gay sensibility

talking to Ethan Mordden,
author of The Venice Adriana

James Jorden: Are you an opera queen?

Ethan Mordden: I never really understood what that term means. Is that synonymous with "opera buff", because that's what I am. I don't like "opera freak", because that sounds like there's something wrong with you if you like opera. I think there's something wrong with you if you don't! If an opera queen is gay man who loves opera, well, that's me. But if you mean a more or less effeminate man with shrill opinions about his favorites and especially his favorite hates --no, that's a very small part of the population. I belong to this club were we meet and play tapes of singers and try to stump each other, and no one in that group is an opera queen. There's even one straight guy there -- I know because I overheard him discussing sports scores. "Opera queen" is an aggressive term, like the way some people react to the word "queer" -- they spent their childhood hating that word, and now they can't get used to it as something positive. "Opera queen" I think suggests a sort of unpleasant behavior, bitchiness, so I don't like to use it.

Is there a connection between opera and the gay sensibility?

There must be some connection: gay guys do like opera. Why, I don't know. My friend Ken Mandelbaum says gay guys like musical comedy simply because they're smart. I think what he means is that gays are different from straights: we're not just straight people with different dating habits. In certain totalitarian regimes, they kill everyone with glasses, everyone who went to college, everyone with a middle name, until there's nothing left but stupid workers. If you took all the gays out of society, that's what you'd have left -- droning, boring, dreary jackasses. It must be congenital. Gay people in general have this élan vital that you do not find in straights. If you take a gay guy into a cabaret where there's a talented singer doing a Cole Porter song, I don't care if he never heard Cole Porter before, the gay guy will listen, he'll hear something is going on. I've seen straights in the same place, and they'll just talk and they won't hear the music. Not all straights, but a lot of them.

So what we call a "gay sensibility" really overlaps some into straight people.

Of course, a few. Or there's the possibility that a lot more people are bisexual than we think. They're what I call 60-40 bisexuals. They have enough straight in them to run a whole life as a heterosexual, but if the opportunity presented itself, in music, say, they "go gay."

That touches on one of the themes of The Venice Adriana. The hero, Mark, is a gay man, or a man who is going to be gay, expressing himself through a connection with the diva Adriana Grafanas -- the Callas character-- and of course with the music, before he really connects with his sexuality.

It was all there at the same time, really. He's young, it's the early sixties, so it's bold of him to be so aware of his gayness. He's taken away from a sexually sterile environment to a sexually laden one, so laden, in fact, that in the courtyard there is this beautiful boy who is probably not gay, but available. You know Mark is going to go back to America and be the first of the Stonewall generation, he'll help bring it about. There's so much in the book about destiny and free will. Adriana's brother, the psychiatrist, explains that people are "tilted" in a direction, not quite compelled. Adriana makes the same mistakes over and over again, but not quite unthinkingly. We know that once you realize that you are making these accomodations that can be self-destructive, once you recognize that, yes, you can stop doing it. It's hard for people to do. I tried to get this across in the novel by the echoing of certain phrases: "the roots that cling", "repentance is infinite." Finally I just couldn't think of an ending. Of course, Mark gets his tape of Adriana Lecouvreur, but that's just the Maltese Falcon, that's really not what it's about. The key is the Professore, who lives a completely tiltless life, the opposite of Adriana. We see that he loves this beautiful boy but he is willing to give him up, and then move on to the next gig. I wanted to show what life is like in the shadow of these great geniuses who create history. And if I could see Callas in perspective, so could my narrator, so he is free to write the book.

It's such a simple, quiet ending, especially after that disturbing, apocalyptic scene on the film set. A real Fellini feel to it.

Well, the character of the director is based on Pasolini, but I see what you mean.

It's very real, and yet it becomes surreal as we watch.

Like the scenes in La Dolce Vita when the photographers rush up to the airplane...

Which must be realer than we think, because the newsreel footage of Callas looks exactly the same way. It's hard to imagine an opera singer getting that kind of attention, more even than Marilyn Monroe.

