Recently I wrote a book called Avidly Reads Opera about opera fandom and opera fans. I also wrote an accompanying playlist. The playlist was supposed to vivify the book’s arguments through a wide range of composers and performers; it contains so many references that its compilation took longer than the manuscript preparation had. When I told a friend that I’d finally launched the playlist, she said, “Congratulations! Is it going to turn me into an opera lover?”
I said, “No,” and felt a little depressed.
My playlist reflects the book, which is not a primer, musicological study, review, or comprehensive history, but a love letter to opera fans past and present, from Ludwig of Bavaria to those struggling through the pandemic, including me. Sometimes I’m gushing; sometimes puzzling over music that, after 15 years, I still don’t understand; I’m relating as many chatty anecdotes and goofy opera in-jokes as I can squeeze past my editors. Often, I’m talking about opera’s conversations (sometimes: entanglements) with white supremacy, the prison industrial complex, voter suppression, union-busting, and fascist politics. It’s a book for the kind of opera fans I love: impassioned, generous, and profoundly geeky people with great senses of humor and compassion. It’s also a welcome to newbie fans, to whom I also wanted to offer tips and encouragement to pursue opera’s challenges and camaraderie as idiosyncratically (geekily) as we can.
That was already a lot of pressure. But turning non-fans into fans? Making them fall in love? Converting them? I felt unequal to the mandate. By turns I’m crotchety, dorky, screaming (exuberantly), and telling people how to vote. What if my playlist—my book, my career, my Terrible! Repellent! taste—didn’t just fail to create new opera lovers, but also unleashed fervently anti-opera haters into the world? I’d be happy to discourage one more fascist from feeling comfortable at the opera house. But what about the other new fans I might accidentally rebuff or leave behind, by being too “me”?
Playlists and mixtapes intended for shared consumption, let alone (gulp) public consumption, are intimate, fraught with the desire for appreciation and approval, whether we’ve assembled them for publications, dance parties, or, worst of all, a new love interest’s perusal. Those of us attempting to woo through playlists veer back and forth between the stridency of “Love me, love my immaculate taste!” and obsessive, insecure remixing, reflecting our inadequacy at conveying to the Beloved how attractive, intriguing, and full of inner life we are.
If we’re actually good at this, we personalize our mixtapes for the Beloved, invoking their preferences, tastes and shared experiences. If we know that the Beloved listens exclusively to noise, serial music, or other kinds of contemporary aural soundscapes, we send, like, well, I don’t know, this isn’t actually my bag, but maybe Berg instead of Bellini? In the wooing stage, we hold off on Wagner, even (especially) if “Winterstürme” is our idea of a sexy time. While I write this, I’m compiling a playlist for a friend’s child, who has gotten obsessed with “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Her personal playlist will be all dizzying, gravity-defying fun coloratura arias. I could be wrong about her taste: Maybe it’s the rage she loves, and I should send her “Stride la vampa”? But I’ve been wrong about my own proclivities, too.
Any of us with romantic mixtape experience knows that, if the relationship succeeds, the music keeps coming on: Six-month anniversary mix! First road trip mix! Wedding mix! So I have to remember that the playlist I wrote was a playlist for this book only, not the playlist I’d have written when I was first falling in love with opera, or the playlists I play for myself, for relaxation or concentration. The book’s playlist is only a snapshot of one fan’s mind, in a particular moment of intense critical engagement, listening and writing on her laptop in the winter of 2020-2021, loving opera the way she loves anything or anyone else she loves: by thinking through it, with arguments and provocations, gushy moments mixed with confusions and challenges.
It’s about 17 hours of music, but it’s incomplete, even as a self-portrait, and only partially revelatory. You can open up the playlist’s tracks of “Evening Song” from Philipp Glass’s “Satyagraha” and the “Transformation” from “Parsifal,” but unlike me, you probably won’t want to hit Repeat on either of those tracks for nine hours. To explain why and how I feel ecstatically transported every single damn time I do that… well, that’s where the book comes in: It’s about my life, and the way I’ve reinterpreted my life. But just because I go to that place, and explain it at length, doesn’t mean that anybody else can or will want to go with me.
I think that when people imagine opera conversion moments, they’re thinking about the kind of lush, glorious, ineffable showstopper delights that leave (many? some?) people swooning. I know the moments that transformed and converted me to an opera fan, but they were personal, intimate, and often pretty inchoate. I don’t know what will bring other people to similar places, especially when they’re new to the genres. But I’ve tried.
This Greatest Hits playlist evokes (incompletely and sometimes only inferentially) the times I’ve sobbed myself sick, being transfigured. Will this “Top Ten Moments When Alison Thought She Was Having a Liebestod” mix turn anybody else into an opera fan? Probably not. Unless you were there the day that Jonas Kaufmann, as the title character in “Werther,” sat, in anguish, on a bench, completely silent for about 20 minutes, and everybody in the audience watched in horror as he slowly, slowly started to fall off the bench—he was so anguished he couldn’t fall any faster—and you thought, “Good god, somebody get young Werther a chair with a back.” And even though you’d heard Kaufmann sing four other roles without really noticing that he was a superstar, this time, when he finally rolled out “Pourquoi me réveiller,” you thought that a breath of springtime really was awakening you.
If, listening to this, you get just a hint of that breath of springtime, then maybe this playlist can provoke even more conversations and arguments, as we all renew our fandoms together.