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Dear Dr. Repertoire:

I might as well just cut to the chase here. What's the deal with gay guys and opera? I mean, there are next to no gay issues in opera. Take Madame Butterfly , for example? It's about heterosexuals, right? Or am I missing something in the "subtext?"

Mrs. Rance Frapoco

Dear Mrs. R: Capitalism is not a big issue in opera either, literally speaking. But Shaw and others have shown that this is one of the most important issues in Wagner's Ring . Most great art deals in coded symbols, with some of the responsibility for interpretation left to the audience member himself.

The surface plot (e.g., naive ex-Geisha marries American naval officer) is not nearly so important in opera as the underlying theme, which is what I assume you mean by "subtext." Butterfly is about trust and betrayal, a universal theme, yes, but even more so to many gay men. Opening up to a potential romantic partner (in even so small a way as asking him out for a drink) involves for many of us a huge expenditure of trust: what if he's not gay? What if my revealing myself to be gay means that he will reject me as a friend, maybe even become hostile to me?

Even when this leap of faith is intitially successful, we face the same danger Butterfly runs up against: when the relationship sours, we sometimes blindly continue to believe, to live in denial, becasue we buy in to some of society's harsher ideas about how gay people really don't deserve happiness in a relationship: we're unworthy because of the unnatural quality of our orientation, or our obsession with sex, or whatever. And so to see Butterfly act out that ritual of disillusionment is particularly poignant for us.

A lot of opera is about women who take upon themselves the responsiblity for sustaining a relationship when the man is fickle, or heartless, or unloving, or at war with Ethiopia, or whatever. Again, gay guys have the advantage over straight guys in that most of us have some experience in identifying with female characters in fiction. Because we are "different," we are not so strictly forbidden from doing something that society would view as "effeminate." Thus operas of love and betrayal (by men) speak more directly to us.

A further point is that many gay people adopt an attitude of bravado as a defense against their feelings of fear and insecurity. That attitude may take the form of extreme macho " Tom of Finland " posing or else the time-honored "camp," which is a sort of convention where the poser says, "I know what I am doing is ridiculous and tacky, but since we both can accept that silliness as a given, can you not also see underneath a sort of sincerity and even a beauty?" A diva who is a generation too old for her role, or who simply cannot quite manage the high notes, or who gets so caught up in her performance that she goes over the top -- she is in a sense applying the same sort of camp sensiblity, the same bravado, to her art. And we love her for her courage in wanting to tell the truth with style even if her physical equipment is less than willing.

  Dear Dr. Repertoire:

Must you use that horrid word "queer?" I'm just now getting used to "gay."

Peeved in Provincetown

Dear P-town: " Queer" is a great word, partly because it means more than just homosexual. Bisexual and transgendered people are queer, too. In fact, "gay" is not nearly so PC as it was even five years ago. Kids use "gay" to refer to anything silly or pretentious or just generally not cool. When Trey Parker (co-creator of South Park) was forced to perform a promotional spot for the game "Magic the Gathering," he ad-libbed a line in the voice of the mush-mouthed character Kenny saying "That sounds fucking gay!" Sometimes words mean what you want them to mean. Hell, I myself, politically correct paragon that I am, occasionally use the word "faggy" in a negative sense, to refer to something chichi and affected; oddly enough, I usually think of "fag" (the noun) in a more positive sense, e.g., "Were there any cute fags at the beach?"

Dear Dr. Repertoire:

I feel so sorry for you and those other critics. You seem incapable of enjoying the Opera. Must you all be so destructive toward this great Art?

-- Disgruntled in DC

Dear Grunt: Too often, fans of an artist interpret every notice that is not a rave as "destructive," simply because it does not echo their own boundless admiration and love. Fans seek validation of the love they have for the artist; I do not believe that most singers are so invested in unreserved praise. Let us recall how Adriana Lecouvreur reacted when some amateur critics greeted her with cries of "Portentosa! Divina! Musa! Sirena!" "Troppo, signori, troppo!" Artists know that promiscuous praise is as meaningless (and as unsatisfying) as promiscuous sex. We honor our favorites far more with reasoned criticism, even if some few fanatics call our words "destructive."

And while we're on the subject, I would like to add a couple of suggestions of my own: A reviewer should, I think, begin his process of judgement with the following little catechism:

  • What is the artistic goal this performance attempted to attain?
  • Is that goal a worthy and reasonable one to attempt under the circumstances?
  • How well did this performance succeed in meeting that goal?

I think you will see that these standards can be applied equally well to, say, The New Moon and Moses und Aron. The Romberg seeks to entertain and divert with stylish melody and perhaps a touch of campy humor, certainly not an unreasonable goal for a summer's evening (perhaps near a lake) with an audience of picknicking families. A critic would expect such a performance to offer performers with star stage presence and pretty voices, and a chic, witty mise en scene.

The Schoenberg, on the other hand, should be played to an audience prepared for deep emotional commitment and more than a little bit of intellectual labor. The goal of this performance should be to leave that audience emotionally drained and mentally rapt in considering the moral paradoxes postulated by the work. From the performers one would demand musical and verbal precision and absolute commitment to the dictates of the stage directions, as realized and adapted by the stage director to communicate the spirit of the work.

What all this means is that a review beginning, "The New Moon is meaningless fluff..." or "There's not a tune or a pretty frock anywhere to be found in that dreary Moses und Aron..." is already off to a bad start.

One might question as well the validity of a goal even when it is met successfully. The Met intends to revive Aida next season for 20-odd performances, with casts that are mostly undistinguished. One assumes the rationale here is that Aida is a very popular opera and that 20 nights will do very well at the boxoffice.* I do not think it is unreasonable to question whether boxoffice success is a good enough to expend precious resources on a project doomed to artistic mediocrity. I believe a critic might well state in his review, "Why revive Aida at this point anyway?" -- as several of us asked last season about that bomb-o-rama Il trovatore.

— Dr. Repertoire

* Some time after this first went to press, we learned that the rationale was not so rational after all. Aida was revived at the request of Luciano Pavarotti; he was also scheduled to sing Calaf in Turandot, but then asked that the Puccini opera be replaced by the Verdi. Then he cancelled the Aida, leaving the Met with the mess you all saw. Well, at least there was a reason -- now, ask Dr. Repertoire if he thinks it's worth trying to sell 80,000 Aida tickets for the sake of having a singer -- any singer -- on the roster.

Dr. Repertoire