But Marilyn Monroe was not a phallic woman. Callas behaved like a man, sneering at the reporters, "Use your mind a bit!" Phallic women are scary, really disturbing. They're so subversive they threaten to throw the whole world off its pins.

Is that why these women find friends among gay men? Adriana likes Mark...

But she won't accept that he's gay. She's homophobic. She's got "campanilismo": she thinks what she learned as a little girl is all there is to the world. She's surrounded by gay men, who have helped make her what she is, but that doesn't change her thinking at all.

Do you think Callas was that homophobic? She certainly had gay friends.

Remember that Adriana in the novel is not precisely Callas. For example, Adriana's first husband -- the Meneghini character, is dead, and she is with this handsome Greek actor. And it was Meneghini who was always keeping Callas focused on the backstage drama and the rivalry, telling her Gobbi was getting an extra curtain call or Tebaldi was in the audience. Without Meneghini, Callas would have been a very different person. I thought, what if we changed some details, so we see a new Callas. By running her character through different situations, we get an alternate view of her. The strictly factual Callas stories do not let us see her in love with a beautiful and sexy young man. We don't see her in a romantic rivalry. I wanted to see what she would be like doing these other things, and at the same time, I wanted her to be Callas. Really, there's no one else remotely like her: she speaks English as if she learned it on Mars. By speaking Greek and English as a kid, then Italian because of the music, then learning fluent French. Add to that her strange vocabulary, some of it from 40's America, some she heard from Elsa Maxwell, some of it from the turn of the century. At one point Adriana asks, "Where is my cachet?" That's a word used by Olive Fremstad!

You caught exactly Callas's voice. Not only could you hear the voice, you could see the face. So serious, so very earnest. Even when she says the most beastly things about other people, you still feel sympathy for her, because she has no sense of irony about herself.

I was very pleased with the first scene of the novel, when the diva returns from a performance. One by one, the Prince, the gossip, the actor come in, then Adriana, complaining about her mother nagging her. She even attacks Mark, calls him a toad. Finally all that's left for her to do is faint. And there you hear a line from Adriana Lecouvreur: "Bella tu sei, tu sei gioconda!"

So the title of the novel, The Venice Adriana, has more than one meaning...

Good, you noticed that the plot of the novel is taken from Adriana Lecouvreur. Some of the plot, anyway. That opera has to have the most complicated, confusing libretto. Everyone complains about Trovatore or Gioconda, but you CAN understand them if you pay attention. By the middle of Act 2 of Adriana, you are totally lost.

So, why would you recast the life of Callas as Adriana Lecouvreur?

I really don't know. I do know I wanted to write a Callas novel, but not point-for-point based on her life. Were you irritated, for example, that I gave Adriana roles that Callas never sang? I thought, what a great role for the young Callas, one that she never sang: Luisa Miller. She would have had enormous success in that, with her control of the coloratura in the early part, and of course in the more dramatic stuff she would have been superb. I thought, I can give her the chance to sing this part. It's fascinating to think of those "roles that got away.": My favorite "missed" role for Callas was the Marschallin, which I suppose she would have done in Italian.

My favorite is the Racconti d'Hoffman, all three roles,which Adriana does sing. In fact, that performance is the first pirate record Mark ever sees. Like the Lisbon Traviata -- is that the inspiration for the title Venice Adriana?

