OPERA QUEENS, FANDOM, WAGNERISM and GERMANY
by Lawrence D. Mass
“Despite Germany’s praiseworthy culture of remembrance, many Germans have a jarringly tenuous grasp of the extent of Nazi crimes or the population’s involvement.” — James Angelos
Rosa von Praunheim’s Opera Divas, Opera Queens looks at the world of opera in Germany through the lenses of gay men. Probing, empathic and entertaining, it’s also reticent and nonjudgmental.
What if one day it came true that being gay would be no more notable than being blonde or left-handed? In an idealized future, acceptance of human variance would be a given. Though it once seemed sensical to distinguish left-handed people as constitutionally different and indeed to demonize and medicalize them as such, it no longer does. Do blondes have more fun? Meanwhile, being an opera queen, as if it were a psychiatric condition, is all about being gay, right?
Imagine a book called “Gay Sensibility.” It would likely have many scintillating examples of gay wit, fashion and taste held together by gossamer theoretics. But it would be doomed at its inception by its inability to be contained. We’re sure enough of the existence and influence of gay sensibility to speak of it casually even as we realize it’s a phantom. The more you try to get your hands on it, the more elusive it becomes.
The same is true of “Homosexuality.” One could imagine any one of a number of big books with that title. They might have chapters on homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, among Native Americans, under Nazism and the modern Gay Liberation movement. But sex researchers Bell and Weinberg wisely titled their compendium Homosexualities, recognizing at the outset the fluidities and pluralities of their subject. The closer we look at categorizations, whether of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality or behavior, the less certain they become.
Another recent example is “Wagnerism.” Alex Ross’s book of that title is an appreciation filled with names, lists, categories, anecdotes, references, shards of history and perspective. Though it shies away from attempting to define its subject, it’s implicit that there is a matrix phenomenon, “Wagnerism,” that interconnects the many individuals and artworks influenced by the composer. Such is the tacit agreement between author and reader on its existence that whether there is anything we can clearly designate as “Wagnerism” is not a question that even gets asked.
Add to these catch-phrases “the opera queen.” Terrence Mcnally, who died last year from complications of Covid-19, wrote a play about it. The Lisbon Traviata, structured around a treasure hunt for an alleged pirated tape of a live Callas performance, was largely about an opera queen whose zeal to possess the tape is stereotypical, operatic and theatrical. That character was based on Terrence’s real-life sparring partner, Mendy, a manic collector who became notorious as such, shadowing the playwright’s own worship of Callas. Mcnally’s better-known Master Class came later and is about the drama of Callas’s personal life behind the scenes of her role as the ultimate diva. Late in his career came another if indirect love letter to Callas, The Golden Age, which pays devotional tribute to the bel canto composers who showcased her— Bellini, Rossini and Donizetti.
I was not among those fortunate few who got to attend the Master Classes Callas gave at Juilliard in 1971. Coincidentally, however, I couldn’t help but notice how non-gay the Juilliard events seemed to be. For someone at the apex of the opera world whose star seemingly depended on gay people — “opera’s lifeblood,” as I’ve described us— there was this whole wider world of leading musicians and Callas afficionados that had nothing to do with gay people or gayness. The images conveyed about these sessions was in marked contrast to those of the 3-day-long lines of gay men who waited with sleeping bags outside the Met for standing room tickets to one of her last two appearances there as Tosca in 1965.
It’s true that some of Callas’s closest associates and friends were gay — film directors Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli and Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the music critic John Ardoin. That she was influenced by gay men is unquestionable. Like other divas — e.g., Judy Garland — of her time, however, she never directly addressed or spoke of gayness or her gay following as such. Whatever our roles behind the scenes as devout fans, colleagues, advisors and friends, we weren’t nearly as important, singular or determinant as we imagined. Take gay men out of the bigger picture of Judy Garland and you still have Judy Garland, the greatest singing actress in the history of film. Take gay men out of the bigger picture of Maria Callas and you still have Maria Callas, one of the most esteemed musical artists of all time.
