Some have it, some don’t

Some have it, some don’t

Why do some opera singers develop cult following among queer women, and others barely get noticed by the said demographics?

The only out-queer singers I know of (and all North American: my homegrrl Adrianne Pieczonka who however works most often in Germany and Austria, the Met’s Patricia Racette and her partner, and American Verdian/Wagnerian mezzo Jill Grove) don’t necessarily have a huge or particularly mad lesbo following. They’re all ‘happily partnered’ (is a married queer less threatening than a single one? I’m sure there are publicists who think that), some with children, and apart from the fact that they’re with a person of their own sex, there’s nothing particularly queer about them, on or off stage.

I am trying to figure out what I mean by this surplus of queer that adds something to the singer that drives us, the bent audience, crazy.

Tell me if I’m out to lunch – but most of all tell me why you love your diva.

— In part it’s the roles. The only role opposite a woman that I remember Pieczonka singing was the Marschallin – her roles tend to be on the extremely straight side. (Sieglinde. Senta. Tosca. Ariadne.) And when I say straight, I don’t mean they can’t be queered on stage – I mean, no director really bothered queering them yet. So, for all intents and purposes: extremely straight. Same for Jill Grove. Although she sang otherworldly and differently-sexual creatures like Erda and Azucena, he roles are also on the straight side. Of all Wagnerian roles, Brunnhilde, Waltraute, Kundry and Venus will get you queer points. Sieglinde, Senta, Fricka, Elisabeth – no.

It helps if you’re a mezzo. Gay men gravitate towards sopranos, and queer women gravitate towards mezzos. But not any mezzo repertoire will do.

You must know how to do baroque. As long as there’s a chunk of baroque in your bag of tricks, you’re on the right path.

— Furthermore, you will ‘own’ at least one Handel trouser role. The more of them you own, the queerer.

You can’t be conventionally beautiful. In other words, you can’t be beautiful to the straight male gaze. There needs to be something peculiar about your body, something freakish (in the best, sexual-disorderliness meaning of the word), whether in your manner of acting or moving or the length of your neck or your hands (what? like you never  thought about this?) or your height or flat-chestedness or curvyness, or hair, or something.

— Having said that, approaching the Botha weight won’t do. Seriously – Montserrat pulled it off, but that was once in an operatic century. And she didn’t have a huge lesbo following anyway. So… there’s freakishness and then there’s freakishness.

— You can’t fear experiment on stage. You’re willing to go to the edge and over, you’re willing to uglify yourself, monster-ize yourself on stage.

You must pass the Standard Trouser Test with flying colours. There will be debate what the STT consists of. Some would argue it’s the Octavian-Orlofsky-Cherubino, or OO+Romeo triad. Others will say the OO is enough. Yet others will add the Komponist to the OO or the OOCR.

— You must BE (not simply portray sympathetically) Geschwitz on that stage.

You can’t be a corporation or business enterprise. Please. No branding. No Mezzo Inc. or Soprano Inc., no 24/7-on-the-message publicity.

— If you’re not married to a dude, you’re not blogging about your boyfriend every other post (see Jennifer Rivera) and there’s some room for speculation among those who care about those things (i. e. us), your queer shares will skyrocket. There were some divas in previous generations with this feature, but I can’t think of many in the circuit now. Maybe we are going backwards in this dept., who knows. Maybe this free attitude and this willingness to leave some room for speculation is even queerer than being married to another woman? Maybe.

— If you are married, you will not talk about your husband in every other interview or press release — or your wife, for that matter! (I love Sarah Connolly but that she had to put it in her publicity materials that it was “her husband who actually suggested she wear the Nelson costume for the Last Night of the Proms,” which the BBC radio presenters happily repeated on air as she was about to sing, was a little much. We’re adults, people. Also, I’ve read DiDonato say “I’ve learned from my husband how to hold a girl,” and so on. Now, my divas would never use the examples of their husbands or boyfriends in this context. Just sayin’.) You will be relaxed, in fact, flattered that women (and not only men) throw themselves at you. You will actually be graceful about it. You will not be terrified of being mistaken for somebody with different sexual preferences.

Anyhoo – what am I missing? I want opinions. What qualifies your favourite singers?


