Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Of mad kings and opera queens

At the end of Paul Rudnick’s hit play Jeffrey, the title character says to the audience, “I know it’s wrong to say that all gay men are obsessed with sex. Because that’s not true. All human beings are obsessed with sex. All gay men are obsessed with opera.” Rudnick returns to this idea with a vengeance in Valhalla, but in the days since Jeffrey it's become a staple of friendly Will-and-Grace-style gay stereotyping – every gay male of a certain age is expected to be obsessed with some favorite soprano (often Maria Callas). The trope has been seconded by such openly gay writers as Terrence McNally (in his Lisbon Traviata – you can now actually see a recording of that supposed operatic pinnacle on youtube), and got its academic blessing in The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire by Wayne Koestenbaum of Yale University. Indeed, historians have noted a long connection between gay, or at least dandified, behaviors and the opera – some 150 years ago, in fact, the aisle before the orchestra pit in London opera houses was known as “fop’s alley” for all the stylish men who congregated there.

Why the connection? To Koestenbaum, himself an avowed opera queen, identifying with the diva offered gay men a vicarious emotional release they were simply denied in the straight world. In Lisbon Traviata, one character puts it this way: "Opera doesn't reject me. The real world does." Of course, it’s a little more complex than that: grand opera may trade in release, but its very core is the idea that desire must be thwarted; the great divas are always cut down, and often humiliated in the bargain – by the final curtain, the queen has been put back in her place. Indeed, a sense of that vulnerability – and incipient humiliation - is crucial to the quasi-drag queen grandeur of the true diva.

Still, as gay men have moved out of the closet, shouldn't this identification have therefore lessened, rather than grown? And there's the larger point that opera could hardly have survived with only a gay audience; clearly, plenty of straight people are opera queens, too. Perhaps everyone can relate to having their desires thwarted - and certainly operatic voices alone are enough to stir anyone's emotions (indeed, the fact that many gay men respond almost sexually to the female voice only indicates its power).

As for Ludwig – he does, indeed, seem to have been an “opera queen,” but he was certainly an unusual one. There’s little evidence, for instance, that he was obsessed with particular divas; he identified not with sopranos, or even with tenors (despite his attempts to seduce a few), but rather with the heroic roles themselves and the themes they embodied. He didn’t so much live vicariously through opera as try to turn his own life into a simulation of one. The link, perhaps, between Ludwig and today’s queens is that his favorite roles – say, Lohengrin (that's Johannes Sembach in the role above) – included an element of romantic denial, and an almost hysterical obsession with purity. A proxy for his own sense of sexual denial? Perhaps. Ludwig also fell into the trap that so many modern opera queens do - a lonely, "perfectionist" narcissism (he often watched his operas alone, in a deserted theatre). One thing the "mad king" entirely lacked, however, and that the modern opera queen is known for, is a sense of irony. Few in power, of course, are known for their self-awareness, much less their irony; but without that escape valve, opera may indeed be a path to insanity.

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