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Love in the Time of Coloratura

Hold on to your hats and get out your lavender-colored lorgnettes! After a century of Marx, Freud and feminism, the 1990s might well be the decade of homocentric criticism.

A case in point: Wayne Koestenbaum's The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire (Vintage, 1993). Far from an obscure publication, the book has been widely reviewed and acclaimed in leading newspapers and magazines, garnering a Notable Book of the Year citation by The New York Times and a National Book Award nomination. Vintage is vigorously promoting The Queen's Throat, whose author is in the midst of a cross-country tour and will appear at Crossroads Market on Friday, January 28 at 6:30 p.m.

One might say -- so what? Gays and opera, that's an obvious, trendy subject: just look at Terrence McNally's play The Lisbon Traviata, or Jonathan Demme's film Philadelphia. But the novelty and importance of Koestenbaum's book is not so much that it's a tract on opera queendom (although it is one) as that it's a brilliant example of criticism with a specifically gay point of view. Operas -- especially those that interest Koestenbaum, namely Marriage of Figaro through Turandot -- might have higher-than-average camp value, but there's no reason why one couldn't analyze film, novels, ice hockey or even stamp collecting a la Koestenbaum. Every art, every sport, every hobby has its queens! Indeed, the very act of collecting, as Koestenbaum explains, is a very homosexual (in particular, anal) act -- but then, to Koestenbaum, everything's homosexual. For example, Koestenbaum on record spindle holes: "The hole makes no single anatomical allusion. It makes many. It isn't reductively equal, even in the listener's unconscious, to any part of the human body. But it has always spoken to me of the emptiness at the center of a recorded voice and the emptiness at the center of a listener's life and the ambiguities in any sexual body, including a homosexual body, concerning the proper and improper function of orifices." Just imagine Koestenbaum on shooting pucks or licking stamps.

The book consists of short ruminations divided into seven large chapters: "Opera Queens" (about opera fans and what makes them tick), "The Shut-in Fan: Opera at Home" (about listening to opera recordings at home), "The Codes of Diva Conduct" (about the lives of the great divas), "The Callas Cult" (if you've read this far, you're probably a member), "The Queen's Throat: Or, How to Sing" (about singing manuals), "The Unspeakable Marriage of Words and Music" (about the relation of words and music in opera), and "A Pocket Guide to Queen Moments in Opera" (a highly personal and often inscrutable look at some famous arias, duets and ensembles).

Here's another choice bit, this from the "Words and Music" chapter: "If words and music are both masculine, it might be unnatural for one to serve the other in a culture that homophobically fears the erosion of masculine primacy and vantage, and that despises men who play the role of "bottom." Wagner's solution to the problem of male service, the problem of keeping both poet and composer in the "top" position, was to take care of words and music by himself, and to turn opera composition into a divinely autoerotic act."

The Queen's Throat is not only fiendishly clever, but wonderfully informed. Koestenbaum, who seems to have read every diva's autobiography, every 19th-century singing manual and every issue of Opera News, certainly knows his stuff. It's also a work of enormous culture, drawing on novels, poetry, film, TV and popular music.

Readers of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag will be at home with this kind of book, so ready and able to use divas' gowns and record grooves as the springboard for dense and heady observations about life and art. After all, Proust had his tea and madeleine, so why shouldn't Koestenbaum have his boxed opera sets and his parents' stereo cabinet? Even if the book leaves you a bit mystified, it's worth dipping into, as it offers a new and stunningly honest viewpoint and provides a good preview of the Gay Nineties lying ahead.

 
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