The Imaginary Operagoer: A Memoir
There was something shameful about loving opera. Especially for a boy. Opera was pretentious, boring, effete, and effeminate. By the time I was ten, I understood the unsavory reputation of the art. Opera represented everything that my childhood in postwar America asked me not to be.
I had never been to the opera. I had never even seen an opera house, except in old movies. I knew from the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera that rich people went there, but they didn’t much enjoy it. Only Groucho had any fun. The patrons were old and overweight—bejeweled matrons and potbellied bankers stuffed into tuxedos. There was also something sinister about opera’s orgy of opulence. In Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera, the opera house was built over the city sewers. A mad composer emerged from this mephitic underworld to kidnap and kill. He wore elegant clothes, including an opera cape, but without his stylish mask, he was a monster. Opera was somehow both tedious and malevolent.
I wasn’t sure why opera provoked such distaste. It went beyond dislike, class prejudice, or xenophobia. It roused a sort of moral suspicion. There was something weak or unhealthy about an operagoer. What sort of person craves oversized emotions sung in foreign languages? What grown man could be so soft and sensitive? Such a creepy passion wasn’t normal. The Puritans, who colonized America, banned theater as sinful. If plays were emblems of depravity, what would they have thought of opera with its amplification of violent affection and sexual desire? Opera was sheer depravity, witchcraft so strong it crossed language barriers—a foul and foreign vice only Catholics could have devised.
I was raised among Italians and Mexicans, all deeply Catholic, even the atheists. Yet they half agreed with the Puritans. Opera crossed some boundary. It might not be depraved, but it was virulent in its pretention and sentimentality. In 1960, America was still a Puritan country. Everything in a boy’s education focused on making him manly. The official culture of my youth sponsored Cub Scouting, team sports, and church service as altar boys. Street culture provided schoolyard fights, bullying, and neighborhood gangs. There was no escaping manhood, responsible or otherwise, without persecution and disgrace.
I realized the dangers of opera too late to be saved. By ten I had already been corrupted by my parents. Neither of them had ever been to the opera. The notion would have struck them as absurd. But they loved singing, and that included the operatic arias they heard on variety shows. Back then opera stars were frequent guests on radio and television. There were about two dozen operatic standards that everyone knew. Even Bugs Bunny sang them.
For my father, opera was also a source of tribal pride. It was one of many reasons why Italian civilization was the greatest in the world. In the same way, he reveled in the accomplishments of Italian American athletes—Joe DiMaggio, Rocky Marciano, Eddie Arcaro. He was less informed on opera, yet he had two heroes—Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza. My father invoked Caruso as the greatest singer who ever lived. It was an opinion that brooked no dissent in our household. My father didn’t know that Lanza wasn’t really an opera singer, but Lanza had starred in The Great Caruso. That was good enough for my dad.
At unpredictable intervals my handsome father put on an old Caruso record. He would sit me beside him next to the turntable, and we would listen to one or two cuts—crackly ancient performances of “Vesti la giubba” or “Celeste Aida.” Then he lifted the needle. A little opera went a long way—about the same amount of music he would have heard on The Ed Sullivan Show. He never said much, but this record was one of the few things he ever shared with me in a formal way. He had given up trying to interest me in baseball or boxing.
I assumed all Italians liked opera. My grandfather lived in the apartment next door. He was a tough immigrant who had survived many hardships, including hassles with the local police and the mob, neither of whom he would pay off. I admired him enormously. One day when he came over, I put on an opera recording. I thought he would be proud of me for liking Italian culture. He walked in, listened for a moment, and then bleated like an animal in time with the music. As I turned off the record, he howled with laughter at his ridiculous grandson. I never repeated the mistake with any other relative.
My father had no musical training, but he had a good ear. He had been a championship dancer before he joined the Navy in World War II. He had won the “Mr. Jitterbug” contest in Los Angeles. With it came a chance to dance in the movies. He quit Hollywood after two days. It took too much effort to be a star. After the war, he courted my mother by taking her to jazz clubs. As newlyweds, they went to dance halls and after-hours clubs. They bet on the horses at Hollywood Park. All the fun ended, my mother often remarked, when I arrived.
