Making the Bear Dance: Alexander Chee on The Queen of the Night

chee side by side crop

When it began, it began as an opera would begin, in a palace, at a ball, in an encounter with a stranger who, you discover, has your fate in his hands. He is perhaps a demon or a god in disguise, offering you a chance at either the fulfillment of a dream or a trap for the soul.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person,” wrote Oscar Wilde. “Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night is an exuberant performance in which masks and costumes of all sorts – from dazzling outfits that adorn Paris royalty and stage performers to the less literal disguises its heroine must employ as she makes her way through a peril-filled career – reveal as much as they conceal. The story of Lilliet Berne, genius soprano, star of the Paris Opera and former courtesan, turns not on one mask (though the great secret of Lilliet’s origin is threatened in the course of the story) but on life in a world in which identities are adopted and discarded in succession, and survival can depend on the ability to take on a new role at a moment’s notice.

To say The Queen of the Night is set in the glittering milieu of opera and intrigue in Second Empire Paris would be like saying that David Bowie is remembered as the inventor of Ziggy Stardust – true in its way but misleadingly partial. Lilliet’s history connects wildly disparate worlds, each rendered sumptuously by Chee in a novel that takes in the nineteenth century at extremes:  hardscrabble poverty during Lilliet’s early life as a farm girl in Minnesota; the wanderings of a circus troupe; the demimonde of Parisian prostitutes; the competition for royal attention in the corridors of the Tuileries palace; the chaos and terror of the Paris Commune after the fall of the Empire. Along the way, spotlights pick out figures from history and literature– the Empress Eugénie, Giuseppe and Giuseppina Verdi, writer Ivan Turgenev and the spymaster the Comtesse de Castiglione, among others.

The story of Lilliet’s passage through these environments takes on something of the grand adventure and suspense of Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, but throughout Chee fills his reader’s ear with Lilliet’s voice: elegiac and undaunted, passionate in love and friendship, but always questing toward an understanding of her “fate” in the most tragic sense. It’s the character of Lilliet herself who makes The Queen of the Night operatic in more than one sense.

In the week leading up to the publication of his novel, I sat down with Alexander Chee over breakfast in a Manhattan diner to talk about the “Falcon” sopranos, Jenny Lind, the secret history of courtesans, and how even historical fiction can wind up as a sort of autobiography. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. – Bill Tipper


The Barnes & Noble Review: How did you first begin to conceive of The Queen of the Night?

chee crop sfAlexander Chee: I first started to think about it in 1999. I found a postcard recently that my friend, Shauna Seliy, sent me that year. She’s a wonderful writer, author of a novel called When We Get There. She sent me a postcard of the Karl-Friedrich Thiele backdrop for the entrance of The Queen Of The Night. On the back of it, she wrote a Hungarian proverb: “When you catch your bear, it will dance for you.”

BNR:   So that was something of a spark.

AC:   Right. I remember I loved the image, and I put it over my desk to look at. In 1999 I was still finishing rewrites on Edinburgh and getting ready to start sending it out that fall. My agent said to me at the time, “What’s the next book?” I said, “Oh, I’m not sure.” She said, “Well, try to come up with something; everyone is going to ask what it’s going to be.” There were all these things that had been swirling around at the time. I had felt a kind of pull towards these old junk shop stereograph photos, these 19th century photos. I began to collect those.

BNR:   That’s the kind of photo where you have two images that are slightly offset from one another in some way, so that when you view them with a stereograph you create a 3D-like image.

AC: Yes. So I found images from the Minneapolis-St. Paul Ice Festival of 1882. There were these beautiful photos of a castle made of ice, taken at night, illuminated by torches. You could see a fish frozen into the cubes of the blocks of ice. In one of them, there’s a woman in a hooded fur robe carrying a torch, and you couldn’t quite see her face. That one in particular was very powerful to me. I don’t know why. I loved looking at all of them, but that’s the one where I would linger.

Sort of around the same time, I ran into my friend, the late David Rakoff, and he told me the most incredible story about Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, and how she had retired at the age of 29 in 1850. P.T. Barnum approached her about doing a farewell tour of the United States, and she asked him for something like a half-million dollar advance, and he provided it, which at the time was like an astonishing sum of money. She accepted, toured for two years, and they both became very rich. She was also the first entertainment celebrity in America to endorse products, some of which are still with us, like the Jenny Lind crib, for example, which many people have or slept in when they grew up, and maybe had never known what it was, but that crib was one of the things that she put her name to.

Pablo Neruda even had a Jenny Lind ship’s figurehead in his home, which is so frightening and beautiful to look at. I saw a photo of it online, and it’s amazing.

BNR:   So you had a story of Jenny Lind’s farewell tour.

