Becoming a Fan: On the Seductions of Opera


The following is a sociological report on a particular segment of an opera audience. Its purpose is to explicate the processes of initiation in an activity typically considered “high culture.” It differs from other accounts of cultural consumption in that it is concerned not with the correspondence between social background and taste, but with the processes whereby taste is assembled. Drawing upon an 18-month-long ethnography on opera fans in Buenos Aires, this paper has two aims. First, it shows that passionate opera fans enjoy opera based on their belief that opera is something that needs to be learned in order to be properly enjoyed. Second, it describes three diverse instances in which people learn about opera. Furthermore, this paper also has a theoretical objective: to extend and refine the classic model of affiliation and initiation into cultural practices established by Howard Becker with his case study of marijuana use.

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Fig. 1
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  1. 1.

    Piscitelli sang the main female part, Maria, of Verdi’s Simone Boccanegra in 2003.

  2. 2.

    Anderson and Piscitelli both sang the leading role in the opera. Anderson had four dates, but Piscitelli, her understudy, managed to eclipse her in her two performances. The falling rate of the peso against the dollar would make Piscitelli a far more frequent presence at the Colón than Anderson.

  3. 3.

    She was Isabel de Valois in the 2004 season.

  4. 4.

    Leona Mitchell sang the role of Amelia in the Colón production of 1994, the last time it had been performed.

  5. 5.

    She actually referred to the 1995 performance, which included Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, renowned baritone José van Dam, and bass Ferruccio Furlanetto.

  6. 6.

    Sociology has dealt with this nascent state in many ways. Weber made of these moments the unstable foundation for a charismatic attachment to an authoritative figure; Durkheim attributed the genesis of value formation and commitment to collective effervescence. More contemporary approaches, like Alberoni (1983), Giddens (1992) or Joas (2000, 2007) have focused on the phenomenological character of these experiences, though they mostly refer to religious or emotional experiences and not to aesthetic ones, as intense moments of self-transcendence and self-formation that then get then “routinized” or institutionalized.

  7. 7.

    This means that they own more than one property and at least one car, travel abroad frequently, and have a credit card and a steady source of income.

  8. 8.

    Bourdieu (1984, p. 17), for instance, cites attending classical music concerts or playing an instrument as practices that classify someone more strongly because of the “rarity of the conditions under which the corresponding dispositions are acquired.” Those conditions include a familiarity with high culture not learned in educational institutions but transmitted and naturalized in the immediate family circle.

  9. 9.

    Jack Katz (1988) advocates a movement from background conditions to foreground factors in order to understand why people commit crimes. He encourages other sociologists to follow his research strategy and think not only about the background conditions that would make someone a criminal (or an opera fan, in this case) but rather what about the foreground characteristics of the practice or object is seductive in itself (in the case of crime, its association with risk, danger, prohibition, etc). The result of this strategy is to understand what is morally and sensually attractive about a practice as much as how the practice is constitutive of the person who partakes in it.

  10. 10.

    In 2005, some members of the Opera House Orchestra circulated a petition in support of hiring some of the older fans as tour guides.

  11. 11.

    A second strategy, which has become increasingly prevalent among contemporary ethnographic endeavors, of entering the instances of apprenticeship of the practice (Wacquant 2005; O’Connor 2005), carnally immersing oneself in the social world, following the steps of the natives, acquiring their skills and understanding in “body and soul,” passing through diverse rites until becoming a full member of the community, was outside of my range of possibilities. Coming from a family of musicians, I am already a part of the musical world, and if anything, the challenge was not to domesticate the exotic while embodying it, but to find the distinctive qualities of a world I was not attracted to firsthand, which seemed “second nature” to me.

  12. 12.

    The strength of this physical connection is such that one of the fans swears he smelled jasmine all throughout his first time at the Colón although it was nowhere to be found on or off stage.

  13. 13.

    The retrospective character of these narratives does not invalidate them. However, I do not want to present these vignettes as self-explanatory stories. The profiles that I am presenting here are what Charles Tilly (1998) would call “standard stories,” that is “the sequential, explanatory accounts of self-motivated human action.” As such, these narrative self-portraits pose a logical structure (a fusion of “unified time and place, a limited set of self-motivated actors, and cause-effect relations centered on those actors’ deliberate actions”) which presents an insurmountable problem to sociological explanation. Paraphrasing Auyero (2006), if we want to understand why these fans do what they do, we are in trouble because cause-effect relations are not only the intended consequences of individual actions. I refer to these stories as a collection that may illuminate some of the traits that appear repeatedly and that may transcend the personal teleological narrative and help us better comprehend how these fans are constructed as fans, why they are attracted to opera in the first place, and why they intensify their investment with time.

