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
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.
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