Enter the German “underground” filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim, who has gone from being participant witness to venerable custodian of gay subcultural life. Though not an opera queen himself, Rosa has always intermingled in gay opera circles. When I told him of my concerns about Wagner and Wagnerism 40 years ago, he seemed bemused. The seriousness and passion still surrounding this encrusted icon of German romanticism and nationalism struck him, the way so much in cultural life does, as curious and amusing. I remember the smile on his face as I declaimed fiercely of my unhappiness as a Jewish Wagnerite.
Decades later, Rosa tried to connect me with his colleague, Enrique Sanchez Lansch, who was working with Rosa on what I believe became the current film about gay people and opera. Lansch is the creator of Das Reichsorchester, an important documentary about the Berlin Philharmonic during the Nazi period. Alas, my citing of the absence of expressed remorse in that film’s narrative (see my Huffington Post piece on “The Nazi Legacy, German Cinema and Questions of Judgment”: https://www.huffpost.com/entry/3-gernan-films_b_8301714) must have landed me in hot water because I never heard from Lansch or for that matter Rosa again.
Bemusement is discernible in most of Rosa’s work. However critical or disturbing may be the revelations in what are mostly docudramatizations, they emerge between the lines of a kind of trademark queer Gemütlichkeit. Because of my knowledge of the greater body of his work as politically conscious and motivated, as liberal, as socialist (“Rosa” adopted that name from Rosa Luxemburg), in light of our friendship and networks of community, but perhaps also in light of my own denial and codependence, it never occurred to me that the narrative and artistic reticence I had ascribed to Lansch and Reichsorchester could seem comparably salient in some of Rosa’s work.
In any event, I wish I could say that the current film clearly achieves its tacit mission of uncovering important truths about gay people and opera, especially in relation to Wagner. As might have been predicted from the experience of phenomena comparable to “the opera queen” such as “gay sensibility,” “homosexuality” and “Wagnerism,” however, there are no conclusive revelations here or elsewhere.
Rather, as with Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, there are affinities, intimations, fragments, metaphors, possibilities and mise-en-scene. Along the way of this adventure that has no clear trajectory or destination, meanwhile, there’s a feast of opera esoterica, lore, attitudes and considerations. Many tantalizing questions are asked, but never answered with certainty or satisfaction.
Because opera is more in the marrow of European life, there is a breadth of repertoire touched on here that will be dazzling for American opera afficionados— e.g., delectable moments of Regine Crespin singing the haunting music of Gounod’s little-known Sappho, operatic rarities by Haydn, snippets of forgotten operettas and musical comedies. What wouldn’t any opera person give to see and hear more?
Exemplary of the film’s directorial savvy is its penultimate interview with Wayne Koestenbaum. I don’t know how much of the sophisticated questions and framing of these scenes reflects the input of the film’s designated co-creator, Markus Tiarks, or the assistance of Rosa’s longtime associates and friends Mike Shepard and Brandon Judell, but the greater arc of narrative intelligence, energy and bemusement are unmistakably Rosa.
The Queen’s Throat sequence begins as we see Wayne coming and going to the accompaniment of Traviata excerpts sung by his beloved Anna Moffo, widely considered the finest Violetta of her day, even though her rivals were none other than Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballé, Beverly Sills and Maria Callas. When asked in the film to project his own deathbed wish for musical accompaniment, he confounds expectations in choosing Callas rather than Moffo singing Mimi’s Farewell from La Boheme, with its tumescing declaration of all-encompassing love. As the excerpt plays, we observe Wayne listening intently, his hands clasped in spiritual communion. In the ether of this moment is Moffo, who would advance from her youthful presence as Musetta in that Callas La Scala recording to memorably portray Mimi. Likewise in the background is the dedicatee of Opera Divas, Opera Queens, Rosa’s colleague and friend Werner Schroeter. With palpable reverence for the ineffable, Wayne’s composure conjures images not only of Callas and Moffo, but of Schroeter’s own adored diva, the German experimental film actress Magdalena Montezuma.
