Somewhat surprisingly, "The Queen's Throat," a book that examines the affinity of some gay men for opera, has been getting a lot of attention in the mainstream press.
I say surprisingly because books about opera don't ordinarily get this kind of attention.
The heavy interest is surely due in part to the fact that the book, written by Yale English professor Wayne Koestenbaum, is an undeniably original piece of work, a book whose tone is a blend of semischolarly detachment and juicily personal confession.
But I think the interest in this book is also traceable to another, larger, murkier thing: "The Queen's Throat" is perhaps the first really unambiguous attempt to address the anxiety and confusion felt by many about the relationship between the performing arts -- especially dance, theater and opera -- and homosexuality.
Who has not wondered about this? Why, we ask ourselves, do these professions attract seemingly large numbers of gay practitioners? Why do gay audience members often seem so much more passionate and knowledgeable than others? Perhaps most obviously, why do certain performers, especially in the realm of pop and opera divas, attract such large and boisterous gay followings?
And there's another side to it: Among straight men, is there perhaps a feeling that "Swan Lake" or "Elixir of Love" are not
quite manly things to be interested in?
Maybe some early, culturally impressed anxieties along these lines are at work when the schoolboy toughs beat up the kid with the violin.
Well, we are ahead of ourselves, here. Koestenbaum's book is not a clinical tract on these topics so much as a series of private impressions.
In a poignantly unself-conscious way that calls to mind composer Ned Rorem -- one of our era's first and best gay confessionalists PTC -- Koestenbaum is at pains to convey to us his intense, often lonely relationship to this most emotionally demonstrative and evidently sexually evocative of art forms.
On Callas, who is Koestenbaum's most vivid and convincing topic: "I worship her because she made mistakes and because she seemed to value expressivity over loveliness. . . . Like her idol, Audrey Hepburn, she embodied a Wildean stylization of manner and gesture."
And more provocatively: "Gay men may identify with demonstrations of female wrath and willfulness because such behavior so wholeheartedly exceeds the bounds of acceptable gender behavior; displays of masculine power are alienating and depressing (they reflect patriarchy's sway), but displays of feminine power show us the universe executing an about-face. . . . (Callas') vengeful volleys give us courage."
Predictably (also like Rorem's books) the personal ruminations -- sometimes painful, always honest-sounding -- are more satisfying than the slightly pompous stabs at socio-musico-psycho-historico pontificating.
"The Queen's Throat," like the diva's throat, is at its best when it is most relaxedly, confidently, open.
Title: "The Queen's Throat: Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire"
Author: Wayne Koestenbaum
Length, price: 271 pages, $22