Operetta Research Center
20 November, 2019
So here it is, the world’s “first gay opera guide,” or so the publisher claims. It’s a small Berlin based company called Querverlag. Together with editors Rainer Falk and Sven Limbeck they have put the 700 page book Casta Diva on the market, covering 100 composers and more than 150 works. Considering the special place operetta holds in the history of LGBTIQ representation – from Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan and Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience to The Beastly Bombing by Roger Neill and Julian Nitzberg – I was curious to see what the new book would have to say about any of these shows, even if the main focus is and should be “opera.”
First off, it’s surprising that such an opera guide is only appearing now. After all, Wayne Koestenbaum’s famous The Queen’s Throat was published in the early 1990s, other US-American books such as Sam Abel’s Opera in the Flesh: Sexuality in Operatic Performance followed in 1996. English language books about the LGBTIQ side of “popular” musical theater (as opposed to “serious” opera) could fill entire libraries, whether it’s The Queer Encylopedia of Music, Dance & Musical Theater or Something for the Boys. And though German scholars are usually a bit behind in these matters, even my own Glitter and be Gay: Die authentische Operette und ihre schwulen Verehrer came out in 2006. But, hey, maybe some things need more time and are worth waiting for?
What’s astonishing about the heavy duty Casta Diva volume is that even though it’s so weighty and covers so much material that is not directly “gay” in any sense of the word (Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Ritorno d’Ulisse or Verdi’s Rigoletto, to name just three titles), there are only two operettas included in the book: Die Fledermaus (of all things). Not exactly a groundbreaking work in terms of LGBTIQ representation. And Candide. Which includes the aria “Glitter and be Gay” and has Bernstein as composer.
All the other milestone works from the operetta canon are not given any place of honor, they are not even discussed in passing or mentioned in relation to the various operas that picked up LGBTIQ topics later. And the operettas that are named are only alluded to in the Offenbach biography which leads up to: Tales of Hoffmann.
How do I know that? Because I wrote that Offenbach text myself. (And I don’t wish to suggest that it’s particularly good.) But the respective works are not dealt with in the general intro by Mess. Falk and Limbeck. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that Gilbert & Sullivan called Patience a “comic opera” or Offenbach his gender bending Tulipatan with its joke about same-sex marriage an “opéra-bouffe.” It also doesn’t seem to matter that the character of Bunthorne is “an early moment in the long process of the homosexual emerging from the closet of representation,“ as Vincent Lankewish puts it in his essay “No Patience for the Marriage Plot.”
That kind of opera – comic or bouffe – doesn’t count. Or so it seems. No further explanation given.
Am I disturbed by this? Yes. Especially when, instead, I get articles on Madame Butterfly telling me that this is the most misogynist opera ever written. (Can it even be performed today, under such circumstances?) And especially when so many articles are aiming for a seriousness that comes across as dull at times.
Of course there are some fabulous entries. But there is so much material (like straightforward plot summaries) that you can get on Wikipedia, that make it a puzzlement to me why that space hasn’t been used for a wider and more personilized scope. Would a more inclusive approach have blown up this project too much? Would leaving out shows that are extensively covered elsewhere (Aida et al) reduce the value of this project? Is any LGBTIQ person buying such an opera guide to read a plot outline for La Traviata or Ring des Nibelungen?
In his preface, Barrie Kosky as the most outspoken and successful LGBTIQ opera/operetta person active in Germany right now only briefly touches on the critical major points. Having done an interview with him for the upcoming “opera queen” movie by Rosa von Praunheim I know Mr. Kosky has a lot more to say, also about the relationship between opera and operetta and musicals, and about the relationship of gay men to all three sub genres. It would have been worth – in a 700 page book – to cover the question of what differentiates “show queens” from “opera queens” and “operetta queens.” And if you include Fledermaus, because it’s a regular in the German opera house repertoire, then what about Lustige Witwe, all the other Lehar works, and even the other Strauss shows from Eine Nacht in Venedig to Zigeunerbaron? Would the blatant homoeroticism of Der Zarewitsch not have been worth discussing here? And if you include Candide and call it “the last grand operetta of the 20th century” then wouldn’t some context be called for? (Stephan M. Hübner does not bother to ask what made Bernstein & Co. write a Broadway operetta in 1956 and why the genre might be particularly suited for the Voltaire story of the “best of all possible worlds.”.)
Where does that leave things? Well, you get a bright pink book with velvet lining that (visually speaking) is as non-gay as can be. Also, there are no photos inside that show the famous divas worshipped by so many gays: Callas, Tebaldi, Nilsson, Sills etc. Instead, there are many new productions, not necessarily known for any LGBTIQ perspective.
But maybe such tactics are typical of today: the Leslie & Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City was just renamed to Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. If that’s what going mainstream means, then… why not? Casta Diva is the operatic equivalent to the LL Museum, in many ways. (At least it’s kept the word “schwul” in the subtitle.)
I’m sure many people will praise it for that. And you can certainly lose yourself in the many biographies and discussions of individual works. Even if some of the articles can drive you up the wall, they will make you think, and protest, and re-think. They drove me up the wall, but also made me re-think. And wonder why such things as Lucas Kazan’s gay porn versions of Cavalleria rusticana, Così fan tutte, or Elisir d’amore are only briefly mentioned in the respective opera articles, but not discussed as a unique phenomenon, considering that there is nothing comparable in the world of “straight” opera fandom. But maybe too much sexual explicitness is scary to the editors? Maybe too much personal opinion and fun were is scary, too, for a overall “academic” approach?
Perhaps Germans need a bit more time to rise to the entertainment heights and philosophic brilliance of English language publications, or the fully appreciated juciness (and crazyness) of Mr. Kazan’s films, of which there also is an Offenbach/Belle Hélène example of which Kurt Gänzl says, “Pars pour la Crète never looked so good!”
On the plus side, things are moving forward. Mr. Falk and Mr. Limbeck will officially present their Casta Diva at Komische Oper Berlin on 15 December, at 3 pm. I’m sure they will also answer all critical questions, and maybe have convincing answers.
In the end, you shouldn’t take my word for anything here but make up your own mind!