Straight Men Can Be Bent

A scene from Two Boys by Nico Muhly

Two Boys, the 32-year-old composer Nico Muhly’s first commissioned work at the New York Metropolitan Opera, has been described as solving, of all things, the problem of representing the Internet in art. A collaborator said it attempted to “explore not just literal representations of how online communication works, but also more poetic expressions of what interconnectedness means.” We sent two critics, Wayne Koestenbaum and Brian Droitcour, to investigate. The two were well-suited: Koestenbaum is an acclaimed poet and has written the definitive book on gay men and opera, and Droitcour has won both Yelp Elite status and a collaboration with the New Museum for his internet-based art criticism. They sat down afterward to talk about Two Boys, but quickly moved on to erotic fandom, the problems of divas as critical objects, men out for walks with their penises, and Koestenbaum’s newest essay collection, My 1980s & Other Essays, published in August 2013 by FSG.

Brian Droitcour: In The Queen’s Throat, your 1993 book on opera and queerness, you talk a lot about divas and diva worship. Two Boys is an opera without a diva. Did that affect your experience of it?

Wayne Koestenbaum: I guess the detective is a diva. Her role is the largest; her singing is the most virtuoso. I think she got the most applause. She’s on stage the most; the drama is her property. She goes through the most catharsis. She’s a lesbian diva. She’s perfect—like Brigitte Fassbaender singing Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.

But she’s so dowdy. She’s a workhorse. Everything is about her job, not about her. And she’s not even a soprano—she’s a mezzo.

In The Queen’s Throat I emphasized the soprano and didn’t pay much attention to mezzos. But times have changed. My ear’s eroticism has matured. There’s been a great explosion of Handel. The countertenor has emerged as a viable force. Joyce DiDonato has arrived. Mezzos have equal billing now. In Norma, which I just saw and loved at the Met, the mezzo, Jamie Barton, is so HOT, vocally.

Speaking of countertenors and mezzos and other alt-sopranos, one of the boys in Two Boys is a boy soprano—now that I think of it, maybe he’s the diva? By exertion of will he creates an elaborate fantasy world that warps the desires and lives of everyone who comes near it. And the boy soprano almost has to be the star of a Nico Muhly opera, because the way Nico Muhly writes for voice is better suited to the boy soprano than it is to any of the mature, well-trained voices of the singers at the Met. To me the ragged recitative that accounted for so much of the vocal writing sounded strange with chest tones and vibrato but it was just right for the thin, ethereal voice of the choirboy.

I agree. The little boy was the most perverse part of the opera, almost frighteningly perverse. Was the Met fully aware of the opera’s transgressive undercurrents? Here was an underage kid onstage hearing himself described as a giver of blow jobs: unprecedented! Even Benjamin Britten couldn’t have dreamed that up.

You know opera repertory better than I do so I’ll take your word for it. But while watching Two Boys I wondered if Nico Muhly left out a role for a conventional diva because he’s the diva. I mean, the applause for him dwarfed the applause for Alice Coote, who sang the role of the detective, and his bow was so much better than any of the singers’ bows. I don’t mean this as a criticism—I would never say that composers can’t be divas. I just think it’s interesting that, as a blogger and tweeter, he talks a lot about how the press works, how new music in general and his own music in particular is written about—a sharp critique of “precious” as a descriptor of music that he posted in 2009 sticks out in my mind. So he creates a space around his music that makes writing about it critically almost impossible—and it’s a kind of intellectual counterpart to the aura of the diva. When you write about Maria Callas in The Queen’s Throat, or Debbie Harry in My 1980s, it’s like you’re not writing criticism, you’re writing around criticism, because it’s virtually impossible—or maybe just ridiculous—to write about celebrities of their magnitude as a critic. You can only talk about them as a fan or as a hater.

