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Phantoms of the Opera : THE QUEEN'S THROAT: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire By Wayne Koestenbaum : (Simon & Schuster: $22; 241 pp.)

March 28, 1993|LAWRENCE CHUA | Chua is the managing editor of BOMB magazine and a contributor to Crossroads, a weekly NPR newsmagazine

Locked behind bars for a dispute with operatic management, diva Madeleine Guimard assured her maid: "Never mind, I have written to the Queen to tell her that I have discovered a new style of coiffure. We shall be free before the evening." Only a diva, notes Wayne Koestenbaum in his insightfully hysterical book, "The Queen's Throat," would have such airy access to freedom. The same privileges, meanwhile, have long eluded the diva's gay male aficionados, struggling with their own containment and isolation.

To observe that gay white men have an affinity for the pomp and drama of the opera is to consider the plainest bromide. Yet there has been a marked absence of discourse surrounding this axis. Self-described opera queen and Ivy League English professor Koestenbaum suggests that part of that silence has to do with a social distrust of the opera queen, who, "listening to Callas, is as removed from actuality and as enamored of 'mere' images as the 'lonely' gay man flipping through Mandate."

Set apart from the queer congregation of streamlined musculature, the opera queen, clinging to his pristine recording of "Tosca," is overwrought and overweight. ("No fats, femmes or opera queens," goes the tiresome litany of contemporary gay desire.) In a decade of representational war, he is the confirmation of the most unimaginative stereotypes. Yet Koestenbaum champions his passion as the art form of the marginal and its transgression.

Not so much a mirror of social reality, opera has been, rather, a place where gay identity itself has been written. Even as you read this, gay men are busy defining themselves by imitating proud and tragic divas. And, as Koestenbaum observes, the category of homosexuality is only as old as recorded sound. "A voice is like a dress; playing a record is sonic drag."

In this fragmented collection of observations on sexual identity and the opera, Koestenbaum is prone to such sweeping, but droll, generalizations and even more kinetic free association ("Vibrato was a kind of limpness, like a wrist"). His style mimics the grandiose cadence of the diva herself. Its meditative discourse brings to mind Adrienne Kennedy's "People Who Led to My Plays."

Koestenbaum's earliest recollections of sexuality begin with the camp spectacles of musical culture. He graduates from early infatuations with original cast albums to the Richmond/London budget set of "Carmen" (arguably the worst version on record, according to one guide). Later he learns, from listening to the rich, disembodied voices pouring from the grooves, about "singing in the dark, singing without a body, singing from an erased, invisible place in the universe."

These days, Koestenbaum admits, he doesn't attend the opera often, opting instead to imagine it at home, out of the public glare. Researching back issues of "Opera News," Koestenbaum finds its pages obsessed with the "shut-in." Just as queer meanings are "shut in" to opera, codified and obscured, the fan is "shut in" because of his closeted desires, jailed by an identity society defines as sickness.

In the dun moments of AIDS and the sparkling activism it's inspired, the opera queen, awed into silence by the dulcet tension of Maria Callas, is an image of disability and collusion. Koestenbaum draws parallels between opera's deadly effect on Callas (the myth goes that when she lost her operatic command, she lost her life) and the opera queen. "In the brutal, intoxicating dream of opera which framed the life of Maria Callas and the lives of countless opera queens, the gate to opera is guarded by twin thugs, Death and Silence."

Opera has always seemed a daunting, exclusive experience, and the fact has not escaped Koestenbaum's attentions. Operatic tradition in the West has long been the site of European cultural arrogance, and early in "The Queen's Throat," Koestenbaum identifies his displeasure at its association with white privilege. Yet, there is little critical examination of Wagner's appropriation by the Third Reich, or the racist content of spectacles like "Madama Butterfly." Koestenbaum imagines that his ecstatic experience of the opera overshadows its often reactionary involvement.

Even at his most lyrically contemplative, Koestenbaum can draw links that seem too fragile. Always amusing, he is often not to be believed for a second ("Opera has the power to warn you that you have wasted your life"). The most intuitive moments of "The Queen's Throat" are when Koestenbaum regards opera's grand diva not as human being but as a phenomenon appropriated by gay white culture.

Although the traditional operatic diva is a white icon, divas have long been linked to "racial otherness, darkness, exoticism and 'blood.' " Carmen's fiery temperament is attributed to her "Latin blood." Marian Anderson, the first African-American woman to sing a leading role, was often described as having a "Negroid sound." Singers are told to avoid "white" tones, to make them darker.

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