inner back flyleaf. In fact, The Queen’s Throat obliquely and sometimes even directly engages some aspects of the history of opera that are often passed over too lightly.
The camp taste for opera, the homosexual cult of the diva, is very much a product of our century, like the gay interest in the ballet. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ballet attracted the interest principally of the heterosexual male. It was fashionable to have a ballet dancer as a mistress, and the male dancer received relatively little attention before the arrival of Diaghilev early in the twentieth century, when Nijinsky and, later, Massine became stars whose fame rivaled and even surpassed that of Pavlova. Opera, it is true, was sexually more ambiguous from the beginning, particularly in the early eighteenth century when almost all the heroic male roles were written either for castrato or for female soprano, but—as far as I can gather from very limited reading—the castrato attracted much more sexual interest from women than from men. Although the last role written for the castrato voice was in Meyerbeer’s The Crusader in Egypt of 1821, heroic male roles for women’s voices continued to be written for a few years more, above all the Romeo of Bellini’s I Capuletti ed i Montecchi.
If there was no specific homosexual interest in ballet or opera at that time, that is because there was no specific homosexual society or culture. In the Old Testament, the Sodomites may have been considered a race apart, but from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century, homosexuality was a vice open to everybody, sometimes harshly repressed, sometimes tolerated or ignored, but never presented as an exclusive way of life. In sixteenth-century Florence, for example, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote amusingly and maliciously of his friends cruising for boys by the River Arno, but they all seemed to be ready as well for encounters with women at other moments. His contemporary Pietro Aretino, in that stylish masterpiece of pornography The Conversations (I Raggionamenti), constructs an elaborate and improbable scene in which an abbot dallies with a girl with one hand and a boy with the other while simultaneously screwing a nun and being sodomized by a novice priest (all their simultaneous cries of delight skillfully orchestrated by the author). Very little precedence is given here to either straight or queer sex, although heterosexuality understandably takes up most of the space in these dialogues. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, homosexuality is treated generally either as an overflow of sexual vitality or as an extra delight in sin and evil. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Earl of Rochester, undoubtedly heterosexual, writes of buggering his page when there is nothing better at hand: we need not take this as autobiographical, but as a commonplace of the libertine poetry of the time.
No doubt there were always those who preferred their own sex, like the satiric poet Boisrobert at the court of Louis XIII of France, but he is amiably described by the gossip-writer Tallemant des Réaux as an eccentric, not as a member of a special sect. There was always a certain contempt and pity for a man who could not perform properly with a woman, and Alexander Pope’s remark to Joseph Spence that both of the famous essayists Addison and Steele were “hermaphrodites” (that is, homosexuals) is an example of eighteenth-century homophobia (“I am sorry to say so,” Pope added, “and there are not twelve people in the world that I would say it to at all”—a statement that wonderfully dispenses tolerance, sympathy, and malice in equal parts). The use of a word like “hermaphrodite” reveals that the possibility of setting homosexuals apart almost as a separate race was always latent. Nevertheless, homosexuality was generally conceived, not as a propensity, but as an addiction: evil, disgusting, interesting, amusing, or even idealistic, depending upon the viewpoint.
Not until the later nineteenth century does homosexuality have a cultural ideology of its own, mocked by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience and exploding into scandal in 1889 with the affair of the Cleveland Street brothel, and then the trial of Oscar Wilde. The homosexual as a being apart, alienated from normal society and identifiable by the connoisseur’s eyes through the subtle traces of effeminacy in his anatomy and his comportment, is introduced with a brilliant fanfare at the opening of Proust’s fourth volume, Sodome et Gomorrhe. For the first time, we have a gay culture and a gay society.
In his meditation on the diva, Koestenbaum writes:
By the twentieth century, homosexuality already meant more than just sex acts or desires shared by bodies of the same gender. It implied a milieu and a personality—flamboyant, narcissistic, self-divided, grandiose, excessive, devoted to decor. These stereotypes have shaped behavior, and have been reinforced by gay people when they have made the transition from enduring their preference, to choosing it.
These stereotypes, however, were certainly reinforced by constraint as well as by choice, and the milieu and personality are only one kind of fictional mask out of many possibilities. What, after all, has the opera queen to do with the mustachioed clones in blue jeans, the leather and motorcycle freaks, the yearning subscribers to pedophile magazines, the marine who longs for a blow-job from a transvestite, the happily married businessman who needs a regular escape from straight sex, the pale graduate student dreaming about freshmen in his lonely bed, or even the cultured yuppie lawyer who keeps house with a young musician? Like opera itself, the opera queen is a remarkably artificial, specialized creation.
In his chapter on The Codes of Diva Conduct, Koestenbaum calls up the monumental figure of Mae West:
Legend has it that Frank O’Hara called Mae West the inventor of, “small-town faggot psychology.” Mae West was not an opera singer, but she thought like one. She pontificated: “Personality is the most important thing to an actress’s success. You can sing like Flagstad or dance like Pavlova or act like Bernhardt, but if you haven’t personality you will never be a real star.”
