Despite being a classical singer, I’ve fallen asleep at every Wagner opera I’ve ever attended. “Das Rheingold,” for example, makes it too easy. The seats are comfortable, the lights are dim, the exposition is endless. I feel cocooned, sardined up next to countless other people who all seem to have a higher tolerance for leitmotif than I do. My fellow audience members understand true genius, I find myself thinking. I am merely a sleepy bystander, an opera singer stifling a yawn, betraying the very art I claim to love. Is my boredom a failure? If so, whose? Is it possible to demoralize this boredom and examine it neutrally, without guilt or shame?
When I describe my boredom to fellow musicians and opera lovers, they usually offer explanations that fall into one of three categories. Some argue there’s something inherently dull to the art form: predictable compositional gambits, uninspired set design choices, overwrought libretti, or the singers’ wooden acting on stage. Others claim boredom is a personal failing—maybe I am woefully under-educated on this particular work, or especially tired that evening, or I’ve shot my attention span by scrolling on TikTok too much. Some cite the current state of the industry as the culprit, claiming that opera has refused to change with the times, or, conversely, that opera theater decorum has transformed so drastically that we no longer enjoy these performances as they were meant to be enjoyed. (Opera attendees of the past were never expected to sit quietly through an entire opera; audiences drank, ate, laughed, and chit-chatted through all the repetitive recitative.) If only we could return to that glorious past, or update opera for contemporary audiences, or educate the masses, or build cooler sets. Then we’d never be bored!
There may be kernels of truth in all of these claims, but they all assume boredom is a problem to be solved. But boredom itself is not boring. I want to lean into the sensation and examine what happens: how my psyche behaves, how I feel, and what boredom does. I spend a significant portion of my life in concert halls and opera houses in various states of interest. That reality is worth examining.
When I’m bored at the opera, I feel uncomfortable, weird, and trapped. I’m fidgety, sleepy, wired, and pissed off. Sometimes I’m full of rage; other times I’m defeated. I’m hungry. My head hurts. I have to pee. My mind wanders and I often start building a mental to-do list full of all the tasks, both fun and tedious, that I’d rather be doing. All of a sudden I’m desperate to return the library book that’s been sitting on my desk for two months, or finally ready to respond to an email that’s been gathering dust in my inbox. I may feel jealous of the performers, wishing it could be me up there. I’m ready to practice more and call my grandma every week, were it not for the opera I’m currently watching. And I’m not alone: I performed some (highly unscientific) studies with my friends and with strangers online, and about 95 percent of them described feeling bored at the opera at one point or another. This strange emotion contains such wide potential within its discomfort that it seems nearly impossible to define in any satisfying way.
One of the first historical accounts of boredom is the concept of “acedia,” an ancient Greek term used by medieval monks to describe the sleepy, unfocused feeling that can creep up on you after lunch. Also called “the noonday demon,” acedia was lumped in with the seven deadly sins. These medieval monks considered boredom morally reprehensible; they saw it as a sin to be disinterested in God’s world.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote about existential boredom, which he describes as a fundamental attunement or a general mood, rather than a response to an external stimulus (i.e. a boring opera). The boredom he discusses is a broader, more life-absorbing concept than the one I’m searching to describe: Heidegger finds boredom important because it lays bare the facts of life that are usually obfuscated by the minutia of living, most notably time. Time is never more present than when you’re feeling bored; you can feel every second inch along, each slower than the last. In this way, boredom gets you closer to understanding the world as it is, not as it appears.
Most philosophers who write about boredom focus on this existential boredom. Andreas Elpidorou is the most prolific exception: A philosophy professor based at the University of Louisville, Elpidorou has written extensively about the exact type of boredom I experience in a dark theater. He doesn’t describe the unfocused, vague mood that eats at existentialists’ hearts, but a locational and durational sensation. Elpidorou’s boredom has a beginning and an end, and is caused by a specific event. Elpidorou finds this type of episodic, situational boredom fascinating because it is “an unstable emotion that seeks its own undoing.” There’s a volitional component to situational boredom—it inspires a pivot, a consideration of what one deems valuable. To be bored in this way is to desire change.
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In the theater, however, any type of shift must happen internally. I almost never walk out of a show; once I’m seated, I’m committed. Instead, this desire for change turns inward. I start fantasizing and wishing. Boredom feels empty and hopeless, but within that lack of meaning lies a rare opportunity for free association, dreaming, and desiring.
The forced emptiness felt through boredom leads us to the bottom of the dark watering hole of our psyches. The anger, frustration, jealousy, and hope that lives down there is important, even though it’s painful to wade through the discomfort. Dull opera performances are some of the only places I ever experience this sensation full force. Even if we could completely eradicate boredom from our opera houses—should we? Although a complete lack of distraction is painful, I sometimes feel transformed by the longing it inspires. I long to sing more, to sing better, to be kinder. It is a gift to live in a world full of so many wonderful and interesting distractions, but it is also a gift to let your mind wander for a few hours with nothing to tether it to earth but a bird man lying about killing a serpent.
In her book 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, playwright Sarah Ruhl expresses her love for the “sensual fullness” of someone falling asleep in the theater, “head lolling.” In her fantasy, the audience is lulled to sleep by her play; wakes up to see something deliciously strange happening onstage; then drifts off again, allowing their “private dreams” to merge with the performance. That type of access to the subconscious allows for play, free association, and connection making. It expands our relationship with our inner selves.
Boredom is never just boredom. Boredom is a medium through which other feelings, wishes, and desires can bloom. It’s a fertilizer, a conduit for self-interrogation. Within its emptiness lies space, to imagine and dream, to move, pivot and potentially transform. By accepting the doldrums of a darkened opera house, I give myself the gift of self-knowledge. By accepting my inability to focus on art I deeply love, I give myself the gift of wanting. ¶