AC: She was greeted by huge crowds when she arrived, and treated as a civilizing influence, arriving from Northern Europe to the Americas. The House of Lords stopped business for two days so they could all go to her farewell concert in London. I can’t think of a contemporary entertainment celebrity who would command that sort of interest now. So, yes, she was that kind of a celebrity. It was fascinating to me.

I had imagined she was traveling with a circus on that tour, that Barnum toured her with a circus. When I looked her up and found out that wasn’t true, I was disappointed. And then I thought, “oh, that’s the novel.”

BNR: “Wait a minute. I can make up my own version of this story.”

AC:   Precisely. I remembered that I was a novelist.

The story from David merged in my mind with that card from Shauna, and so I wrote two paragraphs up, summarizing this, titled it “The Queen of the Night”, and sent this to my agent, and then what happened was two years of publishers rejecting my first novel, and saying, “Could you do that opera circus novel first?” I eventually really turned against the idea in my mind, and put the novel away. I was so angry that two paragraphs could eclipse an entire written novel. My mother has a story of helping a friend with her audition to be an airline stewardess back in the 1960s—as they called them back then. She went to the audition with her, and they wanted my mom and not her friend. My mom was this sort of blonde-haired, blue-eyed American Beauty. I thought, “Well, if they want the blonde, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed American Beautiful will have to have the weird, queer sister first.” [LAUGHS] That’s how I felt about it.

And then Edinburgh found a publisher, and three years later, I eventually returned to Queen.

BNR: The Queen of the Night is both an emotional adventure and a kind of wild ride through these sort of different milieus. But it’s also about the emotional valence of opera and of a particular moment in time, the kind of height and then fall of Second Empire Paris and into the Third Republic of France. It’s an extraordinarily rich fictional portrayal of both those milieus. Did you come into this thinking, “I’m going to dive into French opera and European opera of this period, and figures such as Verdi,” for example –or did that sort of simply emerge from telling her story and then you found yourself kind of getting more involved?

AC:   I would say the latter. It was a questioning process. What would this person at this time, with these desires and these abilities…what would she do? Who would she know? Who would she meet?

The dinner with the Verdis thing actually is one of the first things I wrote, though–that seemed automatic, very normal, that the composer and his wife would dine with the soprano.

BNR:   This takes place when your protagonist, Lilliet is already a star, and she has this relationship with Verdi and his wife.

AC: Initially the dinner was a only alluded to in like a sentence. That long passage where she remembers her mother’s death and burying her, and then it concluded with her at dinner with the Verdis. Giuseppina is complimenting her on her technique, like, “How do you sound so bereft?” is roughly the question.

BNR:   But you decided instead to create an entire scene.

AC:   An entire scene with them having dinner. Eventually I realized that was more powerful. The novel was always about that contrast between the tragedies you perform as an artist and then the tragedies that you might also live through or live out. The idea came out of publishing Edinburgh and having people talk to me about the novel over the years that I was promoting it, and this very funny sense I had as people– even my brother-in-law, who knows me really well– began to speak to me as if the events in that novel were real. [LAUGHS] I initially had tried to write a more autobiographical novel with Edinburgh, and actually that was not successful. I showed my first agent those pages, she said “Well, you know, nobody is going to believe this many bad things happened to one person.” I thought about how my life had seemed improbable to me at certain points. — but it had never occurred to me that it would be, like, literally incredible, unbelievable.

So I liked the idea of imagining this opera diva who was performing in these kinds of tragedies with these kind of overblown plots, who also has her own overblown plot behind her.

BNR:   Can you talk a little about Lilliet as a soprano, and her particular “type”? One thing that was new to me in reading this were these different classifications of soprano voice that play into the book, and how she gets her designation.

AC:   I went on a date with an opera agent – at dinner, for whatever reason, we began talking about Falcon sopranos. I became fascinated with the idea that this voice existed, and wanted to know everything about it. That was one of those founding moments for the novel.

BNR: That’s the classification Lilliet is given by her teachers.

AC:   And it’s an old-fashioned term for it. Sometimes it’s in use, sometimes not now. The other term for it is “tragic soprano” or sometimes mezzos are considered Falcons, but it really is its own peculiar voice. Maria Callas is probably the most famous Falcon that I can think of.

BNR:   The name actually comes from a real-life opera singer?

AC:   Right–not the bird. Marie Cornélie Falcon, who lost her voice while performing — singing the line “je suis pret” – “I am ready.” How much more tragic can you get?

BNR:   Lilliet’s is given this astonishing freedom and opportunity by having this exceptional voice. It feels like a fairy-tale in many places, or drawing on, in the way opera does, a fairy tale. Of course it evokes The Little Mermaid or a similar kind of story, in which having an enchanted voice means having to suffer some loss or sacrifice in order to get this almost divine quality that has this magical power over people.

