Speak for yourself, matey
- BuyHow to Be Gay by David Halperin
Harvard, 549 pp, £25.95, August 2012, ISBN 978 0 674 06679 3
Back when the Independent was young and thriving, the paper used to sponsor lunchtime ‘theatre conferences’ at the Edinburgh Festival in association with the Traverse. The description ‘theatre conferences’ makes these public discussions sound starchier than they were. I was happy to do my bit chairing events in exchange for the train fare and somewhere to sleep. One conference was on the subject of drag, and though the subject made me a little uneasy, it was a memorable session. Lily Savage was appearing at the festival that year, but Paul O’Grady turned down our invitation on her behalf, explaining that Lily didn’t know she wasn’t a woman. How could she contribute anything? This made sense of a sort, though it was probably O’Grady we wanted to hear from. There was no shortage of available guests, though: Bette Bourne, best known then for appearances with the troupe Bloolips, said yes, and so did two members of La Gran Scena Opera Company.
Vol. 34 No. 23 · 6 December 2012
From Luc Bourrousse
Adam Mars-Jones’s reaction to the Baghdad story reported by Michael Halperin in How to Be Gay reveals an unsure grasp of camp (LRB, 22 November). Not campy: soldier quoting in Italian a prima donna in unseemly circumstances? Come on.
The quote is not in the least ‘erudite’ (Tosca is nothing like a rarity, most opera lovers know it, and they are not all erudite any more than they are all gay) and obviously not ‘solemnly statesmanlike’ (unless statesmen are all uneducated impulsive performers like Floria Tosca). It has all the cheap drama of Sardou and was already pretty stagey as uttered by Sarah Bernhardt in the original play (‘Et c’est devant ça que tremblait toute une ville!’). In Puccini’s opera, as spoken (rather than sung) by a prima donna milking each word for effect, it is frankly campy. Under the circumstances of Saddam’s death, the whole idea is at best as vacuously stagey as in Sardou, at worst like something out of Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.
And while we are at Tosca, Mme Vera Galupe-Borszkh channels the Essential Diva rather than a specific singer, and if one should be mentioned, it would be, rather than Maria Callas, the famed Met (and Covent Garden) Tosca of the 1950s and 1960s, Zinka Milanov of the Balkan accent and memorable lines (‘This girl is wonderful: she sounds like a young me!’) – not to mention the glorious voice.