The house was still full of music. My parents had a stack of 78s. Some nights they put on a record to dance in our little kitchen. Making coffee, my dad would sing “Java Jive.” Drying the dishes, he crooned, “I don’t get around much anymore.” “No,” my mom would answer, “we don’t.”
I was an only child for seven years, and my parents treated me as a young adult, especially after my brother Ted was born. I was a nocturnal child. My mother worked nights. She got home at 2 a.m. and slept till noon. I went to bed late and read until midnight. No one ever asked me to turn off the light. It was an illicit freedom no other child I knew enjoyed. When I remember the happiness of my childhood, much consists of the books I read at night. I can still recall the particular pleasures of The Time Machine, Gulliver’s Travels, The Martian Chronicles, or At the Earth’s Core.
I was usually late to school. The nuns complained, but my parents didn’t respond. I was an outstanding student, so the Sisters of Providence made allowances. They assumed I came from a troubled home. My mother seemed suspicious. She never took part in parish activities. They never guessed how odd she really was. When we did housework together, she recited poems.
My parents worked multiple jobs, but they were usually broke. Indigence didn’t bother them; it was the natural state of things. They happily spent everything they made. We even ate in restaurants once a week. This extravagance was a topic of conversation among our relatives. My folks weren’t like other parents. In a world of ants, I was raised by two grasshoppers. I felt loved and secure. I didn’t yet know that ants ruled the planet.
At school I soon realized that I was different from the other boys. I had no interest in sports. I avoided group activities. I was the only boy in my class who chose not to be an altar boy. It wasn’t a religious statement. I was mildly pious. I just didn’t want to get up early to serve at Mass. My parents barely made the noon service, what the Irish called “the drunkard’s Mass.” Most Sundays I went to church alone. I didn’t mind. I never minded doing things alone.
In my working-class neighborhood of Los Angeles, boy culture was violent and hierarchical. Most of the misbehavior was mindless anarchy. The older boys smashed or defaced things—it didn’t matter what. But their cruelty repelled me. They persecuted weaker and younger kids. They pelted stray cats with stones. We were supposed to fall in line. It was the Baby Boom. The back streets and alleys belonged to the young and aggressive. There were too many of us for the adults to supervise or control.
I was an awkward, dreamy boy, but I was big for my age and stubborn. I never picked a fight, but when pushed around, I fought back ferociously, even against older kids. I didn’t need to win. I just had to be too much trouble to bully. I was left alone. That was my first inkling that what I wanted wasn’t power but freedom. Two smart but nerdy Mexican kids gathered under my putative protection. They became my friends, but they weren’t like me. There didn’t seem to be anyone like me.
I was moved and motivated by different things from my classmates. Other kids either seemed not to notice or mocked the things that moved me deeply. When I heard certain music or poems, they would leave me breathless. When I looked at reproductions of art—I had never been to a museum and seen any originals—they sent me into a reverie. Art cast a spell over me. It gave me more than simple pleasure. I felt the sense of my own existence enlarge in unaccountable ways. I wanted to stay in the enchantment. I hungered for more.
I preferred these sensory and sensual phantasms to the everyday reality of school life, and I knew that fact was so shameful it needed to be hidden. Back then I couldn’t put my disability into words, but I felt it keenly. My habits were not just escapist pastimes. They were abnormal passions. I was a mutant, a monster of sensibility, a changeling with a freakish vulnerability to beauty. Years later I found a name for my debilitation—I was an aesthete.