15 thoughts on “Some have it, some don’t

  1. what a cool list! what doesn’t work for me: static, uncomfort (is that a word?)
    there are mezzos who look great in photo snap-shots (what i call static), but on stage, she’s just trying a bit too hard to look like a macho guy. that’s just too distracting. is she worried she’s not manly enough? who is she trying to convince? why is it about convincing someone? On this related note, if she’s not comfortable being around another woman, then it’s just not working! i’m reminded of a youtube video with Harteros and Garanca singing, and at the end, Garanca turned to Harteros and offered her a cold handshake! you’d NEVER see that when VK sings with Harteros ;-).

    What works for me: dynamics.
    Subtle exchanges of glances, smiles, or satisfying expressions on their faces when being touched by a woman, that’s what hook me completely :-D. In this regard, it doesn’t have to be a mezzo — did i mention the next time Harteros and VK are paired up, i’ll be touring europe again? I think what i’m looking for is the character rather than someone trying to “act” the character. Take Romeo for example, if she can imagine what Romeo feels like and expresses such feeling freely through her actions and singing. Then i’m all hooked… completely… it also helps if she has the swagger… man my head is now buzzing with images of Ruggiero…

  2. Good point! But I haven’t seen her at COC as Fidelio, I wonder how she played it all?

    Last Fidelio I saw was a DVD with Karita Matilla and Ben Heppner. It’s one of the few trouser roles that lead to a conservative ending where all the traditional roles are re-assumed, but I guess a lot depends on the lead soprano and the stage director. I remember reading an interview with Pieczonka around the time of her COC Fidelio — she said something along the lines that it’s disappointing that Marzelline is extremely upset when she discovers that Fidelio is a woman. I wish I remembered if she said anything about how friendly she made Fidelio to Marzelline until the end, when all the masks are off.

    Maybe Lucy of Opera Obsession will come by and defend Fidelio from my conservative reading… Lucia?

    But it’s interesting you mention that role: I just read a short story by Ali Smith in which she uses Fidelio as a narrative frame. So, the queer interest in this opera persists. (Maybe the queerest thing about this work is that it’s an oratorio cross-dressing as an opera, tee hee.)

  3. Oooh, a chance for Fidelio discussion! (You’re right, it’s like catnip.) VERY interesting post by the way… I can never get enough of “unscientific” threshing out of a subject. I have read some fanfiction (does this count as a Really Shameful Confession?) in which Marzelline realizes Leonore is a woman and desires her for this reason, convinced that all she needs is the right woman to make her understand what love is really all about. While I can see reading M. that way, I don’t think the opera would work if the love for which Leonore risks everything is really just a stifling societal bond. For me, what keeps the role of Leonore (potentially) queer is her ruthless disregard for convention. She is absolutely fearless, and in the character and the role, I think, you have the lack of timidity and the willingness to push boundaries, to go to the edge and over, which you highlight as so attractive.

    Yes, the narrative ends up with “traditional roles” in place, but I think that Leonore and Florestan are less conventional than Beethoven (or at least his librettists.) For her, love, the foundation of the greatest earthly delight, is “die Vereinigung zweier gleichgestimmten Herzen,” the union of two hearts which are perfectly attuned with each other, which stands in strong contrast to very conventionally gendered images of marriage put forward by Marzelline, Jacquino, and Rocco (pretty sure gender roles wasn’t the primary contrast Beethoven was looking for here, but… it’s there!) And even in Act III, Leonore is not only still “Fidelio” in dress, but she is still speaking and acting for herself and the understandably-in-shock Florestan. And Florestan’s Act II plea to Rocco, that he send word to L. and tell her that he is imprisoned, I have always read as a touching indication of the fact that he knows and cherishes the fact that she will–two years after his presumed death–both want to know, and be capable of doing something about it. I know the final chorus tends to be staged as a hymn to traditional domesticity (sigh,) but I think that Florestan’s demand for celebrating “a wife such as this” works as a radical defiance of the status quo… which, as the rest of the opera shows, is something of a habit with him. I am very curious to see what Calixto Bieito will make of Fidelio; his new production starts at the Bayrische Staatsoper on 21st Dec. (Not that I’m counting down…)

    1. Werther is 1774. Believe it or not, I had never thought of Fidelio in light of Werther, tho’ goodness knows I’m obsessed enough with both. Also, I may start calling Christa Ludwig an Omnipotent Alles-Fach… with proper attribution, of course. 🙂 Also also, just noticed the seasonal subtitle for the blog – love it.

