I was feeling cowed by Herr Engels. The four of us had retired from the Stravinsky performance to a Billy Wilder-themed bar in Berlin, the least horrible late-night option in the high end mediocrity of Potsdamer Platz. Herr Engels and his wife were enjoying retirement with a cultural event every single night, whether that be opera or the symphony or theater or a gallery opening; tonight, he had set his sights on me and wanted my opinion. I had one — small and squalid and intense as it was — but while Herr Engels had been steeped in culture, I had merely dipped a toe in. I had seen my first opera for the first time less than a year before, and he was asking for me to report on what I had seen. I didn’t have the language for it yet, not even a basic vocabulary. I started to list the Berlin operas I had seen — Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, Braunfels’s Jeanne d’Arc, Wagner’s Rienzi…
- The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession by Claudio E. Benzecry. 256 pages. University of Chicago Press. $29.
- The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire by Wayne Koestenbaum. 272 pages. De Capo Press. $17.
“Ah, the Rienzi. How was that?”
I mistakenly believed that he was asking because he had not seen that production. I started to explain how they changed the setting of Rome to a unspecified totalitarian space, how the staging was interesting, the clever ways they used Wagner’s overly long musical interludes and ballet sections. “I liked it,” I finally declared.
Herr Engels paused, brushed nonexistent crumbs off of the table, and simply said, “No. We did not care for it.”
Despite the shame he afflicted on me, Herr Engels would prove to be a rather benign, and even generous, version of a type I’ve since grown to know well. You know the opera fanatic even if you have never attended an opera performance in your life. He or she knows every performance, every singer, every composer, every conductor. The critics… phooey, they know nothing, but the fanatic holds the key to opera knowledge and enjoyment. Only they truly understand the art, and only they truly appreciate the art.
In The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession, Claudio E. Benzecry identifies four distinct types of the obsessed attendee: There’s the hero, who believes he is keeping the opera house open and the art itself alive and vital. There’s the addict, who is willing to sacrifice his families, friends, lovers, money, and sanity to attend multiple performances of the same opera, to listen to the records and attend lectures and travel to distant theaters. There’s the nostalgic, for whom everything was better when it was sung by Maria Callas, or Joan Sutherland, or back in 1965, or back when people took pride in knowing about opera. Then there’s the pilgrim, the devoted subject who treats the opera house as a religious temple.
Mostly what I was thinking while reading The Opera Fanatic was, “Phew. At least I haven’t fallen so far.” And yet while my passion may be new, as I continued reading, I realized that patterns were emerging. I was showing signs. My trip to visit Mad King Ludwig’s castle in Bavaria with its rooms decorated in loving tribute to Wagner could be mistaken for a pilgrimage — as could my trips to the opera houses of Vienna and Budapest and Odessa. My obsessive shopping sprees for tickets and my insistence that I always reserve the same seat might be the behavior of the Addict. Yes, I didn’t have a favorite diva and was more interested in the stories of the composers and the libretto writers, that didn’t make it any less annoying that I insisted on telling everyone the story of Boito’s Mefistofele, which may have been a masterpiece — and my favorite opera — but also destroyed his career.
Take the “opera” out of the Opera Fanatic, and there are still recognizable templates at play. And you may indeed want to remove “opera” to get a better look, as it can be very difficult for outsiders to see the appeal. Opera is often dismissed as a dead art form, as an elitist plaything of the wealthy and the out-of-touch. Wayne Koestenbaum spends a lot of time in The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire trying to make opera a gay thing. While the wealthy do remain patrons of the opera houses, statistically speaking, the average opera viewer is much more…normal. On paper at least. Benzecry — who treated the Teatro Colón like a mysterious village and reported back on the inhabitants’ behavior as an anthropologist would — found that the most devoted of its guests are middle class, many the children of immigrants, and, statistically, don’t lean more straight or gay than the outside world. So when you do remove the opera, you find that the addicts share much in common — probably to their protestations and their horror — with people who get obsessed about other things, whether that be comic books or Lord of the Rings or certain pop musicians or television shows.
I have gone to science-fiction conventions. I have waited in line for a Tori Amos concert. I have dated a comic book collector and a music critic. Yet I have always been on the outside of fan culture, never obsessive enough about any one topic to be seen as anything but a poseur by the true fans. They are always all too happy to explain to me why I am wrong about my opinion of TV’s Game of Thrones or how this Amos tour is overwhelmingly inferior to the second leg of her 1994 shows, which of course I did not see. Herr Engels was simply a better dressed and much more polite psychopomp to my latest adventure in fandom, but there are certainly equivalents in every fan culture I’ve encountered. There have certainly been those who wanted to hold my head underwater because I balked at the engulfing qualities of these passions, all the time and travel and schooling and money involved, and I was thus found unworthy of the objects of their love.
And it is love. Not in that “Oh, I love chocolate cake” kind of way, but in the way one falls in love with a paramour. Both Benzecry and Koestenbaum write about the difficulty fans have in sustaining a romantic relationship that doesn’t revolve around a shared opera obsession (it’s no coincidence that this is also the stereotype of nearly every fan culture). It’s as if these fans accidentally fell in love not with a human being but on opera, like a deluded gosling who imprinted on a sheepdog rather than its own mother. Koestenbaum writes, “The taste for opera is seen not only as compensation for lost love objects, but as the very catalyst of loss. The opera queen is lonely because he listens to opera: Opera isolates him from the sexual marketplace.” And opera feeds the fan like a lover, providing an emotional experience on par with romance, with all of the ecstasy and disappointment and anger and joy and everything in between. It’s no wonder a father in Opera Fanatic tries to curb his daughter’s growing interest in the Colón. He would like her to get married and not become one of the distinguished older women Benzecry interviews, who starts crying as she explains just how much the opera has meant to her. Of the dozens of opera fanatics he speaks to, he reports that fewer “than a third live with a permanent partner.”
What remains elusive in both books is the identification of the mechanism in these people that chose opera. Koestenbaum tries so hard to tie opera to his homosexuality, making metaphors about the closet and the voice and gay identification with the diva, that the reader is left with no option but not to believe him. It begins to sound like a pathological belief system. (I came across my copy of his book at the used bookstore, and I could read not only the text but the previous owner’s increasing frustration with Koestenbaum’s certainty. Next to yet another of the writer’s line insisting opera is the territory solely of the gays — “Opera’s apparent distance from contemporary life made it a refuge for gays, who were creations of modern sexual systems, and yet whom society could not acknowledge or accommodate” — my co-reader scrawled in an exasperated, “This is crazy!”) Koestenbaum and Benzecry’s interviewees all have their theories and their origin stories — family members who played operas on the phonograph, a waltz randomly heard on the radio, a lover who took them to the opera for the first time — but there’s no specific reason why it was opera, and not, say, an episode of Star Trek, which has also been the territory of the unacknowledged and the unaccommodated, that set their particular souls alight. But that’s love for you. The more we love someone who hurts us and obsesses us and sets us afire, the more we try to find justification for that love in our past.
As for me, I couldn’t really tell you. Something must have been in alignment the night I saw the Prokofiev with my friend Veda. I’m trying to keep a rein on it, although I’m aware the alabaster bust of Wagner that sits glaring at me as I sleep is probably not doing much for my bedroom karma. Love remains a powerful and destructive force that some of us need to hold at bay, to fight our fates. As Koestenbaum flipped through a collection of opera records in his friend’s garage, he said, “Why don’t you bring the records into the house? This is a terrific collection!” His friend replied, “You don’t know what would happen. You have no idea what would happen.” • 12 July 2011