  14. 14.

    This was the case with Massemet’s Don Quichote and Verdi’s I Lombardi, which both premiered in Argentina at the Colón during the 2005 season.

  15. 15.

    The Argentino is La Plata’s main opera house, the second most important in the country.

  16. 16.

    Johnson (1995) traces the beginning of romantic listening to the late 19th century. It involved a new way of listening that involved not only a private understanding of listening as something closed off from community and inaccessible to language but also implied new rules of etiquette and the physical transformation of the theaters and concert halls. The result was a new experience; deeper, more personal and more powerful.

  17. 17.

    Teaching a class like this does not involve special skills, like reading scores or playing an instrument, or serious studies that certify professorial status, like musicology or a thorough understanding of diverse musical theories. It means putting together, in the most diverse manner, dates, casts, soloists, and works. However, it does involve a specific kind of knowledge that derives from experience, the understanding by comparison of what a good performance is; the classification of the voices not only in their registers (soprano, for instance) but also in their style (ligera, lirica, dramatica, de coloratura, etc.) and peculiarities (whether deeper is better in the lower areas, whether it cracks at the highest part of its range, whether the voice has range or not, etc.) As I said before, this kind of knowledge can be acquired by anyone who is interested in investing themselves in the opera world. However, as I observed when talking with critics and while attending many performances as part of my fieldwork, it is a work of habituation that occupies most of an opera fan’s non-working time.

  18. 18.

    Most of the “professors” or “maestros” are not trained musicians or musicologists or even historians. They are lawyers, accountants, and physicians who fell in love with the bel canto and achieved a higher rank within the operatic community to the point where they started exercising that power through paid activities for newspapers, radio shows, public lectures, or sometimes, free newsletters. Such newsletters guarantee them not only the recognition of the community, signified by the name “maestro” or “professor,” but also free circulation among the institutions that constitute the opera social world.

  19. 19.

    Delia Rigal sang the title part for the four performances of the 1952 season. She was a local favorite and shared the bill the only time Maria Callas came to sing Aida in 1949.

  20. 20.

    When I asked patrons at a free concert about the best adjectives to describe opera, two of them answered separately, “Music can’t be reduced to words. Music and language belong to two different worlds of thought; music belongs to a non-verbal register,” and “I don’t know the words. I just feel the music.”

  21. 21.

    For a sociology that inquires about the relationship between routine expectations, cultural products and performance, that is.

  22. 22.

    In one of his classes on verismo, Arce also used instrumental interludes as an opportunity to speak about the opera and its meanings.

  23. 23.

    An example of this with a male voice is Edgardo and Raimondo’s final aria in Lucia.

  24. 24.

    Here, I am adapting Katz’s (1999) discussion of road rage as an embodiment and dramatization of the anger caused by being cut off from the car and the road.

  25. 25.

    I write this in a passive voice, since as Hennion (2007) reminds us, these forms of attachment are presented as something actively suffered, to which the person attaches while surrendering to, in an almost passive way.

  26. 26.

    This is another point in which this model complements Becker’s. Since he was discussing the initiation into a deviant practice, it would have been odd to find formalized initiation situations.

  27. 27.

    Contradicting recent findings and generalizations in sociological literature (Mark 1998; Lizardo 2006), in this case, cultural taste does not shape or evolve into a lasting personal network that goes beyond encounters at the opera house.


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I want to thank Javier Auyero and Howie Becker for their fruitful suggestions, pointed criticisms and encouragement on previous drafts of this article; Diane Barthel, Tom Ertman, Craig Calhoun, Eric Klinenberg, Harvey Molotch and Juan Corradi for their helpful insights during the writing of this piece; and Jane Jones, Lauren Joseph and Noel Norcross for their help during the editing process. The usual disclaimers apply.

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Correspondence to Claudio E. Benzecry.

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Benzecry, C.E. Becoming a Fan: On the Seductions of Opera. Qual Sociol 32, 131–151 (2009).

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  • Apprenticeship
  • Fandom
  • Initiation
  • Opera
  • Taste