What makes a fan a fan? What pushes a person past an affection for a certain something—a football team, or comic books, or a certain band—into a real, genuine, overpowering love?
Read the last Bookslut on All About Love.
I’m convinced the answer lies somewhere in Claudio Benzecry’s The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession. Benzecry spent some time at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, trying to understand a fan culture that proved itself to be intense, obsessive and insular, as well as welcoming and fascinating. By talking with men and women who sacrifice time, family obligations, marriages and money to tend to their beloved opera, we can learn a little about fan culture and the way a person responds to art.
There seems to be some heavy crossover between the behavior of opera fans and fans of other random things, like science fiction or certain bands. Have you studied fan culture before, or were you simply interested in the opera aspect?
I have not studied fan cultures per se, though I did work on a project about soccer jerseys and the social life around them, from design to fan uses. Part of this project took into account the moral economy through which fans participated in "defending" the "authentic" colors of the jersey.
I do think there are a number of things in common between opera fans and other types of fanatics, such as Trekkies. Most significantly, selfhood is similarly organized through relationships with other fans and the objects of their love. A lot of scholarship on fandom either calls attention to these behaviors as crazy or irrational, disqualifying them from sociological analysis, or make them part of a mob-like conduct.
The limitation of this perspective is that it does not allow us to see that that the expression of being passionate is a powerful way to organize our self definition of who we are. Taking this into account allows us to go beyond the anecdotal part of their life stories into deeper explanations of how pleasure is organized and to identify its relationships to other large issues like class or status distinction.
What is it about fandom that can suck up all the energy for a person's love life? The way many of these people you spoke to talked about opera, as if it were an old lover...
I would say two things about the "love for" something and engaging passionately with opera. The first thing is that I tried to take the fans at face value when they said they loved opera. Most sociological scholarship thinks of this expression of love as a delayed exchange for something else—you get to mingle with fancy people, show yourself off as a cultivated person.
What I found instead was that people really only connected to each other in the moments around the performance, when they were waiting in line, at intermissions, or leaving the Opera house. When I started this project, I expected a lot of fun and exciting dinners afterwards with people who knew each other intimately. Instead what I mostly found was people leaving to go home alone after an opera, trying to lessen or elaborate the impact of what they just witnessed.
The "love for" is a powerful metaphor. People do talk of falling in love at first sight, of working to maintain love, of being addicted to certain moments and of falling out of it. But organizing your life like that means that you might not be able to share this experience with a lot of people. While it might be fancy to say you go to the opera once a month, or even once a week, confessing that you go four or five nights a week rubs the patina off of you, despite this being an Opera House and not Comic-Con.
So a lot of people choose to hide this part of their lives from others and instead develop long term, yet thin bonds with other people that might be able to appreciate their degree of devotion. It is really the only reference group that understands them. They share the same object of affection.
I found it interesting that from the outside we expect these firm bonds, glamorous dinners, "the life of the mind," but find when actually inside a fan culture something much more mundane. Did you find any disappointment among the members that this isn't what opera fan culture is like?
No, and let me tell you the two reasons why. First off, they do think that the life of an opera fan is incredibly exciting, a transcendent experience they can't find in other arenas of their social life. When they stop thinking that, they actually abandon the opera house.
Secondly, that they do not come to the opera house with a particular expectation of what being an opera fan is. A key part to their experience of opera is the surprise—they got surprised and moved the first time they went to the opera house, so much that the rest of their career as an opera fan is, to a certain extent, an attempt to relive, manage and sustain what they felt that first time. Some were surprised by the live powerful voices and what they did to their bodies. Some others went crazy with the grandeur of the house. Being a fan, channels, entrains, like if they were the rails of a train, opera fandom and the life trajectory of a particular person.
The only feeling you can say they had beforehand was fear. They were scared of coming to the opera house, because it represented in the national imaginary such a central place for elite culture. They were also worried that they would not know enough as to enjoy what they were witnessing on stage.
Any geeky fan history in your closet? A Star Trek slash fiction library, or an impassioned opinion about football jerseys?
I'm not an opera fan. In fact, this project in part started because I could not understand how someone could get so transfixed by music. I always joke that I am like Obelix, the sidekick of Asterix, the French cartoon. That character can't take the magic potion because he fell on it when he was born. To me classical music was second nature, and there wasn't much fun or mystery going on around it.
There is one thing I learned from the fans—how to enjoy. How to allow yourself to let loose and get lost in what you like. How to prepare to best savor an experience you are anticipating, how to let go as strongly as to block the world around you, even if it is for just a second. In a world with so few experiences, where our daily routine is heavily regulated, finding that back door to transcendence has been a blessing.
Jessa Crispin is founder and editor-in-chief of Bookslut.