Thursday, December 02, 2021

A Queer Aria

One of the twentieth-century’s most renowned and influential sopranos, Maria Callas (1923-1977), was born 98 years ago today. In celebration, I share her rendition of “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” which is one of my favorite operatic recordings. This particular aria is also, according to Wayne Koestenbaum, “queer.”

Following is what Koestenbaum says about this aria in his book, The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire.

Usually, men serenade women; but in Saint-Saens’s Samson et Dalila (1877), Dalila does the serenading. Her big aria, “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix,” ostensibly praises the power of Samson’s voice to open her up. But Dalila opens me up: a ravishment I don’t consider ruination.

How does she open me up? By descending. When, slowly, this mezzo’s melody moves down to a low C, my body expands to accommodate her bottomlessness. What does she say to Samson while she descends? No narrative. Only pure plea: the kind of exclamation (like “I’m coming!”) that announces pleasure already at hand, though it pretends to want response and reciprocation. Dalila asks for Samson’s body: but by plumbing the depths of a woman’s tessitura, she declares her own strange commitments and self-sufficincies.

. . . I played this aria – transcribed for trumpet – in fifth grade. Blaring “Mon cœur” with no regard for its history, I didn’t know that I was performing a siren’s song. Thus the melodic line depends on its harmonic and operatic context, and doesn’t intrinsically emit erotic perfume.

My heart opens to your voice, says Dalila, but who can believe in the separation of “I” and “you” after fording through “Mon cœur”? This aria is queer because its love scene happens inside the mezzo’s body, and inside the listener’s body – not between Samson and Dalila. Dalila asks for sex and for response; but all the mezzo wants is a solo. “Mon cœur” is the voice-voluptuary’s favorite moment: the aria advances the drama of our interest in Dalia as Queen of Openness, She who opens the closed places in history.

– Wayne Koestenbaum
Excerpted from “A Pocket Guide to Queer Moments in Opera”
in The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality,
and the Mystery of Desire

Vintage Books, 1993
pp. 217-218

For more of Maria Callas at The Wild Reed, see:
“Better Than Callas We Will Never See”
Remembering Maria . . . Celebrating Callas
Maria by Callas: “Revelatory, Unprecedented, and Authoritative”
Re-Visioning Callas
Remembering Callas
Callas Went Away
Maria Callas – "Ava Maria"
Callas Remembered
The Impossible Desire of Pier Paolo Pasolini
Europe 2005 – Part 6: Paris

Image: Maria Callas in Pier Pasolini’s 1969 film Medea.


armijok said...

It is also one of my favorite arias, especially when sung by a mezzo-soprano. However, Maria Callas' version is unique, even knowing that she herself did not want it to be published. Another version by a soprano that fascinates me is Angela Gheorghiu's; sensuality in all its splendor.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Thanks for your comment, Mario. I found Angela Gheorghiu's “Mon cœur s’ouvre à ta voix” on YouTube here. And, yes, it's fascinating and very sensual.



Michael J. Bayly said...

Elīna Garanča's rendition is also very beautiful. It can be heard here.

armijok said...

Glad you liked it! You have already put me in the mood of listening to several versions of this aria. Thank you! I also admire and own several albums by Elina Garanča (a mezzo; my favorite type of voice). Precisely when she played Delilah at the Met, I was smitten by her beauty and enchanting voice.

Thanks to you for always sharing such varied topics of life that make me reflect and become more interested in what really counts. I'm sure it would be a great pleasure to share a coffee with you and chat at length.

Cordial greetings, Michael.