The Callas connection continues for gay men

February 23, 1997|By GLENN MCNATT

THE BALTIMORE premiere of playwright Terrence McNally's "The Lisbon Traviata" at Everyman Theatre last week provided yet another reminder that the gay cult of Maria Callas continues apace.

In McNally's play, four gay men struggle to come to terms with the frustration they experience in love and relationships. The title refers to a legendary performance of Verdi's "La Traviata" that Callas recorded in Lisbon late in her career, and one character's search for that cult object sets the dramatic action in motion.

Callas, one of the greatest operatic figures of the second half of the 20th century, also figured prominently in the 1993 movie "Philadelphia." Thus, theatergoers may be forgiven for suspecting it's no accident that both "The Lisbon Traviata" and "Philadelphia" deal with the alienation of vulnerable gay men. The connection is made quite explicit in both the play and the movie.

What is the relationship between gayness, opera and the cult of Maria Callas?

One of the best discussions of the subject appears in Yale professor Wayne Koestenbaum's 1994 coming-out-of-the-closet book, "The Queen's Throat." Subtitled "Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire," Koestenbaum's work -- part memoir, part gay manifesto, part confessional -- dismisses the genteel fiction that gay men's affinity for opera is purely coincidental.

On the contrary, 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.

Callas -- in her life and art the supreme exemplar of that extravagance, and of the terrible price it exacts from those who indulge it -- is a gay icon because she willed her art into being out of terrible private suffering and made that suffering public.

"Callas [made] us sick of camouflage," Koestenbaum writes. "After hearing Callas, who could tolerate the closet? And yet the evidence of Callas' broken spirit makes us nostalgic for the closet. Maybe, for a moment, we want to step back in."

The feminist critic Catherine Clement, whose book "Opera, or the Undoing of Women" argued that opera is the musical representation of male domination of women, bluntly expressed

the straight world's impatience with the gay cult of Callas.

"Come on, men, shut up," she wrote. "You are living off her. Leave this woman alone, whose job it was to wear gracefully your repressed homosexual fantasies."

But Koestenbaum, who wonders what harm his adoration of Callas does anyone, interprets the complaint as yet another veiled homophobic attack.

"To demand that I renounce my veneration is to suggest the desirability of erasing what makes me gay," he writes.

"Gays are considered a dispensable population. Listening to Callas, we become less dispensable: we find a use, a reflection, an elevation. For political, ethical, combative, and ineluctable reasons, I consider my interest in Callas to be a piece of my sexual and cultural identity."

Koestenbaum goes on to list some of those reasons. For one, he says, Callas was simply "the best," and gay men "need to like the best."

"We have been considered the dregs," he writes, "and so we have constructed hierarchies of taste in which -- sometimes against reason -- we elevate certain stars to the summit."

Gay men love Callas, Koestenbaum argues, because of, rather than in spite of, her vocal and physical flaws.

Callas' voice wobbled on high notes and her middle register sounded as if she were singing into a bottle. She was so nearsighted she couldn't see the conductor's cues and, at the beginning of her career, at least, she was so overweight even by the standards of opera divas that the critics ridiculed her appearance on stage.

Yet through sheer force of will she overcame all these handicaps to win recognition as a supreme artist. Thus she proved what Koestenbaum called "the value of expressivity over loveliness."

"Callas' unattractive sounds forced her audience to reevaluate the difference between the beautiful and the grotesque," he writes. "Through error, she seems to implore: 'Art is punishment, and I am vulnerable. Have you ever been exposed, opened up in public? Find the parallels in your life to this almost unacceptable note that will make the audience hiss.' "

Callas is a gay icon, too, because she celebrated female wrath and willfulness and because such behavior so wholeheartedly exceeded the bounds of acceptable gender behavior of her era.

"Displays of masculine power," Koestenbaum writes, "are alienating and depressing (they reflect patriarchy's sway), but displays of feminine power show the universe executing an about-face. [Callas'] vengeful volleys give us courage, and inspire us as we struggle to be open and not closed, serene and not erased, human and not degenerate."

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