Nico Muhly looked great on stage during the curtain call. I totally loved the opera. I have the highest esteem for Nico Muhly. His hair is really incredible. He dresses well. He’s precocious. I’m really impressed that he was an English major at Columbia. He was the diva of the event; it was an astonishing triumph for a 32-year-old to have an opera at the Met. His opera, more perverse than Turn of the Screw or Death in Venice, reminded me of Dennis Cooper’s novels, particularly The Sluts, where the narrative happens through a “chat” thread rather than in actual time. Dennis Cooper writes about the space of erotic fandom as a mise-en-abyme search for an object of desire—a forbidden, underage, mutilated object of desire who can never be found. One seeks him through photographs and through underground networks, and in The Sluts, through the internet. In a book like Cooper’s God Jr., reality as such is up for grabs. And that was the space of desire that Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas explored; theirs wasn’t a normative gay opera about a couple. It was an opera about impossible, illegal desire. And the woman who was the figure of the law is herself a potentially demonized figure: she gives up a child for adoption, which is a cover for abortion. You couldn’t actually stage an abortion opera at the Met; but let’s say that Two Boys was an abortion opera. The young gay kid gets aborted, metaphorically. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her essay “How To Bring Your Kids Up Gay,” talks about the impossibility of the gay child, as does Lee Edelman in his book No Future. Two Boys brought to life the most sophisticated and urgent and unacceptable-to-the-mainstream queer thought out there; I felt a sense of awe that these ideas were being staged at the Met. I’m no denigrator of the Met; I love traditional opera culture. But it’s unprecedented to see at the Met this kind of visceral erotic thriller—like a Claude Chabrol film. Nico Muhly pulled off an incredible coup for outrageous queer thinking.

My impression from The Queen’s Throat is that you think queers love opera because they can queer it through a private experience of it. So what happens when the queerness is all over the surface? I love your reading of Two Boys as an abortion opera, but it doesn’t resolve the issue of Brian, the older teen, who I think is the most problematic character in the libretto. He is totally normal—”the most ordinary boy in the world, whom the most extraordinary boy could never have,” as the detective sings in the end. The libretto psychoanalyzes the detective by giving us her abortion/adoption subplot, and the Jake’s feelings of alienation as a queer adolescent don’t need exposition. But nothing about Brian’s story hints at why he falls for Jake’s mystification so easily and eagerly. I wonder if you had any ideas about this character—perhaps he’s there as a cipher of ordinariness, and that in itself is what makes him attracted (and attractive) to queerness and strangeness.

Straight men can be bent. In Two Boys, sexual preference is completely up for grabs. We never know the “answer” to his sexuality; we learn, instead, that the figure of the erotic investigator is always queer. The fact that he’s alone in his bedroom queers him. Whom does he desire? He desires Rebecca. Rebecca turns out to be a boy. Does it matter, to Brian, whether Rebecca is a boy or a girl? Brian’s desire is the researcher’s desire. In The Queen’s Throat, I give precedence to the shut-in fan; Brian, in Two Boys, is the shut-in fan. He’s not a fan of a diva; he’s a fan of phantasms. He’s not just a fan, he’s an exhibitionist. He masturbates for the cam.

Many times! Straight boys can be bent because they want to show their dicks on cam.

He wants to show it on cam! It’s not easy to categorize the specular or narcissistic space of a man at home with his penis, or a man not at home with his penis. Or a man out for a walk with his penis. Or a man with a fake penis. Or a man in search of a couple extra penises.

You told me that you play the piano, which I was interested to learn because when I was looking at My 1980s, I noticed that there were sections for literary criticism and art criticism but not for music criticism—which intrigued me because, as I said earlier, in The Queen’s Throat you write about opera as something that’s almost beyond criticism. But as a pianist you must be familiar with other kinds of music that are more vulnerable to critical thought. Have you written about it?