Let’s go back to Mcnally’s play, The Lisbon Traviata, which had its premiere in New York City in 1989, based on an earlier version from 1985, a time when gay people had yet to secure civil rights. So pleased were we to see ourselves onstage that we fully conspired with Terence to see the fanaticism being portrayed as characteristically queer. It never occurred to us to regard such phenomena of fandom as equal-opportunity employers, notably present as well in the wider world of mainstream culture. Could it really be that straight fans were more similar to than different from their gay counterparts?
Late in his career, handsome New York City Opera tenor Richard Leech notoriously took off his shirt during the love duet that closes the first act of Madama Butterfly, heightening as perhaps never before the scene’s already incomparable eroticism. Leech was known for having a fan, Rosemary Dunne, who was so ardent that she became her own case of history and legend. “Opera Fan’s Magnificent Obsession,” the New York Times called it in 1997. What role sexuality played in this shadow relationship remains unclear in a way that underscores the subtitle phrase, “the Mystery of Desire,” of Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat.
It’s a mystery that takes on additional resonance in Rosa’s film with its recollections of Ljuba Welitsch, famous for her portrayal of Strauss’s Salome, based on Oscar Wilde’s still shockingly over-the-top (and some would say “gay” in its extravagance) play. As she romances the severed head of John The Baptist in the final scene, she sings: “Und das Geheimnes der Liebe is Grösser aus das Geheimnes der Todes” (And the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.) Whatever the components of the chemistry between Leech and Dunne, gender and sexual orientation seem less pertinent than fandom and desire itself.
Between the lines here are phenemona of obsession and compulsivity, seemingly in relation to sexuality. We want to understand Dunne as a kind of stalker, meanwhile deconstructing the opera queen, like Salome, as a Frankenstein of desire.
Another exemplar of this gay-straight spectrum of appreciation is media impressaria Arianna Stassinopoulous. Her reverence for Callas resulted in the launching of her own international fame and career by authoring a book on the diva — Maria Callas, The Woman Behind the Legend. Here as well, beyond what might be presumed to be the background influence of gays in fashion and culture, was a manifestation of fandom that had little to do with gayness.
And what about Lois Kirschenbaum, immortalized in James McCourt’s fantastical novel of opera queenery, Mawrdew Czgowchwz? Kirschenbaum was an eccentric and ever-present figure of opera who may have set records in attending performances and collecting autographs, programs and photographs. Apart from serving as a blank slate for gay imaginations, however, she was not known to be gay or otherwise to partake of gay culture.
So whether you call someone an opera queen, person, afficionado, fan or fanatic is arbitrary. Who are the real opera queens? Koestenbaum? Mcnally? Stassinopoulous? Kirschenbaum? Rosemary Dunne? King Ludwig II of Bavaria? Me?
In my own coming of age in gay opera circles in Chicago, that person was record collector Andrew Karzas, host of a long-running show, “From The Recording Horn,” on WFMT radio. Andy was a devout lifelong fan of Toscanini soprano Licia Albanese and a caregiver to the surviving partner of famed Turandot and Wagner soprano Dame Eva Turner. Andy became known for attending every Licia performance, to the bitter end of Traviatas and Bohemes in small towns. His alcoholic partner, who bore a striking resemblance to Friedelind Wagner, did not share Andy’s passion for Licia or opera, but did have his own diva — Ayn Rand.
I never saw Licia live but our mutual friend Dick Dyer (Boston Globe music critic) and I ventured to Providence to hear what we were pretty sure would be Anna Moffo’s last Traviata. And last it was, at least for us. Andy’s imitation of Licia was uncannily accurate and hilarious in capturing her vocal inflections, especially her breathiness. In his devotion to what we might call the cause — of voice, of opera, of gay sensibility in relation to them— Andy was a cherishable figure of knowledge, character and wit. Alas, that this mission seemed to preclude a more contemporary gay consciousness proved an ever-widening divide between us.
