I adore Callas because she avenges on my behalf. The Greek-American fat girl-become-svelte prima donna of La Scala. Each diamond-pointed gruppeto, every sweeping arpeggio, is an act of revenge against gay bashers, against all who ever crossed me. Indeed, Callas’ own words, “We [artists] must whip ourselves into shape like a soldier,” and “I would not kill my enemies, but I will make them get down on their knees,” suggest a militaristic, score-settling approach to her craft.
Her 1949 career-breakthrough was one of the queerest events in twentieth century opera. While performing Brunnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walkure she was asked, on a few days’ notice, to fill in for a sick colleague who was to sing Elvira in Bellini’s I puritani, a part Callas had never before performed. She opened as Elvira to an incredulous audience. To perform, back-to-back, the heavy verticality of a Wagner opera and the florid horizontalness of a bel canto one was an unheard of feat—akin, almost, to a skater speed-skating one week and figure-skating the next. This was Callas at her queerest: doing the unthinkable, defying categories. Breaking the seemingly impenetrable wall between the dramatic repertoire and the coloratura one, Callas—despite her self-declared aesthetic conservatism—was a bona fide postmodern opera star: a convention-busting, boundary-blurring sui generis.
There is, also, the curious quality of Callas’ sexual persona. There was an affected, contrived quality to her famously genteel way of moving and speaking, a quality undercut by the unaffectedly fierce, “masculine” manner in which she approached her work. Unlike her alleged archrival, the musically demure and unthreatening Renata Tebaldi, Callas attacked the music with a decisiveness normally associated with male singers. The end result was a compellingly solipsistic persona: hermaphroditic, self-completing, narcissistic.
And there is the story of Maria the woman, whose nun-like devotion to her calling ended, for all intents and purposes, when she met shady Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The virginal high priestess of opera had lived most of her life in her throat; the extraordinarily sexual Onassis opened her up to the rest of her body, a body she’d hated, even when she lost weight; a body that, for most of her life, nobody had ever wanted.
My journal entry, dated August 7, 2000:
“Went the full nine yards, finally. Pure, total blandishment. That a man like D, with his manliness, his Greekness, his swagger, would want me, with my awkwardness, my Filipino-ness, my inexperience. He’s a collector, yes; I was willing to be collected. My first real man; he left me a bit more of one.”
Opera is premodern, steeped in the past, home to myth, old-style melodrama and stereotypical notions of sex and gender. When I embrace opera I am embracing a world that shunned me, thereby accepting the beast and consequently disembowelling it. If opera remains popular, even outside gaydom, it has little to do with the inner (i.e. plotlines) and almost everything to do with the outer (i.e. the music, the staging).
When gay men love Callas, they are embracing premodernism while queering it up royally. For she drags hidden human truths out of sexist, archaic stories—out of the effete, rococo, centuries-old closet that is opera. Absolute honesty is queer; notions of normalcy are always relative. Callas simultaneously embraced the norms of bel canto singing and broke through them to illuminate the only reality that ultimately counts: human emotion. She was the most profoundly gifted vocal artist of her century, one whose polychromatic voice could encapsulate every nuance and sub-nuance of feeling. There is no irony in Callas-philia, as there is with Garland-philia or Monroe-philia; when gays align themselves with Callas, they align themselves with greatness. But it is greatness haunted by the omnipresence of the abyss, by intimations of what can and, in Callas’ case, did go wrong. The great Callas scholar John Ardoin likens the experience of listening to Callas to watching a trapeze act. Usually there is a net below; but on those rare instances where there is not, a completely different atmosphere is created. “The very being of each spectator seems to be bound up in each step taken on high,” says Ardoin, “for there is no longer any semblance of pretence.”