I wrote a novel, Moira-Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, about a pianist. It began as a non-fiction book about my piano playing; it turned into a perverted novel about an erotomaniac polysexual pianist. But it’s filled with responsible detail about the most arcane corners of the early-twentieth century piano repertoire. I mean deeply arcane. Scriabin is my favorite. Then in Hotel Theory I wrote a “dime novel” about Liberace, and I theorized loosely about Fauré and Chopin—about links between “hotel consciousness” and piano music. I cut two musical essays from My 1980s at the last minute—“Game of Pearls,” about my life as amateur pianist and “Gee, Luigi Nono is a God, No?” about the pleasures of contemporary music. In My 1980s, in the essay “Notes on Affinity,” I write about falling in love with a tiny phrase from Brahms.

Did the way you write about painting changed once you started painting?

Yes. The essays in My 1980s that reflect that change are “The Desire to Write” and the “The Inner Life of the Palette Knife” (about painter Forrest Bess). I identify with Bess as a mark-maker whose marks can’t be reduced to verbal signs (nor can anybody’s marks!); I identify with the space his marks occupy between finesse and clumsiness, and I celebrate the social and affective arena that opens up for the viewer of such marks. I yearn to turn into words the rapture I feel about my own painting process; one method is to write about other painters.

I have an anxiety about writing about painting because I’ve never painted and I don’t know how to make anything. I always feel like painters have these secret conferences about brushes, where they talk about which animal’s hair is the best for making certain strokes, and other things that I can’t even begin to imagine. You’re a painter but when you write about painting, it’s not technical. To draw a question out of this: Is writing about Forrest Bess very different to you than writing about Ryan Trecartin? Or is it a similar process?

Today I stopped into a little gallery to see a Keith Haring mural. The check sheet identified it as “Oil and acrylic.” Mystifying! I asked the people at the desk, “Where’ s the oil in it?” They didn’t know. There are no visible brushstrokes. Are the most matte and flat areas acrylic, and the most saturated areas oil? Are the black lines oil? Absence of brushstrokes make analysis difficult. But these details now matter to me. I’ve become a detective; I want to figure out where the oil and the acrylic are.

I’m curious about how you think your activities as an amateur musician and as an amateur painter relate to your work as a critic. Because criticism, etymologically speaking, means to break things up—to isolate them, establish boundaries. But your criticism is an additive process. Returning to etymology, it’s poiesis, a making.

Long ago I gave up the notion that I could ever be a responsible critic. Sometimes, however, I behave like a decent citizen. Recently I wrote a long and serious appreciation of my friend Matias Viegener’s wonderful new book 2500 Random Things about Me Too, for the L.A. Review of Books. My review wasn’t a personal essay, though it contained elements of irregularity, excess, and montage.

Do you feel the same way when you write about poetry? Realizing that you couldn’t be a certain kind of poet? Having read Model Homes, which is all in ottava rima, and the elliptical, telegraphic poems of Blue Stranger With Mosaic Background, I’d say you can be any kind of poet you want to be.

In the 1980s I leaned toward Language poetry but then decided to lean away from it. My first book, Ode to Anna Moffo and Other Poems, reflected my infatuation with formalism; much of the book is in rhyme, or in “syllabic” lines. Soon thereafter I stopped wanting to write in syllabics or in rhyme, except for Model Homes. My process of writing poems these days is nearly the opposite of the way I write essays. When I write essays, I accrete; I build on a module. I begin with a module—molecule, monad, phrase, paragraph, statement, assertion, incident—and then I add more and more and more until I reach a certain density.

So a module is a fragment of prose that can be repeated with variations?

Module is a fancy name for a paragraph. Generally my paragraphs don’t connect. They have an asterisk between them. Or they’re numbered. I write a paragraph and then I stop. I could stop forever. But then I add another one. These pieces feel like stanzas. But I add; I don’t subtract. When I write poems I subtract. I gather from many sources (my pastures of rough drafts) and sew phrases together. The poems in Blue Stranger With Mosaic Backgroundare like Frankenstein’s monster. Are they human? Or cyborg? But now I’m writing a long poem, a very long poem, constructed not like a monster but instead like a big choral production with many extras, many trombones and flutes, a fleet of dancers, a lion, and a sacrificial lamb. I gave myself exactly one year to write it. The year ends in a few days. Already I’m sad about my poem’s allotted year ending.