- Thea Kronborg’s Vocal Transvestism: Willa Cather and the “Voz Contralto”
Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915) may be, as John Dizikes has called it, “the finest American novel about art and the artist” (277). Ironically, however, Cather’s third novel may also be her least appreciated work (277). Its excessive length (nearly 500 pages in its original edition) probably discourages many general readers. But even sympathetic critics of Cather’s fiction such as David Stouck have regretted a more serious flaw, namely the novel’s hollow center. “On the surface it is a success story . . . but the incontrovertible truth of every such story is that art is achieved at the expense of life” (184).
Cather herself realized that Thea Kronborg’s rise from naive child of Moonstone, Colorado into world-renowned Wagnerian diva necessitated a depletion of the very energy that had made Thea interesting to readers. In an introduction written for the novel’s re-issue in 1932, Cather compared its dramatic arc to that of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray: “As the gallery of [Thea’s] musical impersonations grows in number and beauty, as that perplexing thing called ‘style’ (which is a singer’s very self) becomes more direct and simple and noble, the Thea Kronborg who is behind the imperishable daughters of music becomes somewhat dry and preoccupied” (The Song of the Lark,  vii–viii). 1 Thea’s life was in fact “the reverse of Wilde’s story.” Unlike Dorian [End Page 737] Gray, the musical artist “comes and goes, subject to colds, brokers, dressmakers, managers,” while the “free creature, who retains her youth and beauty and warm imagination, is kept shut up in the closet along with the scores and wigs” (Preface, viii).
Thea’s artistic struggles likewise have their physical counterparts à la Dorian Gray. According to Susan J. Rosowski, these struggles involve Thea’s incarnation of romantic desires for an imaginative existence, “a secret or second self” whose “gestation, birth, and passion” are charted throughout the novel (Voyage Perilous 63). In a letter to Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, Cather wrote that when Thea achieved vocal maturity near the novel’s middle, she (Cather) could almost feel Thea’s burgeoning body within her own flesh (7 Dec. 1915). Yet Sharon O’Brien sees the full-blooded Thea Kronborg as Cather’s last experiment with a strong female character before succumbing to “romantic women and male perceivers in later novels,” a move that O’Brien explains in terms of Cather’s disillusionment with her lesbian attachment to lsabelle McClung following the latter’s marriage to Jan Hambourg in 1916 (“The Thing Not Named” 596).
I believe that all of the above readings are valid and highlight important aspects of Thea’s character. But I would like to add to the discussion about Thea’s artistic development some ideas about two vital physical aspects of her character: the voice itself; and the music it produces. Of particular interest to me are Cather’s curious choice of range for the young Thea—a contralto—and her use of musical texts that amplify Thea’s struggle for artistic freedom by linking it to her struggle for physical maturity.
Thea’s passage through puberty and adolescence to adulthood resembles her search for the right voice and musical texts. Her early use of the contralto voice represents her vocal, physical, and social confusion—her “working-out” of competing impulses that define her as a daughter, an artist, and a woman. Thus Thea’s “imaginative rebirth” (in Rosowski’s terminology) also has a profoundly physical component illustrated by her search for a particular vocal range and the musical texts appropriate to it in charting her progress toward sexual awareness and professional success.
The Song of the Lark contains various references to musical texts that underline the transgressive and transvestite possibilities of the contralto voice. Cather’s allusions sometimes make only oblique reference [End Page 738] to a transvestite context, but elsewhere Thea performs with the approximation of a masculine voice and point-of-view. Such examples not only complicate a reader’s assessment of this feminine Künstlerroman (David Stouck’s label) but...