THE QUEEN’S THROAT by Wayne Koestenbaum

What are the roots of an aesthetic obsession? Are there primal links between certain kinds of music and sexuality? Where does “taste” come from? These and many other questions are addressed in this wonderful and quite unclassifiable book.
On one level, it is a work of criticism and Koestenbaum has certainly done his homework. However, the book does not really follow an obvious structure. If Koestenbaum feels like digressing, he digresses. This is a very personal, very fluid form of criticism. Some readers may find it outrageously subjective. Personally, I was relieved to see someone stop pretending that this kind of writing could ever be scientific and just put his cards on the table.
Even if you do prefer your criticism more rigorous, you could just sit back and enjoy Koestenbaum’s masterful prose. It ranges from ecstatic to irreverent without ever losing its polish or precision. No surprise that Koestenbaum is a published poet. His lovely but clear-eyed descriptions and analyses of certain singers and famous operatic scenes would be hard to top. While primarily concerned with the music, it is a pleasure to read someone on opera who takes the whole package seriously and doesn’t dismiss the stories with lazy lines like “Who cares what they’re singing about?” This book is about opera, not the easily digestible bits of opera that are used by pop artists to make it look like they have some gravitas.
One of the best things about this book is that Koestenbaum, for all his adoration, fully admits opera’s utter absurdity. In fact, he revels in it. Some of his greatest insights are on how fans approach the world of opera in their own individual ways. How could they do otherwise when it is such a zany world? Koestenbaum puts his finger on how lonely it can be to love opera. Even fellow devotees are likely to disagree so much it makes fellowship difficult. Koestenbaum’s awareness of this, and his humor in discussing it, made it easy for me to get over the parts where I didn’t agree with him. Otherwise, his weird disdain for mezzo sopranos and narrow-minded emphasis on celebrity would be hard to take. Yet that’s the genius of this book! Koestenbaum knows those feelings make little sense just as any opera lover’s preferences are likely to make little sense. Opera just gets us all in different ways. Koestenbaum doesn’t try to claim he is “right” or that anyone who feels differently “doesn’t get it.” He even celebrates some of the aspects of opera he doesn’t love himself. It’s all part of the crazy, lovable world of opera and the desires that animate it.
“The mystery of desire” is part of this book’s title. On the matter of the links between opera and homosexuality, Koestenbaum is at his most subjective. I’ll just say that this is one of the few authors who would probably understand why hearing Handel arias instantly makes me long for my high school crush.
Full disclosure: I am a gay opera fan. This book was written for me. While it is great, it will probably appeal more to you if you are interested in opera or homosexuality or at least one of them. Further disclosure: I once wrote to Mr. Koestenbaum trying to sell my father’s LP collection. While he wasn’t interested, his response was incredibly gracious and warm considering I emailed him out of the blue. However, I had been enjoying the book before I contacted him so I couldn’t be accused of being TOO influenced. Capturing the spirit of opera is hard to do in writing. This book pulls it off and is one of my favorites on the subject.


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