If you’re going to the Metropolitan Opera, Wayne Koestenbaum, author of the iconic exploration of opera queendom, The Queen’s Throat, is the best guide one could hope for. After dinner at Rosa Mexicano across from Lincoln Center, we sauntered across Columbus Avenue to a performance of Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov.” For both of us, it was the first time since the pandemic began. Koestenbaum showed me where Susan Sontag used to loiter in the lobby, and how to take in the scene and people-watch. Afterwards, we spent a while talking about how it felt to be back at the opera, where we watched the action from the highest tier, peering over the stage.
VAN: After 18 months, I’d forgotten how much of a production it is to go to the opera!
Wayne Koestenbaum: Opera-going—at night—contains an element of pain. Daytime opera is easy, and I have no problems with it, except that any daytime ecstatic activity leads to an aftermath of depression. At 5 or 6 p.m., you get the Christmas Blues. And so there are emotional problems of letdown after a matinee.
Nighttime opera is a pain for Virgo-organized anal Wayne—especially with a 7 p.m. start time—because, my dear friend Parker, it meant that we snagged dinner at 5:15, which meant we had to allow for an early breakfast and lunch. And you must hydrate adequately before the opera, or bring water into the theater (which is illegal). And with a two-and-a-half–hour opera like “Boris Godunov” without intermission, you have to make sure you pee ahead of time. I was urging you to pee against your will, if you remember!
The strange ordeal of concentration and managing one’s bodily functions for two-and-a-half hours is part of the pleasure of listening to the opera live, and permits the listener an analogue of the pleasurable regimentation and discipline that the performer experiences.
Regimentation is a pleasure in all classical music: organized rhythms, a score, diligent preparation, scales. All the rigamarole that goes into interpreting a fixed score are rigors that the listener experiences through privation: not talking, not wiggling.
What else did you enjoy?
Our box seats in the family circle allowed us to look down into the pit and the stage, and as we were watching “Boris,” I paid attention to the rapport between conductor and singer, and tried to notice when the singer was looking at the conductor or the prompter or at neither. I want to make sure that the singer is properly tethered to the conductor.
So you didn’t mind the seats?
We were so close that I had a very satisfying sonic relation to the plenitude of the singing voices. Sometime at the City Opera (where the acoustics were very poor), I felt a sense of distance or deprivation vis à vis the singing voice. I couldn’t see the mouth or tell which body the voice was coming from, it was disembodied. What I loved tonight was watching the singers’ torsos expand as they inhaled.
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As this was your first night back at the opera, was this something you particularly missed?
I didn’t know I had missed it as much as I realized when I was sitting there tonight. I listened to the Met radio station throughout the pandemic, and so I’ve had my fill of archival performances. The pleasure of listening to generations of live performances almost made me forget why I might want to hear opera in person and why it would be a completely different sensation.
How else is it different live?
Acoustics, and the particular qualities of an unamplified performance. My bodily relationship to those acoustic vibrations has nothing to do with what digital sound on a radio or a stereo produces.
Recordings have their own value.
LPs were their own socially-constructed sonic experience. Because I grew up dreaming of boxed sets, and grooved on records before I ever saw opera live, I had a love-relation to opera on LP.
But LPs are more intimate than modern stereo recordings. Recordings these days try to emulate the experience of the concert hall with surround sound, etc., while older recordings tried to capture the intimacy of the voice up close.
The recordings I fell in love with from Anna Moffo, Tito Schipa, Ninon Vallin, Amelita Galli-Curci, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Beniamino Gigli, and hundreds of others, have three sets of values that I love: vibration, penetration, and hollowness. First there’s a quality of vibration and immediacy that you get because the singers are right up close to the microphone. When the vibrato is quick or pressured, you can hear how the recording apparatus almost can’t cope with it. It’s like a bird vibrating in a cage, or a bird flying toward a closed window. And then there’s a penetration which (in the case of a studio recording) isn’t required to carry a voice through an opera house over an orchestra, but exists simply to give an edge, like a slightly sharp note without vibrato—a cutting, satisfying pointedness. And then there’s a hollowness, like a vacuum or void, so that the vocal sound is like air in a corked bottle, or a bottle holding the memory of vanished air.
If the LPs are so good, why go hear it live?
The joy of listening at home is like a training academy for live performance, even though my experiences of pleasurable intensity gleaned from opera-at-home will always outnumber and outweigh the pleasures I’ve had in the opera house. The performance goes too quickly to savor everything.
