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Book review: The Opera Fanatic

It’s always strange to find yourself described in a book you’re reading. For me (and, I suspect, many devoted opera fans), Claudio E. Benzecry’s The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession offers that experience over and over again. While Benzecry’s study specifically focused on the standing-room-only crowd of the Teatro Colón in Argentina in 2002-2005, many of his conclusions apply to opera fanatics worldwide. (Side note: he states in the introduction that he attended over 70 opera performances as part of his research. What a great job!)

Teatro Colón

The first chapter provides an overview of the Teatro Colón. One of its relevant and distinguishing architectural features is separate entrances for different levels of the house—there is literally no way for the hoi polloi shelling out pennies for standing room to mix with the subscribers in the orchestra. (Also, interestingly, the main standing room levels at the theater are gender-segregated.) But the fascinating portions of the book look at the people, not the house. Chapter two is a collection of biographical sketches of opera fanatics Benzecry met. There seem to be some common patterns: most dedicated opera fans live alone (and many discuss the difficulty of balancing opera fandom with relationships or family), and the majority (of the standing-room fans, at any rate) are middle-class. Unsurprisingly, cats feature prominently in one of the sketches. (I would actually have expected them to appear even more often—don’t cats and opera go together?)

Benzecry traces the ways new audiences are initiated into fanaticism, from the first encounter with opera (invariably an emotional experience to recount) through the process of becoming an expert. He identifies three schools: the talk of other opera fans (which generally draws on a huge knowledge base about the works and past performances), formal lectures organized to coincide with the season, and observation of in-house cues (when people clap, what gets booed, and so forth).

Since this is an ethnographic study, Benzecry is very interested in status within the world of opera fanatics. He notes how the standing room patrons differentiate themselves from those who pay for seats: the ones who stand are the true fans, motivated by pure love of art, while the others are there for instrumental reasons (to meet others or to be seen). Part of how they distinguish themselves is by being “opera thugs,” engaging in behaviors not usually associated with high culture. They will shout and boo; jostle one another for the best places; revel in the visceral, bodily effects of the music; and even come close to starting fistfights over differences of opinion! Benzecry also identifies a strange feature of the social capital associated with this form of dedicated opera fandom: it’s non-transferable. The people he interviews build a self-image around opera, but it stays in the opera house. They don’t tend to network with—or even form outside-the-house friendships with—their standing-room friends, and many hide their passion for opera in everyday life.

Four archetypes of opera fans emerge. (Tag yourself!) There’s the hero, who describes his or her devotion in terms of sacrifices made. The opera house has a “house audience,” s/he is part of it, and at all costs the obligation to attend the opera must be fulfilled. Then there’s the addict, constantly in search of a musical high. Opera is an illness that contains its own cure. Highs can come from transcendent moments in old favorites, or from being surprised by the new and unknown. The nostalgic always looks to opera’s glorious past. Opera today is enjoyed, of course, but it never lives up to the standards set in the mythical golden age, and much of the enjoyment comes from the process of comparison. The pilgrim sees the opera house as a sacred space, created by the community of performers and audiences. It is set apart from everyday life, something that must be both physically and mentally travelled to for the full experience.

Plenty of quotes will ring true. In describing one subject’s life, Benzecry writes, “There was a time when he used to do other things [than attend opera], like go to the movies. But that has come to an end.” While I don’t worry about critics receiving bribes (hey, no one’s ever offered to make my fortune in exchange for a good review!), I got a good chuckle from one fan’s indignant proclamation, “I don’t read any [opera] critic since my favorite critic died in 1988. He was a very honest guy. He didn’t like anything!” I’m not that person—I like many things—but I have met that person! And anyone who has attended productions in Europe can relate to a newcomer’s puzzled comment on opera’s loudest in-house critics: “They have to be insane. Otherwise, why would they pay to come and boo something?”

The Opera Fanatic comes from an academic press and is obviously a serious academic study. That shouldn’t stop the lay opera fan from picking it up. It’s written in an engaging, readable style, and it offers the great pleasure of self-recognition. More importantly, it’s a book that probes opera fandom while taking it seriously. It doesn’t assume opera fans are at the opera to look good or advance our careers or be pretentious. It acknowledges that we’re in love, and it explores that love.