Sylvia Korman is a graduate student in English at CUNY in Manhattan. They curate one of the most striking corners of opera Twitter, the account People Mad at Opera (@operacomments). “I’m not actually a music person at all,” Korman tells me. “I have no non-dilettantish background in opera.” But their knowledge of opera is keen.
@operacomments was inspired by the account Italians Mad at Food, which scours the internet for those furious about crimes against the great dishes of Italian regional cooking: kiwis on pizza, Progresso’s “Lasagna-style” soup, cream in carbonara, and so on.
People Mad at Opera has garnered over 2,000 followers, impressive for the relative niche of opera Twitter, cataloguing the rage coursing into YouTube comments sections. “Give me that high-Eb” wwonka2 writes beneath a performance of “Sempre libera,” “or else just go home and eat a bowl of pasta.” Any singer who has faced the jeering loggionisti at La Scala knows that opera audiences are a tough crowd. On the internet, like most everyone, they are worse.
Perhaps Korman was always fated to run @operacomments: The great Wayne Koestenbaum, patron saint of opera as subversive, alternative pleasure, is also based at CUNY. In the murky waters of opera comments on YouTube, one sees precisely how odd the delights and sorrows of operagoers are.
As an undergraduate at Barnard College, adjacent to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Korman capitalized on plentiful cheap tickets for the Metropolitan Opera. They have scarcely looked back, enchanted by the variegated audience and manifold quirks of the Met. Their doctoral research has operatic resonances. They write on cross-dressing and gendered disguise in Shakespeare and his contemporaries: men dressed as women dressed as men, such as Viola in “Twelfth Night.” They say, “I’m interested in the way theatrical devices or conventions come to overrule the actual bodies in space. It’s something I see a lot in opera.” (Plenty of parallels spring to mind: Cherubino getting dressed up as a girl in “The Marriage of Figaro,” Octavian and the Composer in Richard Strauss, Sesto in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare.”)
“I’m obsessed with opera culture,” Korman tells me, “particularly as articulated by the cranks in these YouTube comments.” They have observed a stark contrast between the theater and opera worlds. “As a Shakespeare person, I’m used to almost constant innovation… when I hear people complain [in opera] about directorial choices, I think, Are you crazy?!”
Opera’s conservatism is a regular refrain in the comments selected by People Mad at Opera. Take it from user Opera Lover:
OPERA IS NOT EVOLVING ART! NOT! NOT! NOT! OPERA IS REPRODUCTIVE ART! R E P R O D UC T I V E! AND THIS IS A FACT! LIKE IT OR NOT.
“There is a mask-off quality to these comments—they’re very unfiltered,” Korman says. “Under a video of ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ someone will write ‘Oh, looks like lesbians eh!’ and then the comments will be something like: ‘You idiot! She’s wearing pants! Can’t you see that’s a man!’”
The comments displayed by People Mad at Opera take the mask off—but what exactly do they unmask? Some are predictable enough: racism, misogyny, armchair singing lessons. But other comments hum with odd insight. The above is a case in point. Such posts play up the ambivalence of opera’s sexual and gender politics. They alight upon and conventionalize moments of queerness or transgression at the same time, perceiving a playfulness in Strauss (among others) towards which the cultivated audience seem oddly unreceptive (“OPERA IS A REPRODUCTIVE ART!”).
Korman’s selected comments also have an infantile but absolutely unerring way of expressing lopsided truths about the art form. They reflect the unvarnished directness of the internet. José Manuel Puig M writes: “I Think in my personal Ópinion that Miss Fleming is the most Opera Singer from the United States.” Is Renée Fleming not the absolute apogee of an American opera singer, its burnished platonic ideal? Such truths burn through linguistic barriers and the tonal blankness of internet prose.
One particular favorite of Korman’s is a comment on Peter Mattei singing in Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville.” HARK Mladost writes: “i’ts stupid and borning” [sic].
The opera cognoscenti would dismiss such a remark as immature. But I think it contains a deeper truth. In “The Barber of Seville,” nobleman Almaviva adopts the moniker Lindoro to steal Rosina away from the clingy fogey Bartolo. His plan is to enlist the help of a man who shaves people for a living to disguise himself (again) as a drunken soldier billeted in their apartment. It is, indeed, absolutely stupid (surely Rosina would prefer the dashing and rich Almaviva without any pretext: She’s furious to discover his deception in Act II). As for “borning”—I’ve always felt the second half has a few longueurs.
Indeed the opera is stupefying, not just in terms of the plot. One is left awestruck, agape, by the spectacular coloratura and patter executed in particularly zesty performances of “Largo al factotum” or “Una voce poco fa.” As critic Natalie Pollard points out in The Fate of Stupidity, stupefaction is fundamental to the experience of shock and arrest that accompanies all kinds of artworks. This is surely fundamental to opera’s impact. “Artworks that shock,” Pollard writes, “demand a full-bodied and full-minded participation of the viewer or reader.”
There is something, well, operatic in the YouTube comments People Mad at Opera picks up. They have a grandiosity of utterance and unbidden intimacy that is akin to the way characters step directly onstage and tell us precisely what they think, whether we want to hear it or not. Papageno’s revelation of innermost desires and hopes in his introductory two-minute aria has huge posting energy and an oddly asocial naïveté.
