Opera and the Endless Melodies of Queerness
Jack Lancaster explores “Rigoletto” and the long held trope of the opera queen
On the flap of Wayne Koestenbaum’s 1993 book The Queen’s Throat, Koestenbaum promotes the idea of an obvious connection. “Until now, silence has surrounded the long-observed affinity of gay men for opera.”
I close the book and put it back on my shelf, bewildered. What affinity? Who’s observing? As a gay man myself, I wonder where these “Opera Queens” exist, as Koestenbaum calls them. I ask my peers. My gay roommate prefers TikTok and techno to opera. I struggle to get his attention to watch most movies at home, so he firmly declines an opera invitation. I try to convince my boyfriend, Jon, that it would be a fun date idea, which he humors until he sees the price tag. He’s more interested in fantasy football than librettos. Based on my comprehensive study (N=2 white 25-year-old gay men living in NYC), I disagree with Koestenbaum. In reality, I react adversely to the idea of a monolithic gay desire that marketers can point to. To me it reeks of brands coming out of the woodwork to claim their rainbow dollars in June.
But that doesn’t mean I’m not intrigued. During undergrad, the queer writer Aisha Sabatini Sloane told me about “Papa Wayne” with reverence when I crashed her office hours, noting that he taught my favorite queer writer Maggie Nelson. Koestenbaum’s cultural criticism, most famously The Queen’s Throat, feels imbued with what BOMB called a “proclivity towards dandyism.” Susan Sontag called The Queen’s Throat a “brilliant book”. All of these overtures towards Koestenbaum as part of queer nonfiction’s canon meant I had to read him, making up for the heteronormative syllabi of my formal education. Reading has always been easy for me; going to the opera, and finding the money and desire to do so, intimidates me.
Lately, the book and opera as an art form, have been hunting me down. They track me like the assassin in Rigoletto, something I learn while googling classic plots as my own opera for dummies. I buy The Queen’s Throat at a bookstore but leave it stacked on my bookshelf underneath a watering can. Instead, I read Madame Bovary for a class. The hunt continues as in Part 2, Emma attends Lucia di Lammermoor, a tragic opera based on a romantic novel written by Sir Walter Scott, the same author that Flaubert implies results in Emma’s self-destructive quest for passion. Emma at least fits Koestenbaum’s declaration that “Opera has always suited those who have failed at love.” My professor, an accomplished novelist, asks the class if anyone has seen Lucia. The professor reacts with surprise when she hears that only one of us had seen any opera at all. Many of my classmates, a diverse group, will discuss in group texts after class that opera just belongs to another era and another social class, not us.
As we pack our bags when class ends my friend Erin confesses that she has seen the entire Ring cycle. The Ring cycle, I learn, takes 18 hours to sit through across four operas. My professor reacts with delight, and I stay silent. To me, sitting through 18 hours of singing in German sounds like the rings of Hell. But Erin dresses chicly and has cool tattoos, so I had to do what queerness has always asked of me: give it the ol’ college try.
I start with the book, pulling it Jenga-style from my stack. The Queen’s Throat is a queer investigation of Koestenbaum’s connection to opera in seven parts. They stretch from an investigation of diva culture to listening to opera at home, as Koestenbaum did growing up, to the act of singing itself and to a dialectic of the connection between music and words. There are times I notice my attention slipping (because of my relative disinterest) in the subject, not in Koestenbaum’s writing or what he finds arresting. Even when my interest wanes, I stick with Koestenbaum’s passion and his genuine sense of pleasure, which is so palpable, and almost, convincing.
I resist, remaining not fully convinced that opera deserves my time and money. Certain highlights do reach me. When he writes “Opera queens must choose one diva”, I relate to how gay men now worship Real Housewife starlets (mine was Mary Cosby, now Meredith), pop divas (Tove Lo, now and forever), or Jennifer Coolidge on The White Lotus. I recognize the truth in his connections even if I don’t know enough about opera as a form. To judge that, I know I have to go myself. Fine.
