Opera in the Flesh: Sexuality in Operatic Performance.
Abel is not only indebted to Koestenbaum but also intends Opera in the Flesh as a large-scale reply to The Queen's Throat. According to Abel, Koestenbaum explains "how opera functions as a cultural icon for a certain generation of closeted, self-deprecating, urban gay men. Koestenbaum uses the erotic nature of opera as a means to explore his ideas of gay sexuality, a dark and troubling vision of disjuncture, loneliness, and failure" (p. 6). Abel seeks to reverse this notion: "Rather than using opera to explore gay sexuality, I propose in this book to use sexuality, gay and otherwise, as a means to explore my experience of opera, an experience that (although it may encompass some darker elements) is fundamentally life-affirming, joyous, and celebratory. Koestenbaum eroticizes opera as a function of shame and secrecy, but I want to make opera's eroticism public. I find too much life in opera to bury it in the closet" (p. 6).
As suggested by his subtitle, Abel explores opera in live performance, and this is perhaps one of the book's strongest components, especially in the three lively chapters that form part 2, "Opera and Desire." Abel, whose background and training are in theater, describes the tremendously powerful connections among voices, bodies, sounds, and spaces in operatic performance that form his intensely erotic experience of opera - and here he feels no need to distinguish between La Scala and "the most perfectly awful community opera productions" (p. 26). For Abel, the simple performance convention of singing toward the audience (instead of to other characters on stage) functions as a compelling mechanism of seduction. About nineteenth-century love duets, for example, Abel says, "What I see and hear in this arrangement is both singers declaring their love for me. This staging gives me the option to focus on either the male or female object of desire - or both. The visual image of the love duet becomes a pansexual fantasy, an orgy of indiscriminate lovemaking" (pp. 29-30). Abel has no interest in studying scores and consistently shies away from an explication of the music in many of his chosen moments of operatic bliss, but his account of the final trio in Der Rosenkavalier (in chap. 6, "Operatic Orgasms") exemplifies, in no uncertain terms, how frankly sexual his mode of hearing is. "The words are gone; the plot is gone; only the sound of voices blending with the orchestra remains. My heart beats faster. My stomach muscles contract, my buttocks tighten, my face contorts at each new harmonic tension. My head sways with the music; I conduct the opera with my prone body.... Strings and voices strain against each other, cresting on each climactic note. My back arches; it no longer touches the sofa" (p. 81).
Chapter 11 ("Opera through the Media") is Abel's far-reaching discussion of opera and technology. The mediation of opera through recording, radio, film, and television is rarely examined - indeed, the contributors to En Travesti do not address this question - and Abel explores the relationship between mediation and eroticism. If live performance offers unlimited erotic possibilities, opera on record and television gives way to an obsessive fetishization of details - visual and vocal. Unfortunately, Abel's ideas about technology are not fully developed, and I would have enjoyed a more rigorous critique that included Theodor Adorno's work on the culture industry and mass-produced art.
Though entertaining, Abel's very personal and idiosyncratic engagement with sexuality and gender issues is also deeply problematic. He locates the foundation of his argument that opera/s sexual (in a myriad of ways) within his own body, and gets caught in an essentialist web. His passionate physical engagement with operatic performance is taken to be both unique and natural, without adequately realizing that one's body and its responses to stimuli - especially sexual stimuli - are culturally constructed. For many years now both queer and feminist theorists such as Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, bell hooks, and Joan Scott (to name only a few), have successfully taken up the social construction of the body, gender, and sexuality as their primary concern. The eroticism of opera may feel pure, unspecified, and unmediated, but this is deceptive. A more self-reflexive awareness of his own culturally situated experiences as a visceral, erotic, physically impassioned opera lover would have strengthened Abel's thesis considerably. In addition, his treatment of various women's issues is politically insensitive and reproduces the misogynist ideas he attempts to critique. For instance, he claims that "opera is a kind of prostitution ... [s]exual desire and money are the two most powerful means of exchange that we have, and opera trades heavily in both" (p. 46), but fails to acknowledge what this might mean for actual women who work as prostitutes. Similarly, in his readings of Don Giovanni, Samson et Dalila, and Turandot (in chap. 7, "Opera, Sex, and Power") the crucial difference between "rape" and "seduction" is not articulated; thus, Abel's discomfort with sexual violence against women in opera seems strangely disingenuous.
