The story of a courtesan is the story of men, as told through the assumed voice of a woman.
Such is the case in Alexander Chee's "Queen of the Night," a fantasia set in a world of opera, dance halls and the court intrigues of Second Empire Paris.
The story opens as Lilliet Berne, a soprano with a rare but fragile voice, has been offered a lead role in a new opera. It's a career-capping role, but the libretto also exposes uncomfortable secrets of her past.
Is the role a gift or an attempt to end her career? This is the question that sets the plot in motion.
As Lilliet crisscrosses Paris, trying to discover the identity of the author, her past unfolds. As a Midwestern orphan with a talent for singing and horseback riding, she falls into a role at a New York circus as a singing equestrienne.
The circus takes her to Paris, where she jumps ship and ends up at L'Hotel des Majeurs-Plaisirs, an upscale brothel. Here Lilliet discovers the opera and a wealthy tenor discovers her voice.
In her attempt to escape the gilded prison of the tenor's attention, Lilliet reinvents herself as a servant to Empress Eugenie.
This transformation takes her from the wardrobe room in the basement of Tuileries palace to the royal pleasure grounds in Compiegne, a world of "affairs, singing and dancing, feasts, terrible fights and feuds."
There are two gusts of fresh air in this overheated world. The first is Lilliet's encounter with the circus, a world of outsiders where the gender fluidity of the characters is playful and direct. Lilliet meets a giant fire-breather in drag named Flambeau, accompanied by a "woman dressed in pants walking with a soldier's powerful stride."
A second is Lilliet's voice teacher, a female composer who is a friend of the unconventional writer George Sand, and who lives peacefully with two husbands under one roof.
Beside them, Lilliet often feels like a heroine in search of her own story. Two men pursue her, but both have their own secrets and agendas, and often see her as a projection of their own desire.
Men "rule the day, but we rule the night," the owner of Majeurs-Plaisirs tells Lilliet as she signs a contract to work for the house. "Do not be sad then, be proud. The night is a wonderful country to rule."
Under the layers of plot and operatic melodrama, the constant scene changes and set pieces, "Queen of the Night" explores the question of what gives the courtesan her hold, her power over the hearts of men.
Trisha Collopy is a Star Tribune copy editor.