These comments are funhouse mirrors for the operatic art: a distortion (perhaps), grotesque and exaggerated in their wildness (certainly), but, like Frankenstein’s progeny, ultimately bound to it. YouTube comments, in their form and content, are where the accepted (bizarre) expectations of opera come into contact with our reality, unnerving in their candor and exaggerated quality.
There is an oddness particular to YouTube commenters. On Facebook or Twitter there is the pretext of acquaintance (friends, followers) to whom you tacitly address your updates. This friendly agora of admirers and supporters may or may not be known to you in the meatspace but is in some minimal sense familiar. YouTube has no established networks below the line. Its fundamental relationship is subscriber and subscribed. To comment on a YouTube video is truly to find yourself on the lonely frontier of the internet: howling into the abyss, encountering only strangers, and addressing yourself to… whom, exactly?
It is social media, but it represents the anonymous social, not the particularity of our friends or acquaintances (online or IRL). Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan called this The Big Other: the invisible agency that represents the concept of the social as such, to whom we address ourselves in general. There is a parallel with the space of the operatic stage, which is gazed upon mostly in silence by an audience almost always shrouded in darkness. Those who post under YouTube videos of opera are merely stepping into the shoes of opera fans before them, cheering, booing, catcalling, and singing out from the dark.
Of course, being mad online is nothing new. Born of some misguided, disproportionate anger, each comment is often met with an equally splenetic response; one is reminded of Danny Boyle’s post-apocalyptic zombie jumpfest “28 Days Later,” where the “rage virus” induces a terminal, insensate apoplexy. The thrill of lashing out is as potent as cocaine or alcohol in its capacity to make people feel empowered, even elated. Such highs are readily available online and mostly consequence-free. A bad take, as Keats didn’t say, is a joy forever.
Two antagonisms animate the People Mad at Opera. First, the (familiar) laments about Regietheater (“Eurotrash!”): its corrosion of decency, standards of beauty and artistic truthfulness, and/or betrayal of the composer/librettist’s “intentions.” The second is that no one can sing properly anymore.
Peter Mattei’s videos attract many comments of the latter type. “I think Mattei is the patron saint of @operacomments,” Korman tells me. “I don’t know if it’s because he’s very tall, and that makes people freak out.” His voice also attracts particular ire. “You’ll see these comments: ‘Why is he crooning! Send him back to the French cabaret!’”
These views are not confined to YouTube. In the toilet at Covent Garden I once overheard two elderly gentlemen complaining the latest “Norma” was nowhere near as good as Callas, despite Sonya Yoncheva having the considerable advantage of being alive. An acquaintance once insisted on his desperate need to see “an unreconstructed ‘Meistersinger,’ set in medieval Nuremberg with proper costumes.” We may laugh at those who sing their Handelian rage arias into the digital abyss, but they are not a breed apart. They may be sitting next to you.
For Korman, these disputes are about the very character of the operatic art form. They spot a schism: “In the land of opera comments people are desperately trying to make a performance culture into an archival culture.” They mention performance studies theorist Diana Taylor’s work in this area, for whom the archive represents the state and the establishment, troubled by the mutability of performance.
Korman believes that commenters often “want a new production of ‘Rigoletto,’ but only as long as it is the same as the old one; they want a new soprano but only as long as she sounds exactly like Maria Callas…When a new production premieres at the Met, all they feel is the loss of the old one.” The opera comments on YouTube represent a kind of underworld, inhabited by shades and mourners.
The People Mad at Opera comments also burn off some of the lacquer applied to opera’s surface, particularly when it comes to the mores of critical appreciation. Mindofwinter’s comment on Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s performance in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” reads, “You can’t really do any better than Dmitri Hvorostovsky’s interpretation of this song. Peter [Mattei] has a fine voice, but as heterosexual dude I find Dima… to be extremely hot and alluring in this role.”
There is much to unpack here. The commenter adopts the language of the opera insider (“Dima”) and is attuned to the nuances of “interpretation.” But there is dissonance with the normal critical niceties. Onegin’s aria is a “song”—a regular fixture of the online classical music lexicon—and mindofwinter himself a “heterosexual dude” whose enthusiasm for Hvorostovsky’s work is rendered extravagant in finding the singer “extremely hot and alluring”—but only (?) “in this role.”
No homo, the poster seems desperate to clarify. But we also glimpse someone on the brink of an important epiphany: a “heterosexual dude” who seems oddly at peace with his powerful, surprising sexual kinship with this singer.
mindofwinter’s admission is typical of the Youtube comments displayed by People Mad at Opera in disarming candor. It peels back the pretensions that clutter critical writing about singing and its appreciation: variously technical or high-flown, resorting to intimidating precision or extravagantly improbable metaphors. For mindofwinter the allure of certain singers is precisely that: unreconstructed, primal, and surging with libidinal energies. Their voices, like Hvorostovsky’s, are unearthly and magical. YouTube comments reveal our aesthetic preferences, which are more grubby and somatic than we’d like to imagine. ¶
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