Of course, other people liked music, but I didn’t like what they did. I loathed the popular songs I heard on TV. Since both my parents worked, I often spent evenings next door with my grandparents or great aunt. Neither of the older women spoke English. Indeed, neither had ever learned to read or write. They watched variety shows. I cringed as they enjoyed Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Patti Page, or Rosemary Clooney. It wasn’t just the older singers; I couldn’t bear Elvis Presley, Ricky Nelson, and other “teen idols.” I was a little snob, but I wasn’t entirely wrong. Popular song was in a bad patch between the end of Tin Pan Alley and the birth of classic rock. The hit songs performed on TV were contrived, syrupy, and overblown. (Someone is already writing me an angry letter. I’ve learned you can’t argue about rock ’n’ roll. Even the worst song is part of someone’s emotional history.) It took puberty, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles to bring me to pop music—just in time for rock’s golden era.
What I loved no one else cared for—classical music. I heard it first only in snatches in movies and cartoons. It had such a strong effect on me that I searched out more. Our apartment and garage unit were packed with books and records that had belonged to my Mexican uncle. He served in the Merchant Marine and shared my room when he was ashore. After he was killed in a plane crash, my parents sold most of his records. My mother kept two Chopin albums which she remembered him listening to—Dinu Lipatti’s Preludes and Arthur Rubinstein’s Waltzes.
I listened to Chopin in the empty apartment when my parents were at work. The exquisite pleasure the music gave me was mixed with an acute but abstract longing. My elation resembled the first stirrings of sexual desire, but it was less specific and had no easy outlet. I felt a desperate but enigmatic desire. I couldn’t explain what I burned for, except that I wanted to be elsewhere. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I had never been anywhere but Hawthorne, California.
There were also a few opera recordings in the garage, including a dusty box set of Der Fliegende Holländer. I listened only to the first side of the first record—the overture and opening chorus. There was no libretto. I had no idea what the male choir was singing, but these human voices from the doomed ship reached me differently from the orchestral music. I liked music with characters and a story, even if I didn’t know the plot. Records were expensive. I took odd jobs and purchased albums from a tiny record shop a few blocks away. I looked through every classical record in their stock before making each purchase. It was a sort of education.
I found my uncle’s Victor Book of the Opera. It had as many engrossing stories as Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, which sat on the shelf next to it. The Victor Book described 110 “famous” operas, which flourished in some world I could hardly imagine but recognized from the movies. It was called New York. It didn’t resemble the cold and hungry town my immigrant grandparents had fled. This New York was a city of bright lights and brilliant people who went to the opera and theater. I didn’t expect ever to go there. Manhattan seemed as fabulous as Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput or Laputa.
The book had been published before I was born. Much of the repertory it presented had already vanished, but I treated the antiquated table of contents as canonical. (After a lifetime of operagoing, I have never encountered a production of many of these former warhorses.) The names of these mysterious works, many in foreign languages, captivated me—Fra Diavolo, L’Africaine, Twilight of the Gods, The King’s Henchman, Le Prophète, The Golden Cockerel. I read the plots and studied the photographs of costumed singers and sets. I reread the book so often I became an imaginary operagoer.
Like all young intellectuals, I formed strong opinions based on scant experience. Wagner was the greatest composer. His operas had dragons, heroes, magic swords, and giants as well as cursed captains and wandering knights. Their plot summaries were longer and more exciting than the others. How much better to have an opera present heroic myth than a love story. Any opera that featured the devil attracted my interest—Faust, Mefistofele, and the sensationally titled La Damnation de Faust. I had no idea what the music of Faust or Der Ring des Nibelungen sounded like, but I loved the idea of it. “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter.” I was doomed.
I convinced my parents to join the RCA Victor record club. You got three free albums when you enrolled. I knew my father would support anything Italian. I chose highlights from La Traviata with Anna Moffo and Aida with Leontyne Price. My dad got South Pacific, which I loved nearly as much. After two months, my mother cancelled the overpriced subscription, but by then I also had a small box set of great opera stars. I had discovered Verdi and fallen for Leontyne Price, my first diva. I listened to the records, alone in the apartment, after school. It didn’t bother me that the voices sang in foreign languages. These were anthems from another world. I was now in the grip of a vice I have never been able to shake. While the other boys watched Sandy Koufax pitch for the Dodgers, I listened to Jussi Björling and Zinka Milanov sing Verdi.