So opera is not just something that happens in the opera house, then. For you it happens in a number of places.
Yes, because opera is so excerpt-able; it’s even necessary for it to be excerpted. For instance, in “Boris,” there are two great arias: There’s the death of Boris, and the other monologue in Scene Two about how dreary it is to be Tsar, or something like that. When you hear opera live in real time, in that moment when a great aria starts, you almost feel like there’s a scene change, because you’re back in the hall of memory containing all the times you’ve heard the aria with different voices singing it.
In live opera, there are two tracks of time operating simultaneously. One is the 7 p.m. to 9:20 p.m. interlude on Thursday night in New York. That’s real time. Then there’s fabular, or storied or haunted time, which is the time when the memorable excerpt or the chestnut aria begins. When that begins, you are taken out of your 7-to-9:20 tunnel of actual time, and taken into sacred or storied or “echo” time. With operas that I know in totality like “Traviata,” sacred time begins with the very first note of the prelude.
When we walked through the Met tonight, the opera house itself seemed like a physical hall of memory for you. You remarked on the tackiness of the gold, the garish carpet and pointed out where Susan Sontag used to loiter during intermission.
Well, you can’t just walk into the Met straight away. You have to stop at each echelon of the promenade to get the view, particularly when you make your first ascent and look down at the entrance. When you look down, most people don’t look up. But if they do, they see you.
Is the Met good for people-watching?
There are various forms of vulgarity and ostentation that I hold dear in dressing for the opera. There is the resolute opera-aficionado drabness; the I’m not going to dress for the opera type who looks like they’re working the jumble sale in the basement. I love that kind of couture. I like to sport a different attitude, a late-style-queen “look” where you look in your closet and choose the most colorful items and slap them on all together.
What did you wear tonight?
I wore a red Miu Miu peacoat that I had probably bought in 1999 and very rarely wear, because it seemed too girly. But I never got rid of it, and there it was, in pristine condition. It was perfect for tonight. And with our current moment’s thrillingly evolving politics and understandings around gender, I feel increasingly able to embrace all the trans modalities of my being. Post-pandemic, in dressing for tonight’s opera, I felt a different sense of permission when I put on my red coat, my sky blue pants, my orange and yellow flowered shirt, and my purple velvet pumps.
Did going back tonight live up to your sense of emancipation?
In praise of the Met, I do think they polished the fake gold on the staircases and ceilings. It looks like they’ve repaired the premises a lot. And the maroon, blood-velvet carpet looks like it’s been restored to its former glory. The aesthetic of the Met (and of Lincoln Center in general) is very Kenneth Jay Lane. I’ve always enjoyed that haute falseness.
Does this aesthetic carry over into the rest of your life?
No. I tend to separate opera from my other more contemporary aesthetic tastes in visual art and literature. I don’t want to typecast myself as an antiquarian, even though I understand that my relationship to opera occupies a certain passé zone.
Is opera passé?
No. But that was a thing to say in 1993 when I wrote The Queen’s Throat, and I’ve been saying it for years. Actually, opera isn’t dying. It’s doing very, very well.
With The Queen’s Throat, you wrote a book about homosexuality and opera, and yet Tchaikovsky and Britten are absent.
When I told people I was writing a book about homosexuality and opera, they said, “Oh, you mean Tchaikovsky and Britten.” And I would sigh and say, “No, I mean Zinka Milanov.” The book concerned the gayness of the reception of opera, and not of its making. That said, I do have an argument in my book about the queerness of opera, the marriage of words and music, and structural elements of opera that fuck around with gender and sexual position.
How did you arrive at these conclusions?
Well, right around the time of coming out, towards the end of college, I started listening to opera. I got a recording of “Don Giovanni” with Sir Colin Davis and Kiri Te Kanawa and Mirella Freni, and I started becoming obsessed with Anna Moffo. That’s when I started going to the Met. They came up to Boston in the summer of 1980 and I went to hear Fiorenza Cossotto sing “Carmen.” That’s when it started. For me, the thing about opera and gayness is that my attachment to opera coincided with the beginning of the ’80s, my coming out, and then the onset of HIV.
Does a visit to the Met trigger nostalgia for that era?