Of course! For many years collectors spoke of the Covent Garden Norma, the Berlin Lucia, the Mexico City Aida (actually there are two of those), the Lisbon Traviata. I thought, since the hero is on this quest for a rare recording, let's call the novel something with that sort of ring. And, of course, there's the play on "Adriana's life happening in Venice" -- like "The Paris Maria," the last years of her life. I love puns anyway. Plus it's the plot of Adriana Lecouvreur reset in Venice, so there are three things going on there. When I was a kid, my family lived in Venice, and I've never had the chance to use that, except in one short story. I got to use that wonderful Venetian dialect, boning up with Goldoni. The house in the novel was our house, the Casa Toscanini. But at first, I just knew that the novel was going to be about Callas. I didn't even know that it wasn't going to be about "Callas." I think of it as Citizen Kane, with Maria Callas as William Randolph Hearst. It is Callas, but it isn't Callas. What we didn't need was just a biography of Callas, even as fiction. We have heard that story so many times. There is one more way to tell the story factually. I'd like to write a discography. I know Ardoin's book and I like it, but his thesis is that the later performances found her more subtle, better able to get around a role. He prefers a later Traviata, from the late 50s, without really addressing the fact that the voice is breaking up. You hear that the sound was much smaller. But the main thing I would like to do is to address how Callas's performances of, say, Lucia, stood in relation to those before her, like Pagliughi and Capsir, and those after, Sills and Scotto and those singing now.

Callas really defines for us what we expect the "diva" to be.

Right! Nobody ever says, "the next Sutherland" or "the next Sills." Tiziana Fabbricini is more like what we think of as "Callas type."

Sylvia Sass, superficially.

Or especially Souliotis, even though she's blonde. She really must have listened to Callas recordings. I heard in in Philadelphia in Nabucco.

Yes, you write about that trip in Demented.

A forgotten book.

Hardly! That book defined my sensibility, whole generation's sensibility really.

I had no idea. That book is harder to find now than Mawrdew Czgowchwz - which, you know, is not even out of print. The editor of that book hates James McCourt, don't ask me why. He took all the copies and he keeps them in his apartment. You know what else is hard to find? That Ardoin-Fitzgerald book with all the pictures. You can't even find it used. I think copies of that book are willed to friends. What did you think of Wayne Koestenbaum's book?

I liked it okay. It wanders some.... the thing I like about your books--- you communicate the experience intellectually and emotionally, with really exacting detail. When I'm editing parterre box, I tell the writers I want that exacting sensuous detail, the color of the seatback and what the first note sounded like.

What are they writing about?

It's called A Boy and His Diva. About the first OVERWHELMING diva experience. For me it was Scotto in the Trittico

I don't have anything like that. I tend to react to works rather than performers. I once was talking to someone about the Entartete Musik series on Decca, in particular Braunfels' opera Die Vogel, based on Aristophanes' The Birds, which is one of the most wonderful discoveries I've made in a long time, really lovely and interesting, and he said the notion of buying something like that without Kiri or Renata or Renee or Maria in the cast -- what's the point. Now, you see, he's totally singer-oriented. That doesn't mean I ignore singers. There are some singers I care about because I think they were in some ways underrated. Bumbry is one of them. The timbre of the voice is just sheer listening pleasure, and certain performances -- the Bayreuth Venus, and another one, a Tosca I think -- she was just phenomenally good. And I can also remember nights when she was just sort of hanging out. Sure, there are singers I love, like Maria Callas; there are people I don't care about, like -- well, who cares?

So is there a defining operagoing experience, you know, "before" and "after"?