AC: That was very deliberate. I had become interested in this kind of 19th century French fiction where the character believes that they might have gone insane, but might also be under some sort of enchantment.

BNR:   Any in specific?

AC:   Yes. Like the work of Théophile Gautier, for example. But for me, it was a way to create a kind of unifying field for all of these different elements that I wanted to put together.

I had always been fascinated by the way in which your singing voice and your speaking voice could be so different from each other, and the way you could lose your speaking voice but still be able to sing. You could effectively have a kind of conversational laryngitis but also perform. As someone who had trained as a boy singer, a boy soprano professionally as a child, I remember also being very aware that my voice had an expiration date. I loved being a soprano. It was one of my very favorite things in life, and thus far, and losing that voice was a profound emotional moment for me in my life. I never became that interested in my adult male singing voice.

In some ways, in The Queen of the Night I’m writing about some of the experience that I had with Edinburgh where I was entirely unable to speak about what had happened to me as a child, but I could read from the novel. So the novel functioned as a kind of prosthetic voice…

BNR:   …or a mask. Which is another major theme of Queen of the Night.

AC:   Yes.

BNR: There’s a whole wonderful piece involving a masquerade and costumes which both accentuate or point up the characteristics of the wearers, or hide them under some kind of opposites.

AC:   I’m very proud of the Prussian bear costume [which Lilliet dons at a masquerade.]

BNR:   How much were you steeped in the historical period, knew about it when you set out on this project? How much of a sense would you say, “oh yes, I’m…” Were you someone who was fascinated with Second Empire in France, or that period, that place in time, or was this all pretty much new territory for you?

AC:   It was pretty new territory. I was fascinated with 19th-century America. I had a friend joke that by growing up in Maine, I had sort of grown up in that! The past is still very present for me. My Mom’s family is a very old Maine farming family, and has been in the state for over 300 years on the same farm. They have the King George, III deed to the property. My mom was born in a house that is held together with wooden pegs.

I could go to the family graveyard and look at Revolutionary War era graves. Imagining the start of that graveyard was kind of the way that I came to that graveyard scene of the novel.

That was the easy part, in a sense. The harder part was France, for sure.

BNR:   How did you go about researching that part?

AC:   I just thought to myself, like: Who was alive then? Who was writing operas? Who were the big ones? If I was creating a fictional opera celebrity, who would she be hanging out with? Who would teach her? So I just set out to try to learn all of that. I started with a biography of Giuseppe Verdi, and became fascinated by his many relationships and operas and all.

BNR:   Verdi, like many of the real historical figures you draw on, becomes a wonderful character.

AC:   His commitment to cooking for himself was absolutely incredible!

BNR: His food always travels with him. — he’s got his arborio rice packed away so he can make risotto in Paris.

AC: There’s a letter I saw Giuseppina was sending someone his food order for one of his trips. He was known for giving friends these hams and directions for how to prepare them.

It was very specific. So I loved them, and I loved their passionate, strange, long-term relationship.

BNR:   There’s a sense in that scene with them of a vision into that somewhat Bohemian artist culture. They have access to the world of style and wealth that surround them, but they’re making their own rules. Their own stature as artists allows them to be different, and not to be governed entirely by the extremely competitive and intrigue-laden world of fashion and politics.

AC:   Right. Yet also it was fascinating to discover things like how Verdi hated Paris audiences, for example, because he thought they were rude for the way that they would not pay attention to the opera! [LAUGHS]

BNR: So much of what this novel does is give one a real sense of both the sumptuousness and the ruthlessness of that world of the aristocracy at this point leading into the war. One thing that you get into are the political intrigues around the Emperor, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, and his wife Eugénie, and how her wardrobe becomes a key in a political intrigue.

AC:   It was amazing to me that something that people treated as something so shallow, like a gown, could be such an incredible political, diplomatic and even economic tool in the hands of someone like the Empress Eugénie or the Comtesse.

BNR:   Political intrigue, political ideals, and a real political-historical tragedy become central to this novel. Was that something that you knew you were going to take on as you initially conceived of Lilliet as a character?

AC:   No. What is now the end of the novel came from the first pages that I wrote. I showed those to my editor eventually at Houghton and I remember he said to me: “Well, where is she before this? What happens before? How does she get here?” I remember thinking, “Well, do we really need to get into that? Isn’t everything that happens next more important?” Then I realized that, no, actually everything that happened before is what mattered. That’s where the story was.

I had real hesitation before including the political intrigues. But at the same time, like many people, I had become fascinated with courtesans. [LAUGHS] But in a wary way. There was a sort of ridiculousness that seemed to enter in whenever anyone brought a courtesan into a story, and I didn’t want it to be ridiculous.

BNR:   What do you think accounts for that?