The twelve essays in En Travesti easily surpass Opera in the Flesh in elegance, sophistication, and depth of scholarship. The editors, Blackmer and Smith, take the seemingly ubiquitous "woman en travesti, literally 'in travesty' or 'male drag,' [who] sings as and looks like, in theory at least, a man, but sounds like - and, we all know, is - a woman" (p. 5) as their premise, and also include essays that address the "women in opera [both heterosexual and lesbian] - whether characters, performers, librettists, or composers - who figuratively 'put on the trousers': women who challenge and transgress the limits that normally define female identity on the lyric stage" (p. 5). The women in the second category are Dido, Turandot, the Countess Geschwitz, Brigitte Fassbaender, Gertrude Stein, and Ethel Smyth. En Travesti features work by both musicologists and literary critics, and many of the essays address lesbian desire with remarkable, groundbreaking results.
The editors' introduction is nothing short of a lesbian appropriation of opera. Written with great flair and embellished with eight beautiful photographs of divas in various trouser roles and woman-to-woman love scenes, the authors - more like a pair of divas - aim to invite the reader to listen anew, or once again, to opera's lesbian connections. Blackmer and Smith chronicle the events of an anonymous lesbian who comes out again as a "sapphonic" opera lover. She purchases a recording of Rossini's Semiramide because it featured Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, "both of whom she had seen on television" (p. 2), but is taken aback when she hears that Arsace, the male lead, is sung by Horne: "but Marilyn Horne is not a ... man! Can she do that? Can she get away with that?" (p. 3). Blackmer and Smith answer: "Given her long and illustrious history in opera, perhaps the relative lack of attention accorded the female character en travesti testifies, ironically, to the very naturalness and ubiquitousness of her presence" (p. 16).
Terry Castle's "In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender: Reflections on Diva-Worship" (reprinted from her book, The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture [New York: Columbia University Press, 1993]) contextualizes her obsession with the German mezzo's voice and "daredevil musical personality" (p. 37) by examining the phenomenon of women diva lovers from earlier generations. Castle pays unusually close attention to Fassbaender's voice: "the velvety richness of the lower register - what her admirers refer to as her 'smoky' or 'dark' or 'chocolate' tone - comes across especially well in recordings, creating unparalleled effects of shading, depth, and sensuality.... At times, as in some of the more savage Winterreise songs ... she seems almost to gnaw on, or bite into, the air as she sings, gulping it down, like one craving for sustenance, yet also capturing perfectly the engulfing desperation of Schubert's mad wanderer" (pp. 39-40). Furthermore, Castle's hearing of Fassbaender's Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier differs sharply from Abel's assertion that Octavian represents a gender "category crisis" (Abel, pp. 159-60). Castle argues, "The very butchness with which she tackles, say, a role like Octavian - the sheer, absolutist bravado of the impersonation - infuses it with a dizzying homosexual charge. The more dashingly Fassbaender pretends, the more completely she fails - with the result that a new stage illusion takes shape: that of a woman robustly in love with another woman" (p. 43).
Patricia Juliana Smith's imaginative and savvy essay, "Gli enigmi sono tre: The [D]evolution of Turandot, Lesbian Monster," uncovers the historical construction of Turandot's lesbian traits as well as Puccini's efforts to erase them. With virtuosic grandeur, Smith concludes that Turandot "killed" Puccini himself. He died in 1924 of throat cancer and left the opera unfinished. "[Puccini] was never able to reconcile the marriage-resisting princess to the institution of men that calls itself 'Love.' Turandot had claimed her final victim" (p. 269). Smith's argument certainly suggests that there are far more lesbians in opera than we have ever dared to see or hear.
Predictably, the musicologists in En Travesti dig more deeply into musical questions while the literary critics are more concerned with myths, sources, plots, narratives, and character portrayals. The most musically convincing essay is Elizabeth Wood's "The Lesbian in the Opera: Desire Unmasked in Smyth's Fantasio and Fete galante," which is also the only piece devoted to the work of a lesbian opera composer. Wood hears musical strategies of concealing and revealing desire, risk, and defiance in Ethel Smyth's operas. In Fantasio (1894), "Smyth encodes the sexual deceit and self-masking of the closet as a transvestic sonic masquerade. In an act of vocal (s)exchange and sleight of hand, she gives the Lover's singing voice to the male tenor but both the Queen's and the puppet Pierrot's singing voice to the female mezzo, Smyth's own voice" (p. 299).
Both Opera in the Flesh and En Travesti raise exciting questions about what is at stake when drawing the line between one's personal subject position and one's responsibilities as a critic. Was that line ever clear to begin with? How does lesbian and gay opera criticism enliven other forms of queer music studies? When read together, both books take full advantage of opera's interpretative spaciousness, and invite us to think even harder about what, how, and why we love and respond to opera.
MARTHA MOCKUS University of Minnesota, Twin Cities
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1997|
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