Love at First Sound

For opera fanatics, passion often stems from a mesmerizing initial experience

By Roger AndersonMarch 6, 2018

Although theaters can be filled with thousands of people, for the opera-obsessed, enjoyment is often predicated on a sense of being alone.

That “isolationist experience” is part of what makes the most ardent opera or classical music aficionado seemingly different from devotees of Northwestern football, says Claudio Benzecry, communication studies.

“For someone who goes to the same opera five times in a month, each occurrence is personal,” says Benzecry, who wrote The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession following an 18-month study of operagoers at the Colón in Buenos Aires.

The Opera Fanatic earned several American Sociological Association (ASA) awards and was declared one of 10 major books in sociological theory by Contemporary Sociology. “It was a surprise to me to learn that these extreme opera fans didn’t hang out with one another after the show; they simply went their own way.”

The joy they experience isn’t expressed in the same way as that of a stadium full of fans ready to collectively celebrate their team’s victory. But, Benzecry contends, admirers of “Falstaff” share many similarities with fans of football.

“These fanatics are ultimately trying to relive the unexpected joy they experienced the first time they set foot in the stadium or took their seat at the opera,” says Benzecry, who received the ASA’s Junior Theorist Award in 2015 for his comparative work on high culture institutionalization in early 20th century Buenos Aires. “They want to be mesmerized by the performance.”

For extreme fanatics, the ritual of attending every game or numerous performances of the same show makes tailgating before a game not so different than fine
dining after a performance.

“There’s an intensity and attention to detail that goes along with being a super fan,” says Benzecry.

To say that a person goes to see the “same” opera five times is a bit misleading, he notes. The first performance may be opening night, so there is a need to see the production again in “normal” conditions. The third viewing offers a more relaxed setting, while the fourth features an understudy and the fifth is closing night.

“You don’t have to be a member of high society to be an opera fanatic,” Benzecry discovered during his research. “You just have to fall in love.”