BOOK REVIEW / Songs for happy campers: 'The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire' - Wayne Kostenbaum: Gay Men's Press, 16.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
OPERA attracts many different kinds of audience. There is the world of the suburban enthusiast; of the professional musician; of the friend-of-

the-performer; of the loadsamoney merchant banker and his Caroline in her backless dress. And then there is the world to which Wayne Kostenbaum takes out a life subscription: the world of the opera queen.

Opera queen, I should explain, is one of those former terms of abuse (applied to men in pairs who talk about Maria Callas, loudly, at the crush bar) which have matured into neutrality; and Mr Kostenbaum is, in any event, a younger, more robustly intellectual and less lavender-drenched variant of the species. Though his book doesn't flinch from affirmatively high-camp forays into purple prose, it's essentially a reflection on the disproportionately significant relationship between gay men and opera. In the process, it delivers a bizarre confection of psycho-philosophy, self-revelation, music history and gossip.

The pace is rhapsodic, the tone confessional, and the argument largely pretentious. It reads like an exquisite book of clever sermons (Kostenbaum is a lecturer at Yale) which use opera as the point of reference for ideas that range from the engagingly fanciful to the downright absurd. 'Sexuality,' he writes with calculated ambiguity, 'has chosen the throat as a place where gay men come into their own.' 'Backstage' for him implies anal opportunism. And there is a long, fruitless discussion of language and music as a false marriage where one is sodomised by the other: an idea which gives new resonance to the notion of instrumental entries.

But there are other times when Kostenbaum comes closer to the target. He argues for opera as an authentication of borderline existences: an art whose apparent distance from reality offers refuge to any group that feels unaccommodated by the prevailing social order. Gays, says Kostenbaum, 'seek out art that does not represent the genuine' - by which he presumably means camp, although his understanding of the word is multi-directional, encompassing any kind of reversed expectation. Callas is camp, apparently, because she imports truth into what Kostenbaum takes to be an untrue medium: we are told that she 'camped Lucia (di Lammermoor) not by mocking it but by taking it seriously'.

Opera is a liberating medium, and liberation is one of its persistent themes. It addresses repressed emotions, it challenges codes of behaviour, and it does so with the peculiar, subliminal intensity that only music can create in theatre. When Wagner (camply) prayed for mediocre performances of Tristan because 'completely good ones are bound to drive people mad', he touched on a profound truth. Kostenbaum touches it, too, when he identifies the gay attraction of star singers as an ability to raise the status of the abnormal to the supernormal. The allure of the diva is the allure of the weak pretending to be strong. He quotes Shirley Verrett exuberantly looking back to some past performance: 'It was marvellous. The body was lovely, and I had a lovely voice.' In a deft turn of phrase, Kostenbaum admires the way she handles herself 'with the tongs of the definite article'. In this he finds a template for the gay condition.

But the limitation of his book is that it's ultimately nothing more than it purports to be: an opera queen's indulgence. Kostenbaum's idea of opera is a glittering parade of divas to be worshipped masochistically, without return. He writes about singers in the gushing terms that Hollywood publicists once used of stars at MGM; the element of self-parody involved doesn't prevent the critical reader wondering whether opera, as a developed 20th-century medium, doesn't prompt a deeper level of address than this. Significantly, he gives no space to the modern operas that directly deal with homosexuality: it's as though they break the rules of the game by dropping the subterfuge of winks and feathers, and breathing the word outright.