Some of the gay men interviewed in Opera Divas, Opera Queens seem typical creatures of this fandom of earlier gay life. We are shown Willi Egli, a trained butcher turned Lufthansa flight attendant who began his secondary career of being an opera queen after being smitten by Charlotte Berthold as the witch in Hansel und Gretel. It’s a part often portrayed by male character actor-singers in drag. Such is the film’s skill in mixing musical excerpts with images that we experience Egli’s infatuation with Berthold. It’s backstage at one of those Zürich Opera performances that Egli, who struggled as so many of us did with self-acceptance around being gay, met and eventually wed “the tenor.” Alas, the tenor could not deal with his own gayness and committed suicide, still in his early 40's. When the lights go out in the opera house, Egli observes, gay men, so many of them repressed, find a happiness elusive in reality.
Eventually, Egli moved on to his veneration of Joan Sutherland. We see him, deeply moved, placing a heart-shaped bouquet of roses on her grave stone in Montreux. Callas’s grave site at Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris, which I myself visited, is shown comparably strewn with flowers and candles. We hear a keepsake recorded message from Sutherland explaining why she can’t meet with Willi before her departure back to Australia, soon after which she died. We see him caressing a needlepoint rose-design pillow he requested from her estate, one he recognized from dressing room visits.
Inheriting Sutherland’s mantle for Willi — on the wings of an infatuation with the passing generation’s Edita Gruberova, who we see in the final moments of her mad scene as the ageing queen in Roberto Devereux and later signing autographs— is Diana Damrau. Willi makes ceviche dinners for the younger diva, an imperial Queen of the Night, and hands her rose bouquets during curtain calls. She “crashes” Willi’s wedding incognito. “Opera for me is Heimat,” he concludes.
Willi’s story is one of several that propel the film’s narrative. As in a novel, we meet protagonists who reappear at various points, sometimes accompanied by Rosa. They include filmmaker Axel Ranisch, excerpts of whose production of The Love For Three Oranges seem overflowingly colorful and exuberant but whose casual speculation that gay infatuation with opera may be about death seems similarly extravagant.
Tilman Krause, literary editor of Die Welt, whose beloved divas include Regine Crespin and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, waxes, sometimes ecstatically, about the special appeal of opera and Wagner to gays. Schwarzkopf’s Hitlerjugend past is not mentioned, nor is he asked about it by Rosa, whose own father was a Nazi. Being gay is a gift, Krause posits. We’re more fortunate than heterosexuals in having so much more access to sex. That gays are in a special relationship with opera is never in doubt, but articulating exactly why and how proves elusive.
Dietmar Schwarz, Intendant of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, speaks comfortably but generally about the importance of gays for opera. Musicologist Kevin Clark is contrastingly specific. His book, Glitter and Be Gay, time-travels back to uncover the considerable role of gays and eroticism in opera history. Perusing the journals of Offenbach, he learned how sexually charged stagings of the day were and how extensive the backstage carryings on. Yet he too, can venture questionably far in gleaning a special eroticism of female voices for gay men.
With his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, who proposed their collaboration, pop idol Rufus Wainright speaks of their opera, Hadrian, with its edginess around intergenerational sex. That subject is otherwise evaded in the film’s nonexploration of operas with more clearly gay content, such as those of Benjamin Britten. There is no mention of the Countess Geschwitsch in Berg’s Lulu, the first explicitly gay character to enter the international operatic repertoire. (As Alex Ross has pointed out in writing about how the subject of gays and opera has gone from opera queens to gay-themed operas, there is earlier gay content, but in little known works.)
Edda Moser recalls her experience with openly gay composer Hans Werner Henze, who wrote music for her. “Gays understand women better than straight men,” she observes. She always felt “protected” by the gay men around her.
Hubert Wild, who sings male and female parts, is seen doing Lazarus by David Bowie as well as the opening of the Liebestod. His passion is compelling. Rosa couldn’t turn his camera away. We are enthralled, even if neither Rosa’s film nor we understand why. Wild speaks of the appeal of unhappy endings for gays. Yet the works of Handel, who he excels at rendering, often end well.
Engaging as well are scenes of a modern-dress Der Rosenkavalier with Sophie Koch, who is shown as Octavian in clear attraction to, and later in a closeup passionately kissing, Diana Damrau as Sophie. Koch is articulate about how the travesti parts in opera she has played (Octavian, The Composer in Ariadne) and that are commonplace in opera tweak conceptions of the place of gay people in opera.
