Letters to a diva: the concealment of gay identity in Gordon Jephtas's letters to May Abrahamse

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Due to the lack of professional opportunities during the apartheid era for so-called coloured musicians in the local opera industry, Gordon Jephtas (1943–1992) left the country in 1965 in search of a career as répétiteur, vocal coach and choir master abroad. By the mid-1980s he was one of New York’s most sought-after répétiteurs and worked with opera stars such as Luciano Pavarotti, Joan Sutherland, Leontyne Price and Marilyn Horne. More than 20 years after his death the discovery of his letters to his lifelong confidant back home, Eoan soprano May Abrahamse, constitutes an archival find that has much to offer towards the historiography of Western art music in South Africa. The letters encapsulate the aspirations, successes and failures of an exiled, gay and coloured classical music artist during the apartheid era. Apart from his work with a string of international operatic stars, many aspects of Jephtas’s letters comment on salient issues of the human condition that go beyond the disciplinary boundaries of opera as a format in and for itself, or what may be deemed a “successful career” or a musician who “made it” abroad. Jephtas’s letters reveal his obsession with opera and the soprano voice, his penchant for diva worship, the loneliness of his nomadic existence and the ups and downs of life behind the scenes of many an opera performance. They speak to the exile’s never-ending longing for home, his racial identity as a “coloured” person and the way this played out in his profession in South African as well as abroad. Yet his letters also reveal a number of significant issues that remained resolutely undiscussed; the politics of apartheid and the way it influenced his life are never directly mentioned, and, central to this article, his gay identity and his illness that led to his death surface nowhere in the 30-year correspondence.

For this article I chose to explore two themes that lie on the surface of the correspondence and are often connected other in gay literature. I posit the question whether the overt presence of diva worship in his letters can be read as an expression of his gay identity which, as an issue in itself, is never alluded to. If so, could this be regarded as a veiled and therefore conscious expression of his sexuality, or should it rather be read as an unconscious manifestation? The article draws on the concepts of the closet, the opera queen and diva worship and uses these as interpretative tools to explore how these issues constellated in Jephtas’s letters.

The notion of the closet has become a metaphor for consciously concealing one’s sexual identity or behaviour in an environment where its nature is experienced as deviant from the norm. Diverging from accepted norms in a predominantly heterosexual society proves to be culturally and politically highly charged, and disguising the issue has become a way to escape retribution by society at large. In Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s seminal work Epistemology of the closet (1990:3, 71) it is argued that the closet became the defining structure for gay oppression in the 20th century; a claustrophobic, secretive and imprisoned space that restrains and silences gay identity and opposes self-manifestation. In contrast to the silence on his gay identity, opera as a format and female opera singers take centre stage in Jephtas’s letters. Apart from detailed and frequent discussions on the quality of voice and performativity of the various famous sopranos of his time (many of whom he also coached), Jephtas’s infatuation with Maria Callas and May Abrahamse is overtly present in the correspondence.

I interpret this as a manifestation of diva worship, which refers to the veneration female entertainers enjoy from gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) groups. Diva worship as a phenomenon with its characteristics and distinctive parlance has been written on by a number of academics, including Mitchell Morris (1995), Brett Farmer (2005, 2007), Wayne Koestenbaum (1994), Daniel Harris (1996), Vito Russo (1987) and Edward O’Neill (2007). Closely connected to diva worship is the concept of the opera queen. The Routledge international encyclopedia of queer culture states that being an opera queen signifies a gay person’s “obsession with the world of opera and a passionate devotion to the idealized figure of the prima donna” (Gerstner 2006:441). Morris (1993:188), too, argues that “central to the true opera queen’s aesthetic is the cult of the singer – specifically the female singer”. The above-mentioned encyclopaedia furthermore states that in a time when gay culture was still heavily closeted in the West, “immersion in opera served both as a retreat from a hostile environment and a discreet signifier of sexual preference” and cites Queen-singer Freddie Mercury’s collaboration with Montserrat Caballé as an example of this. A wider reading of the literature, however, indicates that divas are admired for a variety of reasons, of which escapism from societal retribution is only one.

Jephtas’s diva worship of Callas and Abrahamse can be read in the frequency with which they appear in his letters, but it also finds expression in the tone in which he described them. Morris (1993:190) argues that the way in which opera queens discuss divas is characterised by ambiguity – “what seems like an insult may be a compliment, and more than likely it is both”, adding that its tone is “somewhere between histrionics and hysteria”. During his first visit to Europe from December 1963 to March 1964, Jephtas attended two performances of the now famous Franco Zeffirelli production of Puccini’s Tosca at Covent Garden with Callas in the title role. The performances are described in extraordinary detail in the letters dated 31 January and 5 February 1964, bearing testimony to his in-depth understanding of the voice, the format of opera, his focus on how vocal sound is enacted on stage and his ability to unflinchingly critique while at the same time adore Callas as an opera singer. In the years leading up to her death in 1977, Callas would remain his idol, always referred to by him as “La Callas”, and few letters do not in some or other way report on her singing (or lack thereof), the details of her love life or any aspect of her personal life that he picked up in the press. The letter of 31 January 1964 also signifies the projection of this admiration on to Abrahamse when he concludes by writing, “We’ll make a Callas of you yet!!” (Jephtas 1964a).

Jephtas’s admiration for Abrahamse can be traced in many aspects of the correspondence. Even the way he addressed her on the envelopes provides a tantalising glimpse of how deeply diva worship was part of his projection on to Abrahamse: from 1969 onwards he usually adorned her name with formal and elaborate adjectives, as seen, for example in “Alla Gentile Signora” (To the gentle Lady), “Pregiatissima Signora” (Precious Lady), “Esimia Signora” (Magnificent Lady), “Gentilissima” (The most gentle), “Distinto” (Distinguished) or “Distinta Artista” (Distinguished Artist). For him she was a singer who never gave up on her quest to excel as an artist in the most difficult of circumstances, but he never compromised on critiquing her singing. Yet, even after having worked with some of the world’s foremost sopranos, such as Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballé, Elena Suliotis, Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne and Joan Sutherland, in 1990 he wrote to Abrahamse (who was 60 years old at the time), “Now I can hardly wait to walk out on stage with you, and sing our songs” (Jephtas 1990).

The article concludes by reconsidering the role the diva is said to play in gay culture. In the light of accounts written on diva worship, it seems that diva fixation in gay culture runs parallel with self-identification of being gay and that coming out does not diminish its intensity. The question, therefore, whether Jephtas’s diva worship was a concealed and conscious way of communicating the unsayable to Abrahamse or an unconscious manifestation becomes irrelevant. The more productive question may be to probe the reasons for Jephtas’s silence on the issue, as this points to the kind of space the social and professional circles in South Africa were for Jephtas at the time. Apart from the fact that a discussion of subjects such as alternative sexual preferences was not necessarily accepted social practice, Jephtas would most probably have avoided any information that could compromise his reputation back home, and being coloured, gay and HIV positive during apartheid was probably the least desirable combination of positions to be in.

Keywords: aids; coming out; diva worship; Eoan Group; gay identity; Gordon Jephtas; Maria Callas; May Abrahamse; opera queen; the closet

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Briewe aan ’n diva: die verswyging van gay-identiteit in Gordon Jephtas se briewe aan May Abrahamse

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