The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession
By Claudio E. Benzecry
University of Chicago Press; 256 pp. $29
A sixty-two-year-old vocal coach who heard Victoria de los Angeles in Barbiere di Siviglia when he was seventeen and has ever since devoted his life to opera; a gay, forty-two-year-old salesman and debt collector who spends, he estimates, a quarter of his income on opera CDs, DVDs and tickets; a sixty-year-old widow who twice a month travels 200 miles to Buenos Aires for opera performances. These are among the fanatical devotees whom sociologist Claudio E. Benzecry canvasses in this study, aiming to dissect the social and psychological components of a passionate devotion to the opera.
The son of a conductor, Benzecry spent much of his childhood backstage at the Teatro Colón. In 2002, he returned to examine the house from a wildly different perspective — that of the denizens of the auditorium's upper reaches, the fanatical devotees who come night after night, year after year. He entered into his study with the idea, derived from previous sociological writings, that a devotion to opera would be largely a class-based transaction, undertaken for reasons of status. What he found instead would be immediately obvious to any true opera-lover: fanaticism is a form of love. In the words of one of Benzecry's fanatics, "Why is it that you sociologists always ask if I go to the opera to be seen, to meet people, to see my friends, to achieve a better professional status, but always fail to ask me if I go because I like it or, better, because I love it?"
Benzecry's subjects will be broadly recognizable to any operagoing New Yorker, even if some local customs and procedures might vary. But the Colón itself, in the period of Benzecry's study, was in an anomalous position. In eras past, it had played host to Muzio, Callas and Tebaldi, Freni and Domingo. Now Argentina's economic crisis and bad management had desiccated company resources. Its offerings mainly featured local talent, often in regie-flavored productions that outraged the resolutely conservative fans. Even the physical plant had deteriorated: the fans speak of dirt pervading the interior as replicating itself in the aesthetic "dirt" onstage. Here, the natural tendency of opera fans to wax nostalgic had its correlative in fact: the present era was clearly worse than a not-so-distant golden age.
In the author's analysis, "nostalgics" form one of four types of fans. The others are "heroes," seeking opportunities to "excel and transcend their everyday lives"; "addicts," who fetishize particular musical moments; and "pilgrims," who bond with strangers to "let themselves go" at the opera. But surely any opera fan worth his salt has embodied all of these characteristics at one point or another. The academic penchant for placing things into categories here gets in the way. And the fanatics themselves, for all their obvious enthusiasm and eccentricity, emerge in Benzecry's book as rather colorless figures, their quirks ready to be catalogued for sociological purposes.
Early in this volume Benzecry takes a swipe at Wayne Koestenbaum's The Queen's Throat, because its observations "mostly [resemble] the author's own experience and, thus, lacks both a sociological and historical understanding of how that experience came to be." But The Opera Fanatic, for all that it may represent a more rigorous approach to the subject, is significantly less comprehending. In his unabashedly confessional volume, Koestenbaum brings us much closer than Benzecry to a sense of the true nature of fans and the extraordinary art form that they love.
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