I try to start in a position of least resistance. I decide I’ll go see The Hours, a new opera in English based on the book The Hours by the queer writer Michael Cunningham, about the queer writer Virginia Woolf and featuring a queer storyline on loss and longing. If any opera would speak to me, this would be it. I make my way to buy tickets online, only to discover they are over $200. I ask my boyfriend to call the Met for me and see if they have student tickets available, part of a program to make opera more accessible to my generation. I ask Jon because I’m afraid the box office workers will shame my cheapness in the face of Art with a capital a. Instead, they politely tell my boyfriend that they aren’t selling student tickets for The Hours because it’s too popular. Looking back, I question if my unwillingness to seem cheap reveals my overriding desire to not have to be cheap in the first place. I regress back to grade school Jack, just wanting to fit in.
Significantly deterred, I meander for a week or two in hopes that the prices will come down. Then I return to the website and find that someone hacked the Met’s website. Several days later, I see the tweet of another queer writer, the poet Jameson Fitzpatrick, which says “damn I can’t believe the met is still hacked.” Maybe it’s just not meant to be. Maybe opera isn’t for me. Maybe, this hack proves opera is an overpriced art form entrenched in the past, so much so that the Met can’t even handle a measly little cyber-attack. Besides, what would I even wear to it? I don’t have a tuxedo or a mink coat. I commit the crime of the categorization done on the book flap, lumping opera goers into a congruent blob of exclusionary gaudiness.
The quest to attend the opera and its incredulous cost reminds me of another misguided categorization, the idea that LGBTQ individuals are affluent. The Atlantic reported that 29% of LGBTQ individuals report food insecurity compared to 16% nationwide, but the myth of gay affluence persists even in the Supreme Court. Justice Scalia once said LGBTQ people had “high disposable income” and “disproportionate political power.”, which would make me laugh if it weren’t so terrifying to hear in our nation’s highest court. The poster child of the myth might as well be me, a young white cis-gendered man living in NYC. Like all myths, it reflects an illusion of truth, based on the frivolous spending that comes with Keeping Up with The Gay Joneses. This spending stems from a financial dysmorphia that I experience, lusting for Margiela pants to look cool at a gay nightlife event with ticket prices of $100. Having these places to express queer desire and community seems necessary even though I roll my eyes at the cost of the opera. In reality, as I have seen firsthand, these spaces feel even more exclusionary to my friends who don’t present as white cisgender gay men than the opera ever would.
The myth of gay affluence annoys me, but I don’t bear the brunt of the harm it causes. The harm exists in the fact that it whitewashes the lived realities of so much of our community. LGBTQ people of color, queer women, and transgender individuals live in poverty at much higher rates than their straight white cisgender counterparts or straight members of their own race. The media promotes wealthy married white gay men living in a DINK dreamland. It doesn’t show a trans woman of color trying to make ends meet to live in high-cost urban spaces with higher populations of LGBTQ individuals—and arguably tolerance—just to feel marginally safer in their skin.
But once again, Koestenbaum catches me off guard with his self-awareness, guiding me back on my journey. Even in 1993, Koestenbaum admits to opera’s declining relevance, and acknowledges the association of the art to privilege, “I am unhappy about opera’s circumscribed audience, its association with white privilege, but I do not feel that the only ethical response is to announce my love of opera.” Koestenbaum’s words meet me where I’m at across a thirty-year divide, and our shared queer identities help me understand retaining an appreciation for art forms even if we don’t fit within its targeted demographics or the form doesn’t fit with our perfect politics. I was engaging in gay presentism, described by the queer writer Colton Valentine, as thinking our queer present has progressed far beyond the generations before us, that we move towards an ever-liberated future. Koestenbaum reminds me of how much we already knew, how much I still can learn.
