Monday, March 17, 2008

That's Why We Clap

Saturday night we went to see a semi-pro production of Puccini's Turandot in the dining hall of Lowell House, a Harvard College dorm that has been putting on operas since the 1920s. Turandot is pretty grand as these things go and the production didn't miniaturize anything--full orchestra, colorful (very "Oriental") sets and costumes, big voices in the big parts. The program, and a preshow announcer, politely admonished us to applaud only at the end of an act, a request (rather stuffy, but maybe they were worried about time) that the audience adhered to until Calaf's big third-act opening number, "Nessun Dorma." We all clapped madly.

It was practically Pavlovian. We clapped because it was a beautiful performance, but also because we knew the tune and loved it, and we knew other people knew the tune and loved it--group hug, anyone? "Nessun Dorma" is a high culture artifact that secured a place for itself outside the gates when it was kicked over the wall by Luciano Pavarotti at the 1990 World Cup. Now it shows up everywhere (fabulously by Aretha Franklin at the 1998 Grammys); it has nothing to do with Turandot; and you can get it as a ringtone.

Purists scorn but I love this. Opera buffs are like librarians or anybody in a community of shared aesthetic commitment (although Wayne Kostenbaum writes that putting two opera queens in the same room spells trouble). Everybody likes being an insider to something, whether it's opera or--I hoped I would get here--children's books. We saw that in spades here last week, when children's-book-lovers came together to rail at what they perceived was an attack by me on their affections. But it was also a very in-groupy fight on all sides, one amongst ourselves, the kind of debate that reinforces allegiance to the group because all sides agree that This Matters.

I don't think we adults who love children's books do so to be insidery (hmm, children's books or high fashion. Which will make me cooler?) but our shared love does give us an inside to be in. We like having a cultural vocabulary shared by a few, but we are also aware that the reason we're few is because children's books don't matter to most adults. This cognitive dissonance can cause both anxiety and a pleasant sense of superiority.

So we too like it when one of Ours is kicked over the wall, whether it's everybody reading Harry Potter or, my favorite example, a country song that can cite Charlotte's Web ("now I'm the one that's caught in . . .") and assume that listeners will know the reference. It reinforces our superiority (we knew Harry Potter before he was Harry Potter) and soothes our anxiety (if Charlotte's Web is part-of-everything then maybe I am too). Mostly it's just nice to have your affections confirmed, like when you convince a friend to like a book or a song you like. It makes you like it even more.


linda said...

I want to be all smart and insider and say something important, but instead I'm just left saying that I loved this post. So thanks.

Melinda said...

Yeah, Aretha! High five. I put her version of Nessum Dorma on every mix CD I make for my friends.

Unfortunately she's backed off from making an opera CD, presumably because some of the purists don't like her R&B take on Puccini.

Yeah, I'll take the likes of Charlotte and her kind, too.

Melinda said...

P.S. That last line was a Statlers Brothers reference, for those of you who haven't heard the song "Charlotte's Web."