Opera gave me the same bewildering pleasure that poetry did. Its beauty took me out of myself into the animating presence of something I craved but couldn’t understand. Comprehension had nothing to do with it. What mattered was being in its presence. Real life seemed small and tongue-tied in comparison.
Years later in college I read Edgar Allan Poe’s fervid discussion of poetic beauty in “The Poetic Principle.” In the clinical atmosphere of Stanford’s Senior Honors Seminar, Poe’s rapturous tone and manner were embarrassing. Our professor advised us to skip over the passage and focus on the essay’s central idea that no long poem can sustain the elevated excitement necessary for the art. And so I didn’t pay attention. When I returned to the essay decades later, I saw that it described my own experience in opera and poetry better than anything I had ever found in contemporary criticism—not just my experience as a child, but also as an adult.
I have an analytical frame of mind. I have always found the intellectual methods of arts criticism congenial, but academic criticism failed to acknowledge—perhaps even ignored—why poetry and music mattered to me. I wasn’t seeking knowledge or wisdom; I wasn’t even seeking pleasure. I wanted to surrender to an ecstasy beyond my control. Opera left me no wiser or happier. It just took me out of my ordinary self. Shamefully, that transient intoxication was enough. Poe knew the same helpless feeling:
It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us—but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry,—or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods—we find ourselves melted into tears—we weep then—not . . . through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and for ever, those divine and rapturous joys . . .
Poe’s diction makes me wince—ecstatic prescience, glories beyond the grave, divine and rapturous joy. This isn’t just purple prose; it’s imperial purple prose, too lofty to worry about plebian sense or linguistic decorum. It must conquer the world or die in doomed battle. Yet its emotional intensity gives it a visceral credibility. Poe has dropped any pretense to critical objectivity. He struggles to describe something invisible, intangible, unknowable. His prose becomes a prose poem governed more by music than logic. Let all the adults leave the room. I’m ten years old again and want to listen. I could defend this hyperbolic passage on historical grounds—these sentences helped inspire Charles Baudelaire to create Symbolism, the catalyst of modern poetry. I prefer to defend it for inexcusably personal reasons—Poe’s rhapsodic outburst explains my petulant, impatient, sorrowful boyhood to my adult self. No sensible description would have sufficed.
My conniving continued and worsened. When I was eleven, my school was given four free tickets for a Los Angeles Symphony youth concert featuring selections from the Ring. I had already gone the year before—the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra—to hear Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. There were 800 students at St. Joseph’s, but I asked the sister who taught me piano if I could go again. She was appalled. She told me I was impossibly greedy and advised me to confess the sin. I knew she was right. My desire was selfish and disgraceful. I left her office embarrassed. On Saturday morning two hours before the concert, she called me. One of the chosen kids had decided not to go. While the other kids and parents sat bored beside me, I had the most thrilling musical experience of my young life. Being the only Wagnerite at St. Joseph’s Parish School had its moral danger, but also its occasional bliss.
In the car home, I wanted to talk about the concert, but I knew it would be a mistake. Everyone else had already forgotten it. It was best to hide my enthusiasm. I had already been exposed as greedy. Why add weak and weird to the list? Many children lead secret lives. Mine was simply more elaborate than most. In public, I was an excellent student with an unpronounceable last name, a bit of a loner, terrible at sports. It was not a glamorous identity, but it was a manageable one. In private, I was a voluptuary who lived in his imagination fired by music, books, and art. I was never bored by solitude. I was preoccupied with things no one else liked.
Keeping my mouth shut in the back seat of the car was an important moment. I knew the practical people were right. To treat art as anything but a brief diversion was dangerous. It made everyday living more difficult. Beauty had an effect on me I didn’t understand, but I recognized it made me cultivate a vulnerability that everyone else suppressed. There was no one to ask for advice. I could only wait and watch. Neither I nor the world was likely to change. I would find a way of leading two lives. Eventually there would be someone to talk to. Someday I would go to the opera.