The Hours off the table due to cost, I settle for Rigoletto, the opera which I found in my quick google and is referenced in The Queen’s Throat. My mom, who has never been to an opera, recognizes the name, so I figure it must be somewhat of a classic. No student tickets are available for the night I want to go, but I buy Jon and myself an obscured view seat in the balcony box for $30 each. We’d spend the night craning our necks over the rails to spot Gilda on the stage-left corner but at least we wouldn’t break the bank. We decide to go a few days after Christmas, while we both have time off from work.
Admittedly, entering the Metropolitan Opera Hall is the best part. Spiral staircases crest up towards gold-leafed ceilings. Dazzling crystal firework-like chandeliers hang from the center, and their light shimmers and reflects like glitter on the photos everyone takes on the staircase. As opera virgins, Jon and I view this night as a special occasion, but everyone relishes in the opulence. The crowd acts as a chorus of incredible and varied fashion choices. An older woman in a floor-length fur coat cozies up to her dapper husband in a tuxedo before being asked to take the photo of a tall Black man, who dazzles in a screen-printed black and white suit, and his wife who looks electric in a hot pink ball gown. A German mother-daughter duo takes photos of one another wearing dresses paired with hiking boots. Two teenage boys wearing jeans and their college sweatshirts leap up the red-carpeted stairs two at a time.
All of it exudes glamor, and I revel in it. Jon and I rarely get a chance to look this nice together, dressed up in suits we wear maybe once a year. I’d chosen a black velvet jacket my dad handed down to me which I keep for annual work holiday parties, and which makes me feel like a movie star. We emulate our own diva moment, off-stage. I get pleasure from showing all the way out, play-acting as part of this fashionable set who goes to the opera. I wish I didn’t drool over fine garments and glamorous up-dos. I wish I didn’t adulate the grandeur of this jewelry box entrance, which steals the show from the theater itself. I feel I should know better, realizing it’s in part conditioned into me by capitalism and its hang-ups. But this game of dress-up evokes joy, even belonging. Like Koestenbaum, I don’t think the only ethical decision is to avoid these pleasures altogether. Pleasure doesn’t always make rational sense. For queer people, it rarely does.
Inside we tuck into our private box I may only be able to see half the stage, but it draws me into this historic form. I feel like Anna Karenina (before she gets slut-shamed at the opera.)
Inside the playbill, there is an ad for PrEP.
“I guess there must really be a lot of gays here,” I tell Jon.
As if their entrance was conducted, an older gay couple sits in the row below us. When they hear that Javier Camarena (a name that doesn’t register anything in me) would be filling in as the Duke, they gasp in conjoined excitement. Throughout the night I smile each time they yell “Brava!” to Gilda. The joy they experience trickles up. Though they remain strangers, I feel gratitude for opera as a form that can give someone such excitement. Ok Mr. Koestenbaum, you were right.
Another thing that Wayne gets right: though most of us can’t understand the words, we can project our own experiences onto the emotions in the notes. During the first act, I feel drowsy as the tension and world-building moves rather slowly, before I remember my favorite part of The Queen’s Throat, where Koestenbaum gives readers a “Pocket Guide to Queer Moments in Opera”. These moments don’t read as inherently queer (most are about heterosexual love), but rather Koestenbaum’s interpretations of their connection to queer experience. I try to do the same to invest myself more into the show.
Here is the straight-forward summary of Rigoletto: Rigoletto is a jester for a womanizing Duke. Rigoletto supports the Duke’s seductive antics to the dismay of the courtiers whose wives and daughters fall prey to the Duke. One courtier curses Rigoletto for it, and the rest will go further to kidnap his daughter, Gilda, for it. Gilda has been hidden inside Rigoletto’s house for months out of fatherly protectionary precautions, except she can go to church. Of course, Gilda catches the eye of the Duke at church, whose charm works on her before his courtiers kidnap her. Even after, Gilda stays in love with the Duke despite witnessing his womanizing. Rigoletto misguidedly takes out his anger on the Duke instead of the courtiers who mock him and kidnap his daughter, and the Duke just keeps playing his game.
