People Who Like Opera

Last Thursday, Robert Thicknesse of The Guardian published a piece highly critical of opera and opera culture. Though he has long been an opera lover, he says, he’s been finding it difficult to keep the faith in the face of what he perceives as the elitist nature of the form.

You hardly need me to tell you that opera is pretty stupid. Ask the audience: plenty of them will tell you the same, if you can get them to wake up. Is there any other form of entertainment so frequented by people who do not like it? This notion – that opera is not actually all that much fun – is hardly new; that’s why it comes all dollied up in red velvet, snobbery, fancy dress and vats of alcohol, sops to the considerable sections of the audience who are there for reasons not associated with aesthetic pleasure, the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses.

I have indeed met people whose enjoyment of opera was transparently a product of their class aspirations, and people who are attracted to the opera more because of the atmosphere of red velvet, snobbery, and fancy dress than because of the music (usually this viewpoint has been informed by movies and TV, and they are sorely disappointed when they attend an actual opera). But Thicknesse’s description really isn’t my experience of the “opera crowd” at all. When I think about the people I know who regularly attend the opera, few of them fit into this stereotype. So in response to this essay, I’ll talk about what “the opera crowd” means to me.

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My mother dated an opera singer in her youth and watched the performances from the wings. She always, always cries at the end of Madama Butterfly and La Boheme. When I started getting seriously into opera, she usually watched the opera videos I rented with me. She loves Ben Heppner over all tenors, even though she doesn’t like Wagner.

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My Grade 12 History teacher was “the cool teacher”, full of facts and a fantastic storyteller, with a strange and much-parodied-by-students way of shaking his hips while writing on the blackboard. He described opera as one of his great passions, and told us he’d been attending the opera for over 20 years. He liked Aida but hated Lucia di Lammermoor, and said he was the only person in his rock climbing group who listened to opera on his walkman while scaling walls.

***

I made a mix tape (back when these were actually cassette tapes) for a girl in high school who was growing into a good friend, who introduced me to the cool kids and invited me to parties. She played on the volleyball team and wore peasant blouses. The tape I made her had opera on one side, and instrumental classical on the other side, and I remember it being very heavy on Puccini. She told me that she loved it and listened to it constantly, as she fell asleep at night and when she woke up in the morning. She wrote me detailed notes on her response to each track and asked for more tapes, which I happily made. She loved the sound of the soprano voice.

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When I’d outgrown Opera for Dummies and other introductory opera books, I started gleaning knowledge from online discussion groups, principally rec.music.opera. The most vocal members (in memory, anyway) were New Yorkers who spent a lot of time collecting bootleg recordings and reminiscing about The Old Days. They had the most vicious, creatively-worded flamewars I have ever encountered on the internet (which is actually pretty impressive), they were generally not rich people, and they loved opera with a fiery intensity. Splinter groups started forming on Yahoo groups, which were a bit less homogenous/nasty (with particular fondness I remember “Gay Opera Punks”, “Opera Dykes”, and “The Parlour of Opera Lovers”). They were full of young people who weren’t from NYC. They even included some teenaged girls who felt about Eugene Onegin the way some girls feel about Edward Cullen.

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I worked during university at a ladies’ shoe store, staffed in large part by immigrants from Europe, some of whom had worked there ten years or more and had cultivated a loyal clientele. One of my favourite co-workers was Hungarian. She wore a pixie cut and heavy eyeshadow, and was always debating whether or not she could allow herself a muffin from the Treats kiosk in the food court. Though she never said anything about it to me, other co-workers told me that her family had escaped from behind the iron curtain on the pretext of a vacation, leaving all their possessions behind in Hungary. She said she didn’t miss Hungary at all, but that she deeply missed going to the opera. She had given up trying to take her husband to the opera in Canada, because he always fell asleep. She loved Tosca and Edith Piaf.

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The man who taught my Modern Poetry class in University last year is an opera lover. The first day of class he wore a t-shirt that read “Pure Hell” in pink lettering. He is the only person I have seen successfully wear a pink tie/pink shirt combination. He never explicitly told us in class that he loves opera, but it is obvious – he lingered lovingly over the lines in T.S. Eliot that allude to The Ring Cycle, never failed to mention when a poet had also written an opera libretto, tried to recruit students into making use of the cheap tickets available from the English department, and organized screenings from his opera DVD collection. He made terrible, terrible jokes in class (sample: “Let’s get Wasted!” for The Waste Land), even in the weeks following the death of his mother that year. He admired Robert Lapage.

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My friend Heather, who regular readers will remember as a contributor, is a graduate student who was once in the army and is now getting her PhD in 18th Century English Literature. Opera tickets are sometimes difficult for her to afford, but that doesn’t stop her from taking a chance on difficult or unfamiliar works. When she lived in Toronto (as she will again soon), we would attend together, both of us in the cheap seats in the fifth ring, and booze it up after the performance. Sometimes we listened to opera while working together at her apartment. She was the person who first took me to Opera Atelier.

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For me, the stereotypical “opera crowd” includes a lot of teachers and academic types, music students, and retirees who probably didn’t listen to opera in their youth but are now interested in delving into a different kind of musical experience. At the end of La Traviata I usually hear sniffles all around me. Whenever I try to go see the Met movie telecasts they’re usually sold out, despite the plebian multiplex setting and proximity to screenings of Iron Man 2 or whatever. Sometimes I experience opera burnout, but not because I think everyone in the audience is a social climber or an idiot. Because, in truth, most of them aren’t.

UPDATE, 6:40 PM: Why not make this into a collaborative effort? In the comments, post a description of someone you know who really likes opera, and who does not fit the description of “the socially ambitious, the conspicuous spenders, those trying to beguile clients or spouses or potential mistresses”.

9 comments

  1. Operarunner

    Cecily- I really enjoyed reading your blog – I too really really love opera and have been puzzled but the elitist label opera gets stuck with. I’ve also had life changing experiences with opera and it is a central part of my life.

    Keep blogging!

    • Cecily

      @Operarunner: I’m so glad you commented, and thanks for the kind words. Opera Atelier’s productions made me fall in love with opera all over again and are a big part of why I started blogging about it in the first place!

    • Cecily

      Eh…there are a bunch of things I could gripe about, but I’m hoping to keep the spirit of this post happy and positive. Perhaps I’ll save it for another post. Email me if you want to chat about it!

  2. Lori

    I can’t deny that there is a bit of snobish attitude around Opera. BUT, I find it to be the most beautiful music in the world. There will always be people who are social climbers, not just in Opera. When you have been captured by La Boheme or a Butterfly, and let the music lift you, inspire you, awaken your imagination, you will see past the snobbery and embrace this most beautiful of the Arts,

    Lori Lewis

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  4. Squillo

    My experience mirrors yours, Cecily.

    I met my husband because of opera (but not AT the opera). We have a small, diverse group of opera-loving friends, none of whom fits the snob stereotype.

    • Cecily

      @Lori and @Squillo: Thanks for commenting! It’s true that the association between opera and “high society” in the popular view is pretty strong, which inevitably leads to some snobbishness. But I think this view is actually a pretty distorted picture of the opera audience, and I’m glad you find the same.

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