No. I might be pedantic, but the way to channel it is to go back to Walter Benjamin’s Arcades project, a sense of history you could call “mystical Marxist.” It understands a curiosity about or investment in the past as not being about returning to the past, or romanticizing the past, but rekindling aspects of the past which are outmoded ways of being, thinking, moving, that have revolutionary potential. I’m not saying opera has revolutionary potential, but the difference between Benjamin’s attention to 19th-century passages in Paris and the attention of someone who has a nostalgic relation to 19th-century Paris couldn’t be more different, though these interests look the same on the outside. They look antiquarian, fetishistic, detail-oriented, custodial, or connoisseurship-oriented. Nostalgia elides or closes off a keener understanding of different relations to past sensations and their re-emergence in present time.
Where does that leave opera for you?
To be a writer, a poet, or to be interested in classical music, is to be invested in these kinds of questions about how to revive the past. Nostalgia airbrushes these sensations with a mercantile finish. All the yearnings and complex curiosities that have to do with re-animation, rekindling, futurity, and utopia disappear under nostalgia’s indifferent hand. Orpheus is not “nostalgic” for Eurydice. He has an anti-eschatological view of what’s possible when you go back to the underworld. He blows it, but the motive of his botched, subterranean journey wasn’t nostalgia. If you take Orpheus as the allegory for everything in opera, then opera’s preoccupation with the past isn’t about worshipping the corpses or raising the prices on the gold embellishing the mummy’s tomb. For the opera lover, opera queen, or any oddball opera-attendee who goes for love’s rather than form’s sake, we have peculiar, curious, passionate and complicated agendas in our gazes backward.
What happens to these marginal listeners if such memories come flooding back?
There’s an ontology of citation. The first time I was at the Met in 1978, it was a Saturday matinée of “Aida.” I had come to New York from Cambridge. When the overture started, I was moved to think of my great aunt listening to opera in the 1920s in Germany, and then of myself listening to the 1949 Toscanini recording of “Aida” as a kid. I felt like I was in a corridor in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast” of all the different versions of “Aida” stretching backwards, and thinking, “this ‘Aida’ is the most recent one in the history of all of them. This one is really happening right now.” There was something very spooky and educating for me about occupying the utmost edge of the present.
Did you come from an opera-loving family?
Not really. But I had a great aunt born in 1896 or so who had a set of 78’s of “La Forza del Destino.” I didn’t have the slightest idea about what the opera was or why she had them, but they became a sort of talisman of question-asking: What does it mean to own these records? What does it mean to carry them from Venezuela to the U.S., from continent to continent?
All of this sounds far more in the realm of literature than opera.
Yes, well anyone shaped by a certain temperature of literature and art—Proust, James, Cornell, Colette—has a particular investment in the game of memory theater.
But of course, there are those who would rather not engage with the past. Your approach to memory via opera seems to toe the line between engagement and confrontation.
You could say it has to do with my methods as a writer and poet, vocations that demand repeated, daily acts of mental spelunking and layering. It became my business in the late ‘80s and ‘90s to delve into opera and literature, because diving is what happens when you write. Memory theater happens when you write and as a consequence of writing. It’s the difference between having a night full of dreams and writing about that night the next morning. A different level of investigation begins to take hold. The bringing forward into consciousness of these layers comes to me through the practice of writing, which is the discipline of paying attention to the filaments, echelons, or strata of the forgotten and the retrieved. Delving doesn’t happen by itself. It happens in response to the search for adjectives.
Do other opera houses hold this much sway in your mind?
That’s a great question. I finally went to Teatro La Fenice in Venice three years ago with my boyfriend. Whenever I went to Venice before, the theater was always closed or burned down or something and I was never ever able to get inside it. Anyway, I went and saw “Butterfly” and “Traviata” (unadventurous repertoire). My memory-theater games in Teatro La Fenice involved wilfully staged fantasies—imagining the premiere of “Traviata,” or of Maria Callas or Anna Moffo singing there. Through games of memory and sonic superimposition, I’m experiencing a palimpsest of voices all at once, and I’m “tripping” on the trick of mirrors, living in multiple eras simultaneously.
I could have attended the opera with a tabula rasa or a more denuded workaday sense—experiencing the event literally, rather than phantasmatically. But it was my birthday, so I was gonna make it sacred, and put my most focused archival and necromantic energies into reviving time in its most complex fashion so I could construct a permanent experience.
Any other opera houses?
I tried that game in La Scala as well. I appreciate contemporary opera as I do contemporary art and literature. It’s great and it’s what we need. But the relationship to opera I’m talking about is a literary journey or dream construction, a game of retrospect, seasoned by actual live performances, sculpted by performers whose vocation it is is to reenact, rekindle, complicate—to make the listener-spectator blissfully confused about the distinction between past, present, and future. ¶
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