Saturday, November 13, 2010

Interval Adventures: Am I a musician?

While waiting for Nick Phan's recital to begin last night (post on that soon!), an Old Opera Lady who was the only other person half an hour early addressed me.  I think we exchanged some bromides before she asked: "Are you a singer?"  "Only in church," I answered.   "Oh," she said, and the conversation was over.  Exchanges at the reception after the recital followed a similar, and familiar pattern.  No, this isn't one of my first times at an opera (is my enthusiasm that unusual? is open delight not socially acceptable?); no, I'm not a singer/musician.  When I say I'm a graduate student, the confused interlocutor perks up. "Oh, so you're doing a degree in music!" No.  Oh.

I am unclassified.  Unclassifiable?  If, in these situations, I were to answer that I am a singer, a musician, I would be seriously misleading these people.  I play the piano, but not very well.  I have sung in university choirs, but only those without strict auditions (I tried the latter, and failed.)  I am the cantor of the weekly psalm, but for a congregation whose musically literate members could be counted on one's fingers.  (Two months, and two traumatic debacles: a cracked note, and one terrible time of simply not finding the intervals in the first iteration of the refrain.  The vicar probably notices.  The organist, a deeply passionate and professionally active musician, certainly does, and is kind enough to console and advise.  Others compliment me.)   But even if/though I am "not a musician," does this disqualify me from being a serious audience member?  Interlocutors tend to be surprised if it is once established that yes, I can read a score, or yes, I am familiar with a selection of singers and recordings from the 1950s onward.

Me and my sister Two Girls at the Piano, Renoir
I admit, I'm on the defensive here.  Music is part of the fabric of my life.  I can't imagine not having Beethoven or Bach on the stereo, not humming fragments of Puccini around the apartment, not doing Schumann lieder with my younger sister when we're together, taking turns to play and sing.  (When we were growing up, our dolls waltzed to Strauss.)  Waltraud Meier, in Joshua Jampol's collection of interviews in Living Opera, spoke in sorrow and in anger of the growing conceptual divide between Musicians (professional) and Non-Musicians (everyone else.)  Can I blame that for these conversations?  Can I blame a particularly American tendency to classify "What One Does" as the determining fact of someone's personal and social identity?  It's true that this is not always the case, as other anecdotes on this blog reveal, and I am deeply grateful to all those passionate souls who have welcomed me by sharing their stories and listening to mine.

As long as I am launched and away, I'll be frank: I resent that my chatty group of three friends (one a first-time opera-goer) was coldly glared at before the start of Intermezzo by a gray-haired gentleman who snoozed through the first half of the opera and left before the second.  I resent that I am someone who doesn't "fit" in a classical music audience according to many of its other members; it's a painfully lonely feeling.  I am deeply grateful to all the philanthropic initiatives which make it possible for me to be a member of this audience.  But while arts organizations try to educate youngish audiences about classical music... how do we--the passionate, the penniless, the trying-to-be-well-informed--educate our fellow audience-members about us?  I'm not even sure if this is Petty Resentment or an Important Question to Ponder.  Sorry, Gentle Readers; reviews as usual soon, in which Petty Resentment will be kept at a minimum.


  1. Are you sure those questions weren't coming because of the expectation that any person under 50 at an opera or a recital must be there for some professional reason? "Gee, a person without gray hair! She must be here for work!" That's likelier than musician-chauvinism, which I notice (or even find in interviews and bios) less and less now. You've seen those other interviews -- everybody is bending over backward to prove that opera is "open to everybody, no homework required" etc.

  2. I'm sure you're quite right, really. The positive experiences with other opera-goers far outweigh the negative. While the confusion and assumptions which so often greet me may point to Wider Concerns, I'm sure much of the Angst comes from my own anxious desire to be taken seriously as an audience member, to be acknowledged as a committed participant in the whole glorious artist-audience exchange.

    I am genuinely bothered by the fact that the category of Young, Non-Specialist Audience Member Who Kind of Knows What's Going On would seem to be either woefully small or woefully overlooked or both. But I am probably overreacting. Don't mind me, my insecurities are showing. :)

  3. That Waltraud Meier interview was a wee bit odd. The oddest so far in the book. Every other sentence was reeking with "you have to be German to get it..." Ah well. Parochialism is a universal affliction.

  4. Thank you for saying all this. I feel the exact same way when I go to operas and concerts, because I'm not a professional musician, either. It's a real shame that there's such a disconnect between the professionals and the music-loving public.

    Oh, and hi. I found your blog when I was looking for information on "Fidelio", which I am doing a project on. Hope you don't mind that I'm randomly commenting. :)

  5. @definitelytheopera: "Parochialism is a universal affliction" - epigrammatic brilliance! It's been several months since I've read the interview and I hadn't remembered that as a thread, although the piece did strike me as odd. Found myself wondering if Jampol and Meier didn't hit it off, but that's baseless speculation, of course.

    @Christie: hi! I certainly never mind comments, and anything involving Fidelio is exciting, in my book. The "disconnect" may be more perceived than real. I have to say that, on the RARE occasions I've summoned the nerve to actually address singers, they either haven't asked (doesn't matter) or have seemed frankly delighted to have a young non-professional-in-all-ways enthusiast on their hands (if initially also surprised/confused.) And I would be unjust if I didn't mention again that I have had MANY delightful conversations with other (mostly older!) audience members who are knowledgeable, passionate, and unassumingly friendly. I hope you have had the same, despite the lonely feeling of being a bit of an anomaly.

  6. Encounters like yours with Old Opera Lady (and ilk) really only indicate the conversational inadequacies of Old Opera Lady (and ilk). Given the astute and interesting things you've been posting here, seriously, the loss is theirs.

    Here's the thing about classical music in general and opera in particular: If you love it, you own it. It doesn't matter where you're sitting, or how much you paid, or what you're wearing. Or how old you are or how much you know about the composer or the piece. All you have to know is not to be chatty during the music and how to manage your cough drops and don't play with your jewelry and turn off your cell phone. If you can master these things (and some people, even old pros, apparently find these to be unattainable ninja skillz), then you are in the club. And if you are under 40 and have mastered these things, just walk in like you own the place, because basically you do.

  7. Thanks for the pep talk, S. The "ninja skill" I'm currently trying to perfect is knowing when to have the handkerchief at the ready and plying it subtly...


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