“Gays know what’s beautiful….They will often be there when great art and culture arise.” “Opera and sex belong together…alas not for straights.” “Wagner is a narcotic…many people get addicted.” And so on. Such observations are predominant here — copious, wistful, sometimes passionate, sometimes compelling, but never incontrovertible. There isn’t a one — in Rosa’s film, in The Queen’s Throat, my own writing or anywhere else — that is more substantive than personal impression and speculation.
Which brings us to what for me is the soul of Rosa’s film, the interview material on Wagner, especially that with theater and opera wiz Barrie Kosky. Kosky directed Bayreuth’s 2017 production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and is the first Jewish director in the history of the Festival (Yuval Sharon, whose parents are Israeli, became the Festival’s first American director in 2018). He is also the first non-Wagner to direct Meistersinger there. While such firsts might suggest transformation for Hitler-and-Nazism tainted Bayreuth, Jews have been notable players in Wagnerism and at Bayreuth throughout the history of both.
Kosky is not German and his brilliant work does not satisfy the longing to hear Germans themselves express their feelings about Wagner’s antisemitism, and about Bayreuth and the Wagner family in relation to Hitler and Nazism.
Much of the surrounding commentary on Wagner by Krause and others in Rosa’s film can seem typically ethereal — i.e., that gays are drawn to the grand and outsized in subject matter, characters, gestures, emotions and spirituality. Rosa cruises the “Green Hill” — Bayreuth and its environs — with soprano Nadine Secunde. In the background is discussion of Siegfried Wagner (SW), the composer’s son, who ran Bayreuth until his death in 1930. Though he married Winifred, a young British girl of 17 who became intimately involved with Hitler during the ensuing Nazi period and with whom he had four children, he was always known to have been preferentially gay.
There is now a Siegfried Wagner exhibit at Bayreuth, but as the background narrative reveals (mostly Rosa in voice over), you will not find references to his gayness and participation in gay networks or his affair with a British boyfriend, Clement Harris, in official Bayreuth histories or exhibits. Nor will you find there directions to the “Siegfried Wagner Memorial Tearoom” or reference to SW as “the patron saint of gays.”
The decision for SW to marry was at some level inevitable. In the wake of the Oscar Wilde trial in 1895, homosexuals of Siegfried’s day and ilk had to be exceedingly careful lest they run afoul of the law as well as their families and the public. In the case of the Wagner family and its legacy, a lot was at stake. As it was for SW contemporaries such as Thomas Mann, likewise known to be preferentially homosexual. (As Adam J. Sacks has noted, there are no examples of Mann expressing opposite-sex attraction in his personal diaries.)
As for more explicit discussion of SW, the Wagner family and Bayreuth in relation to antisemitism, Hitler and Nazism, there’s virtually none in Rosa’s film. If you were to confront the film’s German voices and opera people about this, I think they’d respond that judgment, dismay and regret are now givens; having been endlessly processed, it seems reasonable that they don’t have to remain in the forefront of consideration or discussion.
The truth, however, is that only rarely have they been forefront in discussion and consideration; nor have they been put to rest. When it comes to Wagner and Germans today, closure on the past — as opposed to fully acknowledging and genuinely mourning the past— can seem to be an external pressure that belongs in the past. Do Germans or those designated as opera queens experience discomfort seeing the busts of Wagner and the Wagner family by Nazi sculptor Arno Breker that still dominate the environs of Bayreuth? As New York counterculture eminence Steve Mass, who resided in Berlin for decades, observed in response to my noting German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s regular attendance at Bayreuth, full acceptance of the preeminent place of Wagner in culture is no longer questioned or qualified by most Germans.
As we might surmise from what we know of his Meistersinger production, set in a Nürnberg trials courtroom, Kosky can get very real and personal about Wagner’s antisemitism and his own feelings. In doing so, he makes it challenging for critics like me to generalize that opera people, especially Wagnerites, often look the other way when it comes to the controversies of Wagner.