Here is my queer-forward reading. As I watch Gilda sing trapped in her house, I stop paying attention to the English translation the Met provides. I don’t need it to understand Gilda’s longing to be permitted into the world, the desire of having and being had. She perfectly embodies for me the constrictions of the closet as she sings within the house that traps her, her voice transcending its boundary. I even relate to the fact that after she realizes the Duke’s caddishness, she remains in love. Rationality especially goes out the window for inexperienced lovers. In other scenes I relate to Rigoletto, who, borne of another station and suffering from physical ailments, remains the object of the courtiers’ contempt. He differs from them in intractable ways. Rigoletto’s anger towards the Duke feels justified when he fights against a power structure set up to crush him. The second and third acts particularly pick up, and not only because Jon and I spend $8 for a morsel of chocolate at intermission, in need of a brief sugar high. The queer reading helps me feel a unique connection to the art, the language, and the world that it turns out, I do know. The music of these acts also wows the crowd, even for someone without the technical knowledge to know what the conductors or singers are doing. I just know I like it.
After the show, I am left with more questions about my ability to connect than why Koestenbaum connects queerness to opera. Why am I drawn toward The Queen’s Throat? Why am I drawn to opera? Why must I name-drop all of these queer writers, as if I’m just part of the gang? Koestenbaum writes that queerness demands a “ceaseless work of recollection,” particularly for people like me who lacked queer role models growing up and now “must invent precedence and origin for their taste.” Many potential role models for my generation, including Koestenbaum’s peers, were taken from us by the AIDS epidemic. This includes my uncle, Randy. Instead, I must turn to the writers, and embark into the woods of their words to understand my desires, pleasures, politics, body. When I start to see the forest for the trees, I see the unruliness of its growth, the amorphous bodies of queer history and community. I love the word queer for the belief that it demands no end to this self-exploration. It grants me this communion with people whose desires may differ slightly from mine but are connected by being outside the norm. I am striving for Wagner’s connection of the aria and the recitative explanatory songs, what he called the “endless melody”, connecting individual to community, and pleasure to self-actualization.
When the don’t-call-me-queer David Sedaris and the decidedly-not-queer writer Pamela Paula (who has been criticized for many anti-trans articles) get promoted in The Times deriding the word queer, I have to laugh at the idea that people wouldn’t want to be part of something bigger, as large, and open as the soprano’s voice. Queerness allows me to project myself not only onto the opera, but through myriads of storylines across art forms imbued with longing and understanding identity.
I may reach in my projections like a diva does for the high note, but the term reminds me of the song La donna è mobile. At Rigoletto, I immediately recognize it despite never having listened to an opera song beforehand. I certainly didn’t know that its meaning would make me laugh out loud. Before Rigoletto’s premier, Verdi banned his tenor from evening whistling the tune outside of rehearsals. He had the prescience to know it would be a catchy tune, though I doubt he knew it would someday end up in a Doritos. Some opera purists dislike it being taken out of context, but there’s magic in how natural the tune feels regardless of the setting. Queerness carries that same melody, shifting between modes and identities, allowing many to recognize themselves in it.
As we leave in a shoal of opera goers spilling out into Lincoln Center, Jon leans over to tell me,
“I would do that again!”
Coming from someone who didn’t know if opera had a plot when we sat down in our booth, his reaction surprises me.
“I think so too,” I say.
After the opera, I do not transform into the kind of opera queen that Koestenbaum writes about. But I do gain a new understanding and appreciation for those queens, and more understanding and appreciation for the queenliness in me. Our passions, though different, soar like an aria, resonating with different notes but still part of the same melody. I realize I connect thanks to my passion for queer fiction and nonfiction that I project my own experience onto, as I did while reading The Queen’s Throat. In writing this, I hold my one note like a fermata, trying to take part in that song that queer writers like Koestenbaum have been singing since long before I was born.