Unfortunately, Koestenbaum never pursues Mae West’s implicit comparison of herself to the diva, and does not call up the equally illuminating camp adulation of Bette Davis.
In an age which had already formed an anorexic ideal of woman with a boyish figure and no hips, Mae West displayed a generous mass of pulchritude. This mass, however, was held in check, never allowed to overflow its boundaries. Firmly corsetted with the strength of armor plate, with never a hair or a sequin out of place, Mae West was as stately as a battle-ship. The flesh never asserted its grossness; she appeared at her most typical as a tableau vivant of the Statue of Liberty. She was an abstract of female sexuality: no one afraid of real physical contact with a woman was made in the least nervous by Mae West. Her famous sexual innuendoes were at once provocative and innocent, never disquieting. She offered no passion, only invitation, and rarely expressed any emotion beyond mild amusement. Someone once said that she was the greatest female impersonator of all time.
The grossness of the real world entered the picture with the men that surrounded her. As the camera panned out over the audience that applauded her singing, it revealed, not a crowd of handsome young males or even the muscle-men that so frequently surrounded her in real life off the screen, but an ordinary collection of middle-aged and elderly lechers, their faces transfigured with admiration. As a lion tamer in I’m No Angel, she opens a large trunk of equipment, and we see, pasted to the inside of the lid, the snapshots of her many onenight stands, balding, unattractive traveling-salesman types. The contrast brought out her glamour, and the tension between the tawdry surroundings and her idealized corsetted shape was always a source of comedy. She played an artificial, forever unalterable, vision of sex, plunged into the reality of everyday life.
The diva, like Mae West, presents an erotic charge with no sexual threat. The erotic interest is in the voice; sensuality pours from her throat. Even if she is physically attractive—which may happen, although rarely—that is irrelevant to the opera queen. On the contrary, the intrusion of the physical spectacle of an unattractive diva actually makes the erotic purity of the vocal line more manifest, more palpable.
In Now, Voyager, the most powerful as well as the trashiest of her important films, Bette Davis plays a dumpy, overweight, neurotic Boston virgin. Emboldened by psychiatrist Claude Raines, she goes on a cruise, falls in love, and, like Maria Callas, at once loses all her unwanted pounds. However, the man she wants is unattainable (for complex and not very interesting reasons), and she has to renounce sex for the rest of her life and sacrifice herself by raising the daughter he has had with another woman. Unlike Mae West Bette Davis presents the disorderly reality of sexual desire, but like the homosexual, either she is frustrated, or society takes revenge on her for her wicked libido. Her sexual menace is neutralized in Jezebel, where only if she nurses the sick can she offset the sexual depravity of appearing in a red dress at a ball where the girls with a normal sex drive wore white.
Both Mae West and Bette Davis play outsiders who flaunt the differences of their sexuality from the norms that society tries to impose, and they do so as flamboyantly as any opera queen. The homosexual finds release from his inner tensions in the violence of Bette Davis’s expression of feminine rage, and he identifies with her frustrations. The coarseness of Mae West’s verbal comedy, combined with the way her appearance both represents and distances an erotic invitation at the same time, allows the homosexual to approach female sexuality without fear of aggression. The cult of the diva offers him similar and even greater freedom. The opera queen may admire tenors, but like Koestenbaum it is only sopranos that he idolizes. The diva helps him escape the shame with which society has characterized his inadequate response to the female anatomy. At last he can find genuine passion for a woman, not merely as a mother or as a nanny, but as an erotic object, for the sexuality embodied—or disembodied—in her voice.
For this purpose, the physical absurdity of opera is crucial, an absurdity that the finest of stage directors and the most graceful of singers can mitigate but can never entirely dispel. A small number of famous sopranos are indeed attractive, generally the ones who sing the lighter parts, but few of them look appealing with their mouths wide open. However, the spectacle of Tristan and Isolde trying to embrace but too fat to get their arms conveniently about each other does not lessen the emotional power of the love duet for the opera buff, or for that suborder of the opera buff, the opera queen. The voice not the physical frame in which it is merely lodged, is the center of excitement. Perhaps this is why a certain element of bad taste is essential for the opera queen: a preference for Lucia di Lammermoor over Norma, or even an eager tolerance of the second-rate soprano (Koestenbaum has written poems to Anna Moffo), allows homosexual pathos more space, more room to expand.
The figure of Maria Callas is central to the mythology of the opera queen, and Koestenbaum devotes a whole chapter to her:
We love Callas because she revised her body. In three years she dropped from 210 pounds to 144, and changed from ugly duckling to glamour queen. Bodies can’t always be altered, but Callas’s self-revision, like a sex change, makes us believe in the power of wish.