AC:   A misunderstanding of them, a contemporary misunderstanding of them and their powers and the world that they lived inside of. The best relatively contemporary portrayal of a courtesan that I’ve ever seen was probably in Children of Paradise, a film that was made during the Nazi occupation of France, made in secret actually. Arletty, who is the actress, plays a courtesan by the name of Garance. To me, that’s what courtesans were. Confident. Funny. Shrewd. In that film, she has a lover who is so poetical with her that she becomes exhausted to him. She just wants someone to come over and have sex with her. She doesn’t want all the poetry.

One of the things that I wanted to deal with in the novel was that I had always heard that people speak of the political power wielded by courtesans. I had also never read an account of it. When you got down to it, no one, it seemed to me, had really described it. The most famous novel from that period about courtesans is Nana, Emile Zola’s Nana, which is a wonderful novel and I loved it, and I pay a certain homage to it at one point, but for all his research, that was not part of what he researched. I thought that was very interesting, because it would have meant probably endangering his political connections.

So it was through the research I was doing into the Comtesse de Castiglione. I was reading the wonderfully researched catalog that the Metropolitan Museum of Art had done around this show that they did of her. Discovering her was like the novelist’s dream…like a dragon’s cave of tragedies.

BNR:   She’s working, behind the scenes, at political manipulation – just as she did in real life?

AC:   Exactly. The more that I read about her, the more I really believed in her as a spymaster.

BNR:   In the novel, you make Lilliet one of her tools.

AC:   One of her tools. Yes – and all of that stuff is not invented. The Comtesse really did return to Paris after the fall of the Empire, and then live under police protection that was provided for her by Adolphe Thiers. There’s not really a reason for that unless there is a reason for that, if you understand me… [LAUGHS]

It’s very likely that she could not stay in Italy, and also did not want to. And it’s very likely that she could not stay in Paris without some kind of protection.

BNR:   The flip side of the political power of the courtesans is that Lilliet is essentially, at a critical point in her life, owned as property, as the courtesans were — a slave, of a kind, under a very specific regulatory regime.

AC:   She’s been trafficked, yes.

BNR: How she enters into that specific state emerges both from the vagaries of fortune and her own choices. But she does wind up becoming the property of one of the villains of the book, really—the tenor. Where did he come from in your imagination? Because he is certainly one of the most memorable and arresting figures in the book.

AC:   Thank you. He was an early character. He entered into the scene probably… I probably started writing about…included him in the novel in 2004-2005, which was about the time that I returned to the writing of the novel. At first he was just a man that she met while he was on leave, that scene, that is now very developed, that happens in the house where she’s working as a prostitute. The more I thought about him, the more he grew as a character.

Opera singers were also spies. They may still be! I don’t know. When you’re an opera singer, you get to travel a lot. Your celebrity protects you, in a certain sense, from certain kinds of intrusions—or it can until it doesn’t. So the tenor grew in my mind very slowly, but he did grow on me, and the more I thought about him, the more I had fun with him.

Early on in the writing of the novel I had thought it would be interesting to try to reinvent The Magic Flute as a novel, and then I read the libretto and thought this was a terrible idea. But I made a decision to work with the themes of The Magic Flute, and the tenor very obviously became to me the demon who guards Pamina. Then his “fate” was sealed as a character, once I understood him in that capacity.

BNR: You’ve said this novel has a lot in it that represents what you went through writing and publishing Edinburgh. Do you identify with Lilliet? Obviously, in many ways she is simply this kind of character of the imagination; her escapades or tragedies are only possible in fiction. But to what extent do you see yourself in this book?

AC:   I do identify with her a lot. That’s true. I did imbue her with certain things from me, like that feeling of never quite feeling at home – but my favorite character in the novel is Euphrosyne.

BNR:   A friend who, because of the nature of the loyalty that Lilliet feels for her, Lilliet winds up becoming essentially…

AC:   She’s always screwing Lilliet over.

BNR:   She’s a survivor.

AC:   She’s a survivor.

BNR: There’s a grand theme of “fatedness” in The Queen of the Night. Do you feel like what you set out to do was create a tragedy?

AC:   Yes. Most definitely. It is the power cord, the third rail of the novel. In the sense that nothing works without it. Everything else, I felt passionately about, and was interested in. But that was the thing that drove its invention most, was dealing with that fate and the way that let me work with tragedy.

BNR:   Is it possible for a writer or a composer to create something that maps to the idea of tragedy in a wholly 21st century mode? Or do we need to access these sort of historical periods when the idea of the Tragic was still sort of central to the culture?

AC:   Oh, I think hubris is still very much with us. I used Aristotle’s rules for tragedy to plot Edinburgh, and one of the nicest compliments I ever got about it was, someone asked me, “Was this inspired by a Greek myth?” I said, “No. But thank you.”

I think people still need catharsis. Maybe now more than ever.