Friday, September 21, 2012

Why There Is Opera

"The figure of Maria Callas is central to the mythology of the opera queen, and Koestenbaum devotes a whole chapter to her:"  –  We love Callas because she revised her body. In three years she dropped from 210 pouds to 144, and changed from ugly duckling to glamour queen. Bodies can't always be altered, but Callas's self-revision, like a sex change, makes us believe in the power of wish.

"He writes well about her faults and her self-discipline. He does not sufficiently acklowledge her purely musical intelligence, or remark about what two conductors have told me––that she had an uncanny ability to take account of the orchestra and alter the timbre of her notes according to the accompanying harmony ..."

"I heard Callas sing in public only twice, and she was still fat: her worst vocal problems were not yet troublesome, her stage presence was dramatic, and her weight did not matter. The work was Norma at the Rome Opera, and it was the only time I have ever gone to the same opera twice in one week. With all her faults, she revealed Bellini with all his faults as a great composer."

This  passage appears in the new collection of prose by Charles Rosen called Freedom and the Arts recently issued by Harvard University Press. Specifically, Rosen was reviewing The Queen's Throat by Wayne Koestenbaum, subtitled Opera, Homosexuality and the Mystery of Desire.

At top, Callas's "fat" Norma of the early 1950s. Below, a late version of Callas's "thin" Norma (Paris,1964). The overall mastery suggested by the Paris photo conceals the truth known to everyone, that the voice of the century was by this time barely able to sustain the role, that the career was already hurtling toward extinction.

More from Rosen's illuminating review:

"At one point Koestenbaum reaches a profound observation that transcends both Callas and her relation to the homosexual fan. It applies, however, beyond the limited range that he intended:"

When we value Callas for creating a revolution in operatic performance practice, for singing neglected Bellini and Donizetti operas as if they were tragic vehicles of undiminished power, we are valuing her for opening up the opera box, the closed space of a genre that never seemed to let us in or to let our meanings out. And yet, ironically, her revitalization of dismissed bel canto operas only emphasized opera's moribund nature. [Koestenbaum]

Rosen continues – "Anachronism was one aspect of opera that long ago opened it to gay appropriation; opera seemed campy and therefore available to gay audiences only when it became clear that it was an outdated art form, sung in foreign languages, with confused, implausible plots. Opera's apparent distance from contemporary life made it a refuge for gays, who were creations of modern sexual systems, and yet whom society could not acknowledge or accommodate. Opera is not very real. But gayness has never been admitted into the precincts of reality. And so gays may seek out art that does not respect the genuine."

"Superficially, Maria Callas took away opera's campiness by making it believable and vivid. And yet by importing truth into opera, an art of the false, she gave the gay fan a dissonance to match his own. Bestowing verisimilitude on Lucia or Norma or Elvira, Callas perforated the operagoer's complacency; her voice and her presence, arsenals of depth, when brought to bear on music that had become superficial, upset the audience's sense of perspective. Though it seems sacrilegious to call Callas's musically compelling creations camp, she performed the same kind of reversal that camp induces: she shattered the codes that separate dead from living works of art. Callas "camped" Lucia not by mocking it (Lucia is too easy to mock) but by taking it seriously. Resuscitating Lucia, Callas challenged our belief that history's movement is linear, that there is a difference between past and present, and that modern reality is real."

Above, Callas as Elvira in I Puritani. Below, in Lucia