Monday, July 25, 2011

Claudio E. Benzecry's "The Opera Fanatic"

Claudio E. Benzecry is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Connecticut.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession, and reported the following:
Opera has become a “dead art form,” a museum of works from the 19th century. If we followed what many sociologists say, opera should have actually disappeared by now, as it stopped being the stage for elaborated social drama, the meeting point for the conformation of the local bourgeoisie or the popular culture of the time. Yet opera is not only alive but produces intense engagements and commitments. Audiences keep filling galleries and standing-only rooms; they keep ecstatically contemplating the white death that afflicts Violetta; accept fat old women dressed as fragile and helpless creatures. How should we then explain these attachments?

As it is obvious theories that center on issues of social status, cultural and social capital or the imposition of a dominant ideology are not enough. The Opera Fanatic centers on the affective and embodied character of the experience and looks to issues of self-formation and self-transcendence for an answer to the puzzle. The book shows how fans from the same social background perform taste in diverse ways and how fans from diverse social backgrounds perform taste in the same way; how the “distinguishing” character of the experience happens in the policing of the boundaries of the relationship between the opera house and the outside, and how those distinctions do not transfer to the outside.

For opera fanatics, honor is not related to how much recognition they can gather from peers outside of the opera house or in how much they can convert their lifestyle in resources like money, connections or jobs, but rather with how they craft themselves as honorable people. Passionate fans produce themselves as worthy selves, through a laborious, sustained long-term engagement with opera. Fans conceive of opera as a meaningful activity that offers them a stage on which to enact certain values, feel in public and express themselves as superior and highly refined beings among equals.

Page 99 is at the crux of all this, as it shows a few opera lovers lamenting the mores of what they call the “new audience” of the Colón opera house of Buenos Aires. In doing so “opera thugs” reaffirm who they are, defend their loved object against what they perceive as intrusions by unworthy outsiders and dramatize the boundary between the outside and what happens inside the opera house; a world of transcendence and enchantment available only to those who sacrifice enough for it: them.
Learn more about The Opera Fanatic at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue