While Victorian Novel Disease primarily afflicts the young, beautiful and wealthy, Opera Disease affects the young, beautiful and poor. This is because a) French and Italian culture of the 19th century embraced social realism and b) at least one celebrity Marie du Plessis, actually did die of tuberculosis contracted while doing factory work. This would not, in itself, merit a separate WU except for the fact that there is an urban legend that, in 19th century drama, "consumption contracted in a sweatshop" was a polite expression for "syphilis contracted in a bordello".

Gay men love opera. The fact that opera tickets are even more expensive than those to an ordinary play, or even a musical, and thus outside the budget of an average adult-with-children, coupled with the arcane nature of opera fandom (libretti in various foreign languages, knowledge of the opera world, plus a liking for classical music) plus the campy, often cross-dressing nature of the entertainment, makes opera a natural interest for fellows who are gay and past their clubbing years. Along with well-heeled retirees, various random fans and intellectually minded older single women, this is your basic opera audience. So it was, that Wayne Koestenbaum, in 1993, wrote "The Queen's Throat", a book that conflated the operatic Diva, with the more common "divas" of the dance floor. What a gay man hears in a soprano singing in "La Traviata", according to him, is nothing more than a fantasy version of his closeted, fearful self: given a gay-friendly society, it would be he who would be wearing a red dress and jewels, singing so loudly her(his) voice would fill an auditorium. In this way, his opera fandom was a kind of "spiritual solo masturbation", validating his identity as a sexual person.

I don't quite hold with this: for one thing, what makes a soprano a soprano is that she has a high, feminine voice. Plenty of straight men like opera, too, and not a few of them are hot for divas in a way that is clearly not gay, and for many throughout history, opera-going was the very opposite of a solitary activity. However, for one shining moment, operatic heroines (especially Italian and French ones) were seen, with their doomed independence and androgynous strength, as entirely cognate with gay men: if a heroine was a whore, it wasn't because lying on one's back was less taxing than backbreaking work as a maid or factory hand, but because it was a lifestyle choice, somewhere between deciding to get a tattoo and having a mysterious compulsion to prowl around on streetcorners. If they were sick, somehow it had to do with their sexuality -- of course! It's a symbol of society's condemnation of their perfectly healthy and natural desire to have anonymous sex for money! And since they couldn't get AIDS, they got ... syphilis!

Which brings us to our two heroines, Violette (Camille) and Mimi, who both die, famously, of consumption. While you might be tempted to think that Violette's death is an expression of her integrity being corrupted by an unhealthy life, Mimi is cut of a different cloth: what distinguishes her is her innocence, as much as her independence. She's not a prostitute...she sews, and when she's not sewing for money, she makes fake flowers. (Hey, everyone needs a hobby...) She doesn't like church, but likes to pray. She's sweet and childlike, and exactly the kind of girl a poet should have around as a muse. And she's sick. News flash: girls got that way, especially if your working hours were from dawn to noon (the traditional "midinette"'s workday) in a cold, drafty atelier, with lots of other girls around, and a lot of lint and other irritants floating around. Also, in terms of voice and music, respiratory disease is easy to portray: she sings softer and softer, she coughs a bit...

So how does Mimi fare in "Rent"? Without innocence, you just don't have a tragedy. If she's a stripper in a dive in a modern-day setting, it really is a choice ... it's one of the good things about the 21st century that women without means aren't just sex workers, servants, and seamstresses, but can also choose to be working with Word/Excel/PowerPoint. (Not that I'm trivializing real AIDS, but as written, she seems to have had some agency in the matter..it didn't just come out and bite her, so to speak.) Her death is a guitar solo, not an aria, and she actually comes back for the last number!

Of course, we might come up with a nice plot about some nice girl dying of carpal tunnel...

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