Queen of the Night

IMG_1521I was 29 when I went to my first opera, Tosca. Before the performance, I researched the opera. I thought I needed to know the story or I would go and be completely lost. I was mistaken.

To date, I have seen six operas and I will see my seventh next month.

I don’t know how to describe the feeling of opera. There’s a passage from Alexander Chee’s novel Queen of the Night where the protagonist, Lilliet says it best:

“This […] was my first experience of the ridiculous and beloved thief that is opera–the singer who sneaks into the palace of your heart and somehow enters the stage singing aloud the secret hope or love or grief you hoped would always stay secret, disguised as melodrama; and you are so happy you have lived to see it done. The singer singing to you with the full force of what you feel is transfigured and this transfigures you.”

Yes, opera is that good. And then I learned there was a novel set in the world of opera. Even better. Queen of the Night is the story of Lilliet Berne, a famous opera singer known for unique falcon vocal register. While she is at the pinnacle of her career, a man confronts her about performing in a new opera based on a novel. The novel sounds much like her life–the life she had worked hard to escape. There are a few people who know her whole story, so she searches for the culprit. But while she is on the hunt, the narrative returns to the girl before the diva.

While it is a longer book, the narrative moves quickly. We as readers see a woman who has to remake herself several times over while trying to survive as a young orphan. Her perseverance leads her from America to Europe where she is later discovered and put on a path to becoming a professional singer. She lives in France during the Second Republic and witnesses the fall of an empire, all the while trying to escape a wealthy man who owns her.

While reading, I had moments where my feminist lens kicked in. The female protagonist is a young woman without money in Europe, having to do what she must in order to survive. The men have the money and power over her. But this is a period piece. And while Lilliet is confounded with the difficulties of being destitute and a young woman, her character has a sense of cunning that serves her well. That along with her vocal talents grants her the ability to move from poverty to wealth.

I also enjoyed the use of different operas in the narrative, which serve as metaphors in specific instances. Lilliet’s life moves in a similar fashion to operas, “Victory, defeat, victory, defeat, victory, defeat.” It is a long novel, but it had me guessing until the end if this was to be a tragedy or triumph.

This is an incredible novel that I highly recommend. Even if you don’t think opera is your thing, check it out. And also, take a listen to the song “Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

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