This passionate love letter to opera, lavishly praised and nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award when it was first published, is now firmly established as a cult classic. In a learned, moving, and sparklingly witty melange of criticism, subversion, and homage, Wayne Koestenbaum illuminates mysteries of fandom and obsession, and has created an exuberant work of personal meditation and cultural history.
A wildly idiosyncratic attempt by Koestenbaum (English/Yale), who's gay, to establish opera as a paradigm of homosexuality. "I hypothesize that opera's hypnotic hold over modern gay audiences has some connection to the erotic interlocking of words and music, two contrary symbolic systems with gendered attributes," Koestenbaum says. But he fails to make clear exactly what, if anything, differentiates gay and straight audiences' respective responses to opera; and, more importantly, he fails to demonstrate that gay audiences are by nature predisposed to operatic conventions. Too often, Koestenbaum moves from the personal to the general in his eagerness to do for gay opera-lovers what Harvey Fierstein did for drag queens. Much of the author's creative energy is taken up with backstage gossip about divas past and present (male singers receive short shrift here). He frequently strains analogies to the point of parody - for example, musing about the erotic implications of the spindle hole in operatic recordings: "It has always spoken to me of the emptiness...at the center of a listener's life and the ambiguities in any sexual body, including a homosexual body, concerning the proper and improper function of orifices." Also noted: 12 lengthily detailed reasons why Maria Callas is a gay (or "queer," as the radicalized Koestenbaum prefers) operatic icon. The author concludes with extended descriptions of famous arias, analyzed in terms of homosexuality. These exegeses are as murky and unsupported as his previous arguments. Out of the closet and off the wall. (Kirkus Reviews)