Monday, May 16, 2016
the battalions of love
And the thing that interested me the most was not so much when the fat lady sang as it was the audience. Looking over the swell of people, it was clear that these Germans viewed opera as a democratic occasion. Many, if not most, were dressed neatly, but they were not predominantly dressed up, as they might have been in the United States where -- dress-wise -- there was a kind of adoring solemnity that you might find in a funeral home. In Berlin, the audience looked much more like an American audience that had stepped out to see a John Wayne western.
But there was more.
Not only was this audience at home with the cultural event, but also it was not about to sit still for any bullshit. In the United States, opera-goers are wont to leap to their feet and applaud after some signature aria or duet or whatever. But I have never been to an opera in the United States where the audience was willing to stand up and boo the performers. Nobody boo's in a funeral home, right? But in Berlin, there was a willingness to applaud AND, if the audience deemed anything sub-standard, they let out with a chorus or boos or whistles (a sign of disapprobation in Europe). Opera was not a matter of adoration. It was a matter of love. If you can't call what is loved to account, how deep can that love actually be? An asshole family member may be a member of the family, but that doesn't change the fact that s/he is an asshole. If applause is the only reaction allowed, how much applause can anything actually be worth?
A long time ago, my friend Frank LoCicero invited me to come with him and have dinner with his grandmother. I remember Frank's grandmother as a petite, sinewy woman who must have been in her 80's when we arrived. She came from Sicily and had come over on the boat in 1918. During the trip with her two young sons, an older man from the more well-to-do upper decks had approached her about the possibility of purchasing one of her sons since he and his much younger wife could not have children. She said no, but was not surprised by the suggestion, which was not so uncommon at the time.
Frank's grandmother bustled in the kitchen while Frank and I sat at the dinner table sipping drinks. When I asked her if I could help in any way, she gave me a withering look reserved for idiots who have no grasp on how the world worked. Women prepared and provided ... men did not. End of story. Needless to say, the dinner went on and on and on. "Eat slow, but eat a lot" was a saying in Sicily.
Frank told me that occasionally a young Catholic priest would visit his grandmother and she would use the occasion to cuss out the much younger man. He was doing it all wrong, she would complain. The Catholic church wasn't as he portrayed it. It was as omnipotent and implacable as a woman in the kitchen. Get a clue ... father! His imagined compassion was reduced to ashes in her presence.
She loved the church. The religious chachki around her apartment -- palm fronds, crucifixes, Hallmark depictions of someone supposed to look like Jesus, votive candles -- stood testimony to her devotion. She loved it and because she loved it, it was hers ... much as the opera belonged to the audience in Berlin. I felt sorry for the singers and that young priest: How is anyone supposed to defend themselves when faced with the battalions of love? And yet, without a stick-straight grandmother to call people to account, how could any applause be called credible?