The sociologist Claudio Benzecry spent years studying opera fans in Buenos Aires and observed that their love of opera happened just the way other forms of love do — through an experience that made them want to keep going back for more. Not through reading up on it or going to lectures about it. I discuss Benzecry’s book along with a well-meaning tome called “Opera” that’s designed to deepen opera-lovers’ love, and conclude that Benzecry is right. Opera fans are like sports fans; you get into it, and you start to learn about it, and pretty soon you’re reeling off stats with the rest of them.
Benzecry’s book doesn’t try to communicate a love of opera: It simply depicts how that love happens. His subjects, none of them wealthy, attend the opera several times a week (often in standing room or the upper balconies, where tickets are not prohibitively expensive). They are not intellectuals; they are certainly not elitist; and they were not drawn to opera by any sense of social obligation. Secretaries and sports writers and blue-collar retirees, they argue passionately about singers, productions and composers, drawing on their own experience and on a wealth of information passed on orally by older and more experienced devotees.
And how did they fall in love with opera? Certainly not through academic introductions, or books, though many of them, Benzecry shows, do attend music appreciation lectures to augment their knowledge. But the initial spark is more likely to have been a powerful “aha” moment at the opera, when first taken by a parent, or a friend: an experience of falling in love that awakens in them a thirst to go back, and back, and back.
Benzecry’s book depicts a world that’s familiar to any frequent opera-goer. Such fandom is a long-standing part of opera tradition. Nineteenth-century opera was a populist art; most audiences experienced it viscerally, singing Verdi’s tunes on the street or swooning in titillated delight after hearing Wagner. You can still get dizzy listening to Wagner — I remember experiencing the “Tannhäuser” overture, at an early encounter, as a kind of psychedelic drug trip — and you can still get passionate about the opera singers who bring these works to life.
Yet few opera guides touch on these aspects of opera. This is partly because even the hardest-core opera fans tend to put opera on a pedestal, subscribing to the notion of it as something better, something higher, something that gives color and meaning to life. This worshipful attitude toward opera, through which even the drollest opera buffa is seen through a more rarefied lens than much more serious but populist contemporary art, is part of what makes the form so off-putting to first-timers, who see it as something that involves unfamiliar rituals, special clothes, expense and jargon, and that is probably boring.
Two things I like here:
1. Sports fans are sometimes used as examples of people who have irrational emotions about something that is just a game. How could they get so worked up over something so trivial? But, lots of people have deep interests and emotions wrapped up in all sorts of activities and hobbies. Indeed, I’ve thought over the last few years that one true sign of being part of the American middle upper class or above is that a person has to have some “irrational” interest to show that they not only enjoy something but they are wholeheartedly devoted to it and are willing to spend a lot of time and money on it. Perhaps it is physical activity, perhaps it is woodworking, perhaps it is sports, perhaps it is indie music, perhaps it is snowboarding. Perhaps this is all driven by the need to feel like an individual?
2. I bet there is some fascinating sociological material here. When people start talking about “falling in love” with opera, there have to be some underlying processes behind this. This reminds me of sociological research in certain areas like fashion or stock trading where employees talk about having “intuition” but there is actually a long process by which someone acquires this “intuition.” I bet there is something similar going on here: opera fans have developed ways of talking about their interest but there are some common themes across them as they moved from an initial exposure to a full-fledged fandom.