No, sorry! This is how it developed. I came from musical comedy, which was always my great love when I was a kid. Taken when I was too young, then when I went away to school, I lived with a very permissive family that let me go into the city all by myself when I was quite young. The train was just across the street from where we lived, the Glen Cove station -- where William Holden meets Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina. So I'd go in on Saturday afternoons and see a show. At some point in high school, I moved over from seeing Funny Girl or Hello, Dolly! to going to the Met. I had always played the piano, and I started with piano scores of operas. The first one was Pagliacci. Then the first opera I saw was at the Baths of Caracalla, in the summer of who knows when, with Mary Curtis-Verna in Tosca. Now, no one has an epiphany at the Baths of Caracalla, with all those tourists. It was all so far away, so it wasn't really spectacular. The only thing I remember is I was fascinated by that theme in Act 1 (he hums the tune of "Arde in Tosca un folle amor") So that fall, when I was back in America, I asked my best friend, who was really into opera, about Tosca and I suppose he fanned the flames a bit. But, no, there was no triggering event. I just started going to opera, maybe because I ran out of musical comedy. Like many other people, I think I found musical comedy too finite: it's only what's playing at the moment, and maybe recordings of older shows that you can get your hands on. Opera is infinitely expansive -- or was, back then, because you could buy all these incredible old scores. By now I have a very extensive score collection, including many titles I am still waiting to see recorded. Like Casella's La donna serpente, which was booed off the stage at its premiere in Rome in the 1930s and apparently never heard from again. I am waiting for someone to find a tape of a RAI performance and release it so I can follow along with the score. That's my background, playing on the piano first, and if I liked it, I would want to see it at the Met. Once you get into opera, you want to "collect" every performance. At the Old Met, an opera like Boheme would have a different cast every performance, I mean an ENTIRE different cast -- maybe Parpignol would stay the same. I remember seeing Boheme one season nine times. In one of them Elizabeth Soederstroem sang Musetta, and I remember thinking, maybe she won't come out in that horrible dress, sort of between red and mauve. This woman owns one ugly dress, even though in Act Four we find out she's dating a rich guy. The point is, after all those performances you become an aficionado, you pick up the lore. There was this one super who always led the group that carried off a dead body, and he had them do this maneuver where they'd make a complete 360 degree circle and then go offstage. It didn't matter who the dead person was, Liu or Siegfried or Valentin, they always made that circle. You fell in love with silly things like that. There's nothing silly at the New Met. Everything is so severe and dedicated, not silly.

Maybe Charles Anthony is the very end of that tradition.

The last keeper of the flame.

So, what do you call a great opera performance?

The two greatest performances of opera I ever saw: one Puccini and one Wagner. The Puccini was announced as a Tebaldi, Morell, Gobbi Tosca -- who cares who conducted. I had seen Tebaldi before, but never Gobbi. So out before the curtain comes Rudolf Bing, and the audience began to growl. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Tebaldi is quite all right..." The audience is continuing to growl. "And Signor Gobbi is fine. But Barry Morell is ill, so the role of Cavaradossi will be sung by Franco Corelli." And it really was stupendous! People think of Tebaldi as being not all that interesting on stage, but in Tosca she knew what she was doing. At the end of Act One, at her exit, she's very distracted by the thought that the tenor has been unfaithful to her. Gobbi offers to kiss her hand, and she jerks her hand away with disgust. Was it great art? Maybe not. But it was great Tebaldi. Or, in Act Two, she picked up this huge pile of papers, both hands full, and carried them around while she looked for the safe-conduct. When she saw the paper in the dead man's hand, she let her hands go, and the papers flew all over the place. Great old-fashioned star opera. I think Puccini would have been very happy with this performance. On the other hand, the other great performance I saw (I've seen some good ones, but no great ones) was the Karajan Walküre: Nilsson, Crespin, Ludwig, Vickers, and Stewart. There are no greater Wagner singers in this century, except maybe Olive Fremstad. Wonderful performers doing their damnedest in great works of art. And I loved Olivero in Adriana Lecouvreur -- talk about tricks! You couldn'take your eyes off her. At the end of the third act, while Mignon Dunn is crushing the violets, Olivero is slowly sinking to the floor, and you're thinking, how can anyone hold that? You expected that when the curtain went up on Act Four, she'd still be there, sinking. So a great opera experience is some combination of great art and great entertainment. You notice that my "great performances" are all a generation ago. We're never going to see another Tito Gobbi or another Renata Tebaldi than we are going to see another Clark Gable.

One event I'm waiting for this year is Catherine Malfitano in Makropulos Case. She was incredible in Salome at the Met.

That's the production with the black bodybuilder, right? The Met has been doing that lately, sneaking in shirtless hunks. Even Faust had a bodybuilder in it. You know, a lot of people are crazy about Malfitano, but for me, the last star was really Olivero. I don't have that "the diva is all" attitude, but neither am I academic. I certainly know a good performance when I see one.

The Venice Adriana
by Ethan Mordden
St. Martin's Press
294 pp. $23.95.

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