Kosky, who is Australian and who describes himself as “a gay Jewish kangaroo,” is a figure of dizzying virtuosity and accomplishment. Bayreuth has had several “anti-antisemitic” productions of Meistersinger, inevitable in light of the work’s antisemitic context and subtext and Bayreuth’s determination to move forward in acknowledging these and other controversies in its endlessly deconstructive productions. Absent full disclosure of the history of Wagner, the Wagner family and Bayreuth in relation to Hitler and Nazism, however, it’s a grappling that remains more obligatory and gestural than complete.
“A personal exorcism,” Kosky describes his Bayreuth experience. His “very problematic and complicated relationship with Wagner,” as he explains it, stems from his relationship with his grandmother who told him of her relationship with the composer. She understood first that she had to learn German because “it’s the language of culture.” And “you must learn Wagner because, after Mozart, he’s the greatest composer.” She took Kosky to his first Wagner operas. Her Budapest family was murdered in the Holocaust. “I have to say that I have a love-hate relationship with Wagner,” Kosky admits with visible consternation.
Despite his success in Germany, Kosky is not German and his brilliant work does not satisfy the longing one feels to hear more explicitly from Germans themselves and from Wagnerites and opera people more generally about their feelings — specifically their consciousness of Wagner’s antisemitism, and of Bayreuth and the Wagner family in relation to Hitler and Nazism.
Past many decades of intense discourse and scholarship around these controversies, aren’t the film’s bemused revelations accomplishing this credibly, adequately and appropriately, at least for this window on culture and moment and place in time? Though judgment of the Nazizeit may seem implicit, and though it may seem unreasonable, unfair and pushy to keep, well, pushing for greater expressiveness, and to keep singling out Germans for this, this sense of something missing lingered for me, accompanying identification and appreciation, as I completed the journey of Opera Divas, Opera Queens. It seemed in sync with my greater experience of being a gay opera person and Jewish Wagnerite, of having to keep my stronger feelings of ambivalence, anger, frustration and irresolution to myself.
The issue of taciturnity among Germans and throughout the opera world is enmeshed within that of aesthetics. Much of the greatest art, such as that of Wagner, is distinguished by degrees of ambiguity, of not spelling everything out. Understandably, neither Rosa nor any other serious artist wants to be pressured into an unaesthetic literalism by political correctness. At the same time, however, they want to be cautious about not being hounded by allegations of insensitivity.
In the case of Germany and Germans, ambiguity, even when under the mantle of art, can’t help but brush up against ongoing cultural controversies. The fallout of this dilemma is captured by James Angelos in his VE Day (5/8/21) Commemoration in the New York Times, “Was Nazi Germany Defeated or Liberated? Germans Can’t decide”:
“Despite Germany’s praiseworthy culture of remembrance, many Germans have a jarringly tenuous grasp of the extent of Nazi crimes or the population’s involvement…The danger is that many in Germany will end up conflating victims and perpetrators, and fail to fully grasp how the Nazis mobilized the masses. The point is not to saddle current and future generations with guilt, but to ensure that the unvarnished truth remains clear. No good lesson can be drawn from history without a full understanding that the guilty were all around, and that they fought to the end.”
Apart from the Kosky material, there’s little of such remembrance and reflection surrounding Wagner and Bayreuth in Rosa’s film. Rather, it colludes in the narrative of what Gottfied Wagner calls “Wagner, Inc,” that whatever controversy may persist around Wagner and Bayreuth, the showcasing of a Kosky is a kind proof of how far we’ve all advanced in dealing with acknowledging and thereby disarming and moving beyond it. Underneath a discernible impatience with more confrontation and judgment is the simple reality that when it comes to Wagner, the greater world of opera, epitomized by its opera queens, is on the same page as most Germans. We may be freer to be as critical and irreverent as we want now, but as Hermione Gingold put it in her cabaret act, don’t mess with our drugs.
I haven’t yet seen the Kosky Meistersinger. Despite my disaffection from the opera and from Wagner and Bayreuth at this juncture, from the excerpts I have seen in Rosa’s film and what I’ve read and heard about the production, dovetailing with Kosky’s commentary, I confess to feeling enticed to flirt with a relapse of my admittedly sometimes tenuous Wagnerism sobriety.
