BOOK REVIEW / Gowns, gasps and goddesses to die for: Adam Mars-Jones on a unique work about divas by a self-confessed opera queen - 'The Queen's Throat' - Wayne Koestenbaum: GMP, 16.95 pounds

'MY FANTASY: circumstances change, I become a diva and I must acquire a gown . . .' There is hardly a sentence in The Queen's Throat that could come from any other book on opera. That is its glory, and also its flaunted failing.

It's easier to say what the book is not than what it is. It isn't a historical survey, though it trawls drolly through the archives. It isn't conventionally analytical of music or text, though Wayne Koestenbaum makes good points in his idiosyncratic fashion. There are scraps of psychoanalytical theory, but nothing that could survive outside the sustaining environment of Koestenbaum's prose style. The whole book is only notionally non-fiction, being a parade of fetishes, epigrams and flashes of personal history. For the best part of 300 pages, Koestenbaum circles round his real subject, his own personality as reflected and created - 'constituted' would be the appropriate piece of academic jargon - by opera.

Most religions want to make converts, but most hobbies want to restrict membership. My hobby is a part of the world that I find interesting and have chosen to explore, but it is also a mechanism designed to make me interesting to myself. If no one recognises the dignity of what I am doing, if I have no fellow-worshippers, then the mechanism is likely to break down. But if I have too much competition as a cultist then the mechanism breaks down in a different way, and my distinctiveness is lost to me. The claim to have liked something 'before it was fashionable' is one of the more plaintive human utterances.

In the case of some hobbies dear to gay men there is also the factor of piss- elegance to be considered. Gay men (particularly of a certain vintage), denied many of the orthodox ways of expressing identity, have doggedly tried to create a class system based on taste. Aesthetic choice, of a rarefied consumerist sort, becomes absolutist and imperious. For the system to work, though, my true good taste must be contrasted with, and issue regular anathemas against, your fatal susceptibility to kitsch and all that is second-rate.

Koestenbaum rejects the stereotype of gay men as inherently lonely, but his experience of being an opera queen - a phrase he uses freely, for all its queasiness - seems to bring with it its own plush isolation. He lists various inimical categories - 'the opera queen who only likes Monteverdi, the opera queen who doesn't go to the Met anymore, the opera queen who can't stand Sutherland . . .' and admits: 'I have never had a satisfying conversation with another opera queen about opera pleasures.'

The author acknowledges and even insists on the paradoxes that attend his obsession. The Queen's Throat is a deconstructionist book in its own impressionist way, so that traditional oppositions are routinely turned on their heads. The whole existence of primary experience is denied, while multiply mediated ones are perversely prized. Koestenbaum attends public performances, but mainly in order to hoard remembered moments in private. Live opera is secondary in his mind to recordings. He associates opera with the vinyl disc, a fetish whose obsoleteness part of him recognises. He also admits that his style of fandom is itself obsolescent, and even suspect ('the heyday of gay opera culture . . . depends on the institution of the closet').

His overall strategy is to exaggerate the weakness of his point of view (lack of technical knowledge, historical gaps, blind spots) and thereby turn it into a strength of a different sort - that being, as he sees it, the core alchemy of opera also.

For much of the book, love of opera is all but synonymous with the worship of divas. Koestenbaum acknowledges criticism that gay opera love is passively misogynistic - that it disregards women while coveting glamorised versions of their suffering - but defends his right to his alienated pleasures.

Nevertheless, there is an odd moment when he describes his habit of taking long aimless drives whenever there is an opera broadcast on the radio. 'I consider the gas pedal an extension of the diva's throat: when she crescendos, or ascends in pitch, I speed up, in sympathy, in emulation.' Pumping your foot on an imaginary woman's throat may not be as neutral a gesture as all that.

The specialist's urge to inscribe himself indelibly on to his speciality is common enough, but over time Koestenbaum's approach can be wearying, his subjectivity somehow hectoring. Perhaps only Maria Callas, who is far from being his only icon, has a flinty enough personality to bring out the best in him, forcing him to write about the other rather than the self. The section devoted to Callas and her cult is the most rewarding, and in a strange way the most rigorous, part of the book. Every aspect of Callas's singing has been attended to - her audible breathing ('the gasp is the price tag on the expensive garment of the aria'), her discrete registers, her sometimes harsh tone - as well as her body language, make-up foibles, and dress sense.

Embarking on one of his periodic cadenzas, Koestenbaum even earns a schoolboy pun on the diva's name: 'when she reminds my listening ear that there is a vast difference between eighth notes and triplets . . . her precision makes my mouth gape, and tells me how callused her feet must be from walking without shoes this far up the hill to magnificence.'

Wagner is supposed to have gained inspiration for composition by caressing luxurious fabrics in a room with rounded corners. Wayne Koestenbaum's inner life seems somewhat similar in its preoccupation with self and solitary sensation, except that he doesn't quite have the Ring to show for it, only this enjoyable but intensely irritating book.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London