It was my first year at Harvard. The year I was still too poor to afford a winter coat or boots for the Boston cold. I was sitting in one or another econ course, listening to a professor break down the concept of utility.
You see, utility varies. The “utils” I get from this Diet Coke might be much greater than the “utils” you, some Diet Coke hater, whom I don’t understand, might get from the same can.
The Harvard professor talks about the Utils of opera tickets. For someone rich and educated, he says, the utility gained would be quite high! But, were you to give those same tickets to a poor person, they would have much less utility.
I walked home that snowy day, in my several layers of not warm coats, put on a Maria Callas CD my friend Ed had given me years before, and wrote a poem about the sounds of opera blasting from some rundown apartment in some rundown part of town. About the act of wearing red lipstick as rebellion. About bravado. About: how dare you tell me what I/we can and cannot appreciate in this world. About stereotypes. About who can access opera.
Yet, true though, despite my blasting Callas in my apartment in Harvard Square, I had yet to find a way to attend a live opera performance. I put on more red lipstick and turned up the volume.
Last week I went to the closing performance of Elektra at the Met. I was taken as a gift of sorts, and we had seats a few rows back, in the center of the Orchestra area.
Over dinner following, we discussed the opera, as well as the various analysis/reviews we had read/heard prior to attending.
There was my dear friend Ed, a first generation Mexican American gay man who lives in Berlin with his German partner and is an opera enthusiast, who had prepped me regarding Elektra, while talking about a post-post-modern version of the opera, which he saw in Budapest a few years back. (Ed had given me that Callas cd in San Francisco, as we wrote grad school applications, and then moved east with me, to attend another grad program at Harvard the same years I was there. He often played loud opera, while cooking curry, as we figured out what in the world we were doing there.)
We tried to remember what The Awl had to say about it, and then realized we most definitely needed to reread whatever they said, upon having actually now seen the performance. (It was a good read to return to!)
My opera partner and dinner mate compared Strauss to other composers and time periods she adores. She mentioned how another friend of hers was only into modern operas. We debated what the cut-off, in opera time-speak, would be to qualify something officially as “modern.” This woman, as well, is self-educated in opera. A Serbian refugee, turned New Yorker.
Nights before, an opera-obesee friend was over for drinks, and I burned him a copy of my favorite Spanish opera, Ainadamar, as he was to board a plane to Spain the next day, and we talked about what the technical differences are between an opera and a musical.
I thought about June Jordan, and the opera she composed with John Adams – I Was Looking At The Ceiling And Then I Saw The Sky. An opera about poor black people, jail, race and maybe (?) hope.
I thought about a Xhosa version of Carmen, filmed in a South African township.
The summer between my years at Harvard, a former President set me up with a car and a gorgeous modern apartment in the queer part of Cape Town, South Africa. Despite my requesting to be in this neighborhood, I was instructed not to openly speak to the former President or his staff about why a nice young lady such as myself would want to be among the gays.
That summer, the local Cape Town movie theater was hosting a film fest that included the debut of the film version of Carmen, translated in Xhosa, and filmed in a township outside the city, with actors who all live in the township.
Being alone, young, and on the other side of the world, I would often process things through too-long emails sent to a collection of friends back home. In trying to culturally process the townships, I wrote:
It is only twenty minutes – out of the city, past the zebras, past the University, past the first rows of endless shacks, shaded from vision by concrete wall, lining the highway. Twenty minutes pass it all on the way to the airport. If you pass the airport and keep driving, all you see are rows of color. They consume you. They cannot be held back by thin concrete wall, their vision stretches over hills, both sides surround, unable to be looked away from.
If you drive real fast - as all the tour books advise, on this stretch of road - you can grip your wheel, stare straight ahead, and attempt to admire the colors without looking too deep. Without allowing your eyes to pause, your head to turn. Color upon color: bright little dots. Each one made of aluminum, tin, cardboard. Each one held together, propped up, so close to the next. Each one with thin walls, drooping roof, ill-fitting door. Each one with a family, a history of displacement and hope or despair – or perhaps some daring mix of both. Each one with a collection of lives, hidden from view from the highway. Just endless row upon row of color.
For five dollars you can pick up a beautiful painting of these quaint little places. You can pay a tourist agency for a guided visit to a Township, to see the poverty up close, with smiling faces talking of reconciliation, and local musicians playing to your amusement.