Key to Kosky’s success would seem to be his greater vision of affirmation for German theater, opera and operetta. So many composers and artists were killed by the Nazis, he observes. The way to honor them is to bring out their joy and vitality, not to museum-ize them. Hitler didn’t destroy you, Kosky is saying. Here you are again in all your glory. And fun. In the course of these passages, we see effervescent scenes from a new production of Roxy and Her Miracle Team, a “soccer operetta” by Paul Abraham. Can it be that with such an approach Kosky manages not only to cast light on Meistersinger’s suffocating atmosphere of antisemitism and German supremacy, but as well to unlock the good will, the Gemütlichkeit that Wagnerites appreciate as surpassing and universal in Wagner?
So if I can still react affirmingly to a figure like Kosky, and with him to Wagner, am I then like him, my writing a kind of exorcism? Yes, but exorcism is not a rite or ritual I feel inclined to keep repeating. Kosky is processing his ambivalence via his directing. I’m processing what I think is my position beyond such processing. I don’t want to remain in thrall to Wagner, to opera, to fandom. Rather, I want to have a new level of appreciation —with abstinence, less vulnerable to intoxication and codependence, more sober and with greater detachment. I don’t want to keep relapsing.
Am I deluding myself into thinking I can do this in a way that will ensure protection from vulnerability and pain? More than likely, and doubtless like Kosky, I will have to keep facing my qualifiers (as we say in the jargon of addiction and codependence recovery). I will have to remain mindful of my vulnerabilities in relation to Wagner — to artworks and other phenomena that have proven addictive and thereby toxic but which have also been wellsprings of desire, passion and creativity for me.
The greater goal for me, the prize I want to keep my eyes on, is to no longer be in this place of negotiating, like Kosky, a “love-hate relationship with Wagner.” Rather, I feel ready to move on from it. I no longer want to drink, do drugs, act out sexually or with food, or have a love-hate relationship with Wagner.
Meanwhile, however deep and serious Kosky’s misgivings about Wagner and his brilliance in exposing and indicting Wagner’s antisemitism, one senses that he represents the limits of what Germans and the wider world of opera they continue to dominate will allow on the subject. Be the court jester, be as critical and irreverent as you like, goes the new normal; it’s all ok, so long as you remain signatory to the sovereignty of Wagner’s art and of German art and culture, coincidentally the explicit theme and exhortation of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
The Opernwelt of Rosa’s film is not asking for forgiveness or greater accountability from Bayreuth or the Wagner family or Germany around antisemitism and the Nazizeit. Nor is it asking for greater accountability around gayness. As in America, the opera queens of Rosa’s film don’t seem to be the gay people on the front lines of ACT UP demonstrations or activist protest of Putin’s anti-gay policies in Russia. Rather, they seem sociopolitically middlebrow, tacitly satisfied with developments that have been to our advantage, like gay marriage and workplace acceptance. Deeper probing seems neither invited nor welcome. Rosa has come full circle, from a sensibility that’s clearly outside the social and political status quo to one that’s now more within it.
In the autumn of his career, Rosa continues to pay bemused, caring and insightful tribute to our gay forebears and contemporaries, in this case our idiosyncratic, resilient subculture of opera people. The idea that opera queens were merely a byproduct and manifestation of oppression is upended in this film’s wide and forward gaze on a realm that against expectations and on its own terms continues to thrive.
Whether gay or straight, male or female, old or young, binary or not binary, if you’re an opera queen or wonder if you are, Opera Divas, Opera Queens is wonderful and enlightening entertainment. If you’re not an opera queen, or worry that you could be, or that you could be perceived to be, watch out for that old bugaboo of gay seduction. This could be the hit that turns you into one of those people.
Lawrence D. Mass, M.D., a specialist in addiction medicine, was the first to write about AIDS in the press and is a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. He is the author of We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer and is completing On The Future of Wagnerism, the sequel to his memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. He lives in New York City with his life-partner, gay activist and writer Arnie Kantrowitz.