      1. Just the other day I discovered another Otter Nutter on YouTube, and we’ve been emailing back and forth since. She even used the words of Sue Sylvester to describe what the first live ASvO performance that she witnessed did to her: “She sunk my battleship and she sunk it hard.” Words that accurate are rare to come by. Now I’m begging Ms BlueVienna to do a review of the ASvO avec Cappella Mediterranea concert in Paris in April… Maybe I’ll win her over.

  4. That’s so true — rare is a piece in which the wife saves the (passive, and rather confused) haldentenor, instead the other way around. And those final words about this particularly independent type of wife… so wunderbar.

    Meanwhile, I can’t stop listening to that Christa Ludwig as Fidelio video you posted on twitter. The woman was an omnipotent Alles-Fach. At first I thought they transposed it for the mezzo, but nein.

    [edited to add]

    the union of two hearts which are perfectly attuned with each other

    My goodness, yes: the early days of the Romantic love, conventional marriages be damned! When did Goethe write Werther, it must be around this time.

    1. Conventional marriages be damned, but careful about Goethe — Werther is an unreliable narrator and the irony rains down in buckets. You may find more grist in Wilhelm Meister…

  5. Funny you mentioned it. ( Connolly reporting it had been her husband’s idea to wear the Nelson costume, that is. (
    She is one of my favourites, I guess. Strange, though I only love her in breeches — when I heard the bit about her husband I had a feeling as if the guy you are making out with answers his cell phone to tell his wife he’ll be home soon. It kind of spoilt my naughty fantasies I guess. (Btw, did she stuff a sock in an important place in that uniform? Or is it just the cut… We’ll never know — but however, as soon as I heard about her husband in the context — my interest concerning that specific question waned. 😛

    Who my favourite divas are… Not only breeches singers, I think. Will think about it 🙂
    Kiri Te Kanawa would be surely among those whose voice is so special that it alone does the trick for me to have an eternal severe crush on the singer — no matter what sex they obviously belong to.

    1. Ha! You’re not the only one. There’s at least one book inspired by Kiri-worship: The Diva’s Mouth: Body, Voice and Prima-Donna Politics, eds. Susan Leonardi and Rebecca Pope. Can’t wait to get my hand on it. (The book, not the Diva’s mouth.)

  6. Titter. In fact – guffaw!

    Hmm I’m not entirely sure very many of any kind of opera singer is ‘conventionally beautiful to the straight male gaze’, that list is probably smaller than the ‘attracts the opera dykes’ gazes’ list! Though I guess Kiri is on there, maybe Trebs. But very few others as far as I can tell from discussions with my straight male opera loving buddy (yes, I have one, very rare, cost me a fortune!). He seems as drawn by those self same unconventional beauty things as I/we are.

    As to the whole ‘as my significant opposite sex other says’ phenomenon. Well on the one hand, yawn. On the other – why shouldn’t they talk about their SOs? I’ll confess it would be lovely to hear some femme dyke opera singer declare that her butch girlfriend gave her 10 of of 10 for her trouser performance (err, that came out wrong… err, as did that… oh dear). But as I’m unlikely to live that long, in the meantime I’ll settle for Bartoli confessing how much she’d love to play Don G and VK remarking how remarkably not hard it is to play a man. And really that’s the nub (sigh… I really am *not* doing this on purpose you know, it just keeps slipping out..). What I love is a singer who can act, whatever the role. When VK was on stage she WAS Ruggiero… so fully it was a shock to see her after – another to add to my short and sharp lists of ‘why my hatred of all close encounters of a (stage)starry nature is sensible and right’ – looking about as un-manly as you can imagine.

    No the one that gets me is the dyke soprano… wonder if they ever long to don the breeches just once in a while? How frustrating it would be to always be the Marschallin never Oktavian. That said the two out ones I know of – Pieczonka and Racette – both seem fairly towards the femme-y end of the spectrum anyway, at least in public appearances.

    But really at the end of the day it’s all just deliciously boundary-crossing. For all the apparent mainstream-ness of opera it’s really just as queer as folk 😉

    1. … and there’s the rub! (Oops, I meant… um… oh dear…)

      [edited to add]
      No, you’re right: it would make all the difference if they talked about their wives or female lovers or partners in the context of ‘how do you prepare for a trouser role’…

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