Sunday, 17 July 2016

Opera Queens, bathhouses and Vicky Edie, again

The fact that it would have been the 102nd birthday today today of the celebrated soprano Miss Eleanor Steber has prompted me to re-visit an ancient post of mine (originally from my MySpace years, and relocated with all the others to my other blog Give 'em the Old Razzle Dazzle) from 2008. The original was in the immediate aftermath of a literary event I attended called "The Lavender Library", at which Mr Paul Burston had enthused about one of my own favourite books of all time, Queens by Pickles, from which I had just rediscovered...
...a passage from the chapter Cruising at the Opera in which "The Opera Queen" - who is "wild about applause, always yelling 'Brava' whilst all about him bellow their ignorance of gender" - has a bitchy conversation at the opera house with his friend:
Friend: "Just look at those diamonds! Look at them! She must be rolling in it! She looks a bit like Margaret Dumont, don't you think?"
Geoffrey: "Some women are so camp, aren't they?"
Friend: "What! They're hysterical! Talk about camp, dear - just give me Eleanor Steber at the Continental Baths! Have you got that album?"
Geoffrey: "Oh, I've tried everywhere. Everywhere! Deleted now!"
Friend: "Oh God, yes! I found mine in New York, actually. Ten dollars. I can't remember when I was so thrilled! Shall we have a little troll upstairs? You never know what you're missing in this place!"
Geoffrey: "I love walking up this staircase. It's so Joan Crawford, isn't it?"
Well, apart from being a brilliant observation of the interplay between queens - it could be Madam Arcati and I and our friends chatting - this set me thinking. Just who is/was Eleanor Steber? And could it be true that an opera singer (if that is indeed who she was) actually performed at the most notorious of the sex-club bathhouses in New York in the 70s? The home of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow (who started out as an act there)? So off I went on a web search to find out more...

Eleanor Steber, who died in 1990, was indeed an American operatic soprano - one of the first major opera stars to have achieved the highest success with training and a career based in the United States. Before her, most of the biggest stars of opera were European. Noted particularly for her performances of Wagner, Mozart, Puccini and Richard Strauss, she rose to prominence in the 1950s with the Metropolitan Opera, and performed at Bayreuth.

A bit of a high-living party-loving girl, her voice suffered towards the end of her career, but not before she paid a tribute to some of her greatest fans - gay men - by performing at the Continental Baths in 1973. And to top the whole search, I have found a copy of the original recording online!

Laydeez and gentlemen! Parterre Box ("the queer operazine") presents "Unnatural Acts of Opera" featuring Eleanor Steber live at the Continental. Your host is La Cieca, cultural doyenne...

Download the whole album as an MP3

Or visit the podcast website

Eleanor Steber live at the Continental - track listing:
  • Mozart: Zeffiretti lusinghieri (from Idomeno), Ach, ich fuehl's (from Die Zauberfloete), Come scoglio (from Cosi fan tutte);
  • Charpentier: Depuis le jour (from Louise);
  • Puccini: Quando m'en vo (from La Boheme);
  • Massenet: Scene and Gavotte (from Manon);
  • Sieczynski: Wien, du Stadt meiner Traeume;
  • Kreisler: Stars in My Eyes;
  • Lehar: Medley from The Merry Widow;
  • Puccini: Vissi d'Arte (from Tosca).
Edwin Biltcliffe, Piano; Joseph Rabb, Violin.October 4, 1973.

It is strange listening to this very old and very camp recording of a bygone gay era - before AIDS and the hysteria it whipped up closed bathhouses like this forever.

In particular, I found it very interesting how much Ms Steber's speaking voice must have influenced Bette Midler when she created her character Vicky Edie (from whence came my own epithet "Dolores Delargo the Toast of Chicago!").

But those reflections aside, I most enjoyed finding this beautiful vocal performance intact and online. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
And, EIGHT YEARS on from the original post, I still hope you do...

More about Eleanor Steber


  1. PS (from your other blog..) many thanks too, Jon, for posting this amazing and historic sound clip. It is is presently doing the rounds of the Opera world in Sydney & Melbourne and to considerable acclaim. I shall have to trawl further back into your immense archive to see what other gems we've missed.

    1. That you so much, Ian, for your kind words and enthusiasm - I only hope the Opera Queens of Oz appreciate it as much as I... Jx

      PS There is a helluva lot of archive to trawl, my dear! It'll be TEN YEARS next year since I first put blog to internet (in one form or another)...


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