The secret life of an opera queen

Monday Book Reviews

March 07, 1994|By Glenn McNatt

THE QUEEN'S THROAT: OPERA, HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE MYSTERY OF DESIRE. By Wayne Koestenbaum. Poseidon Press. 271 pages. $12.

WAYNE Koestenbaum, a professor of English at Yale University, openly describes himself as an "opera queen" -- a gay man who loves opera.

His choice of subject is startling, however, only because he dispenses with the genteel fiction that opera's affinity to homosexuality is merely coincidental.

On the contrary, Mr. Koestenbaum asserts, gay men are attracted to opera precisely because its extravagant displays of emotion and willfulness express a secret realm of feeling denied them in the straight world.

"The Queen's Throat" is an example of a relatively new genre, the coming-out-of-the-closet confessional, the I'll-out-myself book, in which the author employs his ostensible subject to explore the psycho-sexual economy of gay existence.

Like more familiar ritualized "others" -- the Jew, the Third World colonial subject, the African-American -- the gay man exists as a permanent outsider. No matter how hard he tries, he can never fulfill a restricted ideal of manliness.

The Jew, the colonized, the black ultimately find personal authenticity in embracing their own otherness. The despised Third World wretched of the earth who trade suit and tie for Kalishnikovs share with the gay man who "outs" himself a liberating and violent rejection of pretense.

How ironic, then, that opera should be the vehicle for Mr. Koestenbaum's exploration of gay self-realization. Opera is nothing if not artifice and illusion. It thrives on the surreal premise that people naturally communicate through song rather than the spoken word.

Since opera only makes sense as a form of symbolic action operating on the subconscious, Mr. Koestenbaum's approach is elliptical and suggestive rather than analytical.

He tells us, for example, that he awoke to opera only gradually and that the progress of his passion for it paralleled his growing awareness of his own sexuality. Eventually he came to love its outrageous divas and pampered prima donnas because their extravagant disdain for convention seemed to him the only honorable defense against the straight world's rigid gender definitions and overwhelming pressure to conform.

Here's a quick definition of opera: Opera is what happens when the baritone tells the soprano she can't make love to the tenor. If she tries and succeeds, it's a comedy; if not, it's tragedy.

Opera is about the tensions between the soul's longing and the social contracts that forbid its fulfilment. This is also the predicament of the gay man. In the extravagant passions of opera he finds a mirror to his own discontents.

Loving opera may be viewed a form of gay militancy, but it is also a secret conspiracy. The gay man who hates the life of pretense he is forced to lead loves that which most glorifies pretense and unreality.

This is the paradox of the "opera queen," who finds his own authenticity in opera's voluptuous yet wholely illusory surrender to the pains of love.

Because most opera is sung in a foreign tongue, it lends itself to the cult of esoterica. Its devotees immediately recognize its panorama of grand passions and larger-than-life personalities. Opera's romantic heroines -- Aida, Violetta, Cio Cio San, Lucia -- emerge from the diva's throat as vivid, beloved presences.

But to everyone else opera is annoyingly opaque. What's the fuss about? they demand. Thus opera reverses the roles of "insider" and "outsider." For once, the gay opera fan finds himself among the elect, an "insider" as opposed to the non-comprehenders whose ignorance makes them the "other." Snobbery is the opera queen's sweet revenge.

Opera permits the gay man to step across the secret divide and stand on the other side, if only for the few hours a performance lasts. In that precious interval the roles are reversed, and he can revel in his secret rather than be shamed by it. It is a moment of epiphany, to be savored like an anonymous tryst or a reunion among spies.

Mr. Koestenbaum has produced a beautifully written, richly nuanced book that is part memoir, part confession and part manifesto. His genius is that in illuminating the affinity between opera and homosexuality, he sheds a fascinating new light on an art that has beguiled music lovers of all persuasions the world over.

Glenn McNatt is an Evening Sun editorial writer.

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