He writes well about her faults and her self-discipline. He does not sufficiently acknowledge her purely musical intelligence, or remark about what two conductors have told me—that she had an uncanny ability to take account of the orchestra and alter the timbre of her notes according to the accompanying harmony. But, then, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera does not tell us that either. I heard Callas sing in public only twice, and she was still fat: her worst vocal problems were not yet troublesome, her stage presence was dramatic, and her weight did not matter. The work was Norma at the Rome Opera, and it was the only time I have ever gone to the same opera twice in one week. With all her faults, she revealed Bellini with all his faults as a great composer.
At one point, Koestenbaum reaches a profound observation that transcends both Callas and her relation to the homosexual fan. It applies, however, beyond the limited range that he intended:
When we value Callas for creating a revolution in operatic performance practice, for singing neglected Bellini and Donizetti operas as if they were tragic vehicles of undiminished power, we are valuing her for opening up the opera box, the closed space of a genre that never seemed to let us in or to let our meanings out. And yet, ironically, her revitalizations of dismissed bel canto operas only emphasized opera’s moribund nature….
Anachronism was one aspect of opera that long ago opened it to gay appropriation; opera seemed campy and therefore available to gay audiences only when it had become an outdated art form, sung in foreign languages, with confused, implausible plots. Opera’s apparent distance from contemporary life made it a refuge for gays, who were creations of modern sexual systems, and yet whom society could not acknowledge or accommodate. Opera is not very real. But gayness has never been admitted into the precincts of reality. And so gays may seek out art that does not respect the genuine.
Superficially, Maria Callas took away opera’s campiness by making it believable and vivid. And yet by importing truth into opera, an art of the false, she gave the gay fan a dissonance to match his own. Bestowing verisimilitude on Lucia or Norma or Elvira, Callas perforated the operagoer’s complacency; her voice and her presence, arsenals of depth, when brought to bear on music that had become superficial, upset the audience’s sense of perspective. Though it seems sacrilegious to call Callas’s musically compelling creations camp, she performed the same kind of reversal that camp induces: she shattered the codes that separate dead from living works of art…. Callas “camped” Lucia not by mocking it (Lucia is too easy to mock) but by taking it seriously. Resuscitating Lucia, Callas challenged our belief that history’s movement is linear, that there is a difference between past and present, and that modern reality is real.
The last phrase comes too easily, but it is true that there is a distance between opera and modern life, and that this distance imposes a form of alienation on the spectator.
This alienation, however, is inseparable from opera since its invention; it was at first intended, after all, as the revival of sung Greek classical tragedy. It was always distant from modern life, critics always complained about its confused, implausible plots, and in eighteenth-century London and Vienna—and often in Paris as well—it was generally sung in a foreign language unintelligible to the public. It was not opera that had become so dated, so artificial that it could bring gays a “matching dissonance,” an analogue in music for their supposedly artificial, unnatural lives. Opera has always been artificial, and great artists have performed the miracle of making it seem natural. It was the construction of “gay consciousness,” the fiction of a “gay community” that created from their lives a metaphor for opera and a public that believed it could recognize itself in these masterpieces from the past.
The extraordinary aptness of the new alliance came from opera’s imposition of an eroticism of the most powerful nature, but an eroticism in which the body strangely counted for almost nothing. In most cultures the erotic has always been a source of shame, the body a source of disgust—perhaps most of all for the homosexual who has had to outface shame and disgust so often and from so many. Through his worship of the diva, the homosexual discovered what seems to be a way of sexually rejoining the heterosexual community—in its way, as much a fiction or an illusion as the gay community. It is the erotic power of music, which achieves its most obvious effects in opera, that presents the listeners with both a momentary release from anxiety and a transient sense of ecstasy.
Of all the arts, music works most directly on the nerves, seemingly unfiltered through a system of meaning. In the opera, music does not come to us through the words: the words arrive through the music and sometimes give it greater force: in most operas the force of love. Provided that the staging does not distract or force itself too insistently upon our unwilling consciousness, the music benefits from the bright contrast with the dumpy, sweaty bodies that are producing it—it is like sex without shame or physical awkwardness or postcoital sadness, not as good as the real thing, of course, but still a great consolation.
This is the side of opera from which The New Grove Dictionary of Opera modestly averts its eyes. There is no article on Eroticism and Opera. Why not? There is one on Milwaukee. This is why the entry on Tristan und Isolde, except for the banal observation that the love duet ends with coitus interruptus, does not face the sexual implications of the score, or the way it is almost always Isolde who is on top, so to speak—playing the man’s role, when she stands with the sword raised over Tristan’s wounded body as her narrative recalls in the first act, or seizes the only too obvious symbol of the torch in the second act to brandish it and bring on the catastrophe. It is also why there is no article on Kierkegaard, who wrote more explicitly than anyone before him on the erotic nature of music, and who understood the character of Mozart’s art better than most of the critics who came after. The basis of opera speciously appears to be an opposition between the ideal purity of the music and the gritty reality needed to produce it, the silly costumes, the ridiculous plots, the embarrassing decor: but the music hides within itself a reality fully as abrasive, equally physical.
April 22, 1993