It is an equal twenty minutes of the colored hut overwhelming view. If you can break your eyes from the road. If you can turn your head. If you can refrain from crying. You may briefly pause to note the silent laundry hung up to dry. And continue driving. Once this twenty minute collection is accomplished, South Africa wants to reward you for your tenacity. For your ability to accept her many sides, her mood swings and unpredictable natures, she will catapult you into the beauties of her winelands. As the tour books have promised, if you drove fast enough and dare not pull over or break down, the dangerous road of pretty colors leads to row upon row of grapevines. No concrete walls to block your view. The landscape spreads beyond vision, hills hiding your previous understanding.
Carmen in Xhosa was translated by the performers themselves. They do not train opera singers in the townships of South Africa. The economically expected Utils of opera in such poor neighborhoods is low. Economic models, once more, fail.
The Internet informs me that there is, apparently, great concern over the dying art of wearing of “opera gloves.”
In an attempt to save the old school, I wore fingerless, black, leather gloves.
It felt to be about seven degrees outside, so I layered up in as warm of decently fancy clothes as I could pull together, given the chill. I did my hair in an upsweep. (Did I actually just use that word?!)
As I went to draw on my eyeliner, the ghost of Maria Callas visited me in the bathroom of an apartment on East 4th Street.. Like a Ouija Board, her ghost gripped my hand, as I moved to draw the liquid line, and she demanded I make it more dramatic, more grand!
Maria has done this before, on occasion. (See photo at the top of this post.)
Patti Smith loves Maria Callas.
As did many poor girl-children raised in American towns, I grew up with a required fascination with the Kennedy’s. My very thorough self-education on the glamorous aspects of Jackie O’s life led me to have to cheer against Callas at a young age. Although, upon a more adult analysis, yes, I might have switched teams a bit.
As a child, I don’t think an opera ever blew through my little town. No arias flew along the streets next to the (literal) tumbleweeds.
Every summer, during the annual Alfalfa Festival and County Fair, tickets would sell out quickly for the B-list former celebrities who would grace our town’s warm nights. Michael McDonnell types, etc.
Prior to seeing Elektra I read a lot about the performance. It was only after reading the Synopsis in the program, minutes before the show began, that I actually fully noted the plotline. I realized that much of what I had read about the opera previously was inside-baseball analysis of the details. The assumption, in large part, seems to be that one reading about any given production is already familiar with the details of plot. I was so caught up in trying to understand the insidery analysis, I forgot to first fully learn the story of the work.
If we’re talking about pissed off and crazy daughters who seek revenge upon a mess of a mother and an evil stepfather, after potentially having had a fucked up relationship with her murdered father, I don’t think I’m going out too much on a limb to say that I think there’s a plot all classes have equal potential to understand. This could have maybe been a big hit in my small hometown!
The main topic of conversation at our dinner following the performance was: How does one find their way to opera in our modern world?
Quick survey of our most opera-loving friends did not lead to any patterns. In fact, they almost distinctly lack pattern. Although, perhaps in 75% of the statistically insignificant sample, class jumping was involved in the life of the opera lover. These were not people who came to love opera as a signage of that class jumping, but those who truly did love opera, even though they were not raised around it. (I do know people born rich as well, and in this statistically insignificant study, they mostly couldn’t care less about opera.) These were people not raised listening to opera as children.
How many townships are blasting Carmen in Xhosa as you read this?
In a return to economic theory, it does seem as if the barrier to entry to a love of opera may be higher than a barrier of entry to a love of, say, Lady Gaga.
Reading The Awl’s analysis of Elektra, I did pause more than once, and wonder: how do these fellows know so much?! I have since then asked all of my opera-loving friends that question.
Friends have long sent opera cds to me, or slid copies of them across tables in various cafes. Per all my questioning, this trend seems to be picking up again. As does the new trend of discussing more of the history of various productions, etc. I admittedly concede to knowing very little, and then sit back and sip some wine, while listening to what it is my various companions have picked up in knowledge along the way.
Sometimes I’ll just click on Patti Smith’s page, and learn of a new aria that takes my breath away..
(You guys, I can’t find the video on YouTube anymore! Just do yourself a favor and go download “Bending to the Throne,” performed by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Seriously. Do it.)
It was wonderful to walk into a beautifully lit building with a large Christmas tree, on a bitterly cold night, as lots of well-dressed individuals rush to their seats in a gorgeous hall.
It was nice to be curled up in my tiny Cambridge studio, mattress on the floor, new arias filling the air around me.
The utility of beauty, for my street-raised self, is large. Perhaps it is, in actuality (as opposed to in economic theory), larger for those who have to find their own ways to it.