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The Opera Fanatic

Ethnography of an Obsession

Though some dismiss opera as old-fashioned, it shows no sign of disappearing from the world’s stage. So why do audiences continue to flock to it? Given its association with wealth, one might imagine that opera tickets function as a status symbol. But while a desire to hobnob with the upper crust might motivate the occasional operagoer, for hardcore fans the real answer, according to The Opera Fanatic, is passion—they do it for love.

Opera lovers are an intense lot, Claudio E. Benzecry discovers in his look at the fanatics who haunt the legendary Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires, a key site for opera’s globalization. Listening to the fans and their stories, Benzecry hears of two-hundred-mile trips for performances and nightlong camp-outs for tickets, while others testify to a particular opera’s power to move them—whether to song or to tears—no matter how many times they have seen it before. Drawing on his insightful analysis of these acts of love, Benzecry proposes new ways of thinking about people’s relationship to art and shows how, far from merely enhancing aspects of everyday life, art allows us to transcend it.

256 pages | 17 halftones, 3 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2011

Music: General Music

Sociology: Sociology of Arts--Leisure, Sports


“Opera inspires passionate responses among audiences. This engaging, subtle book explains how one society shapes those passions. For Benzecry, operagoing in turn illuminates experiences of national honor, of belonging to a city, and of local loyalty to others. Wit and pleasure are not usually found in works of sociology, but they overflow these pages.”

Richard Sennett, New York University

“A sociologist’s book documents the true face of opera fandom. I’d love to see an opera guide that depicts the world of opera as Benzecry’s subjects experience it: a place of gossip and passion and temperamental celebrities and cathartic music, none of it requiring any specialized knowledge whatsoever.”

Anne Midgette | Washington Post

“In this imaginative and deeply researched study, Benzecry provides a powerful alternative to the notion that people engage culture to gain distinction over others. He shows that meaning and passion are central, that people are looking for transcendence, and that opera feels like love. This theoretically sophisticated work will help to change the conversation about cultural consumption.”

Jeffrey C. Alexander, Yale University

“The wonder of The Opera Fanatic is that nobody wrote this book before. An ethnography of opera fans in the Buenos Aires area, this study pinpoints a phenomenon that is worldwide in scope today. Challenging the common sociological wisdom that attending high-culture events expresses the need to establish class distinctions and to build cultural capital, Benzecry provides a convincing alternative model of operagoing that, at least for a sizable public, portrays this activity as affective, quasi-religious, and addictive.”

Herbert Lindenberger, Stanford University

“I’ve really been loving Claudio E. Benzecry’s The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession. Not only for what it is telling me about my opera addiction, but for what it says about fan culture and the art world in general.”

Jessa Crispin | Bookslut

“What makes a fan a fan? What pushes a person past an affection for a certain something—a football team, or comic books, or a certain band—into a real, genuine, overpowering love? I’m convinced the answer lies somewhere in Claudio Benzecry’s The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession. Benzecry spent some time at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, trying to understand a fan culture that proved itself to be intense, obsessive and insular, as well as welcoming and fascinating. By talking with men and women who sacrifice time, family obligations, marriages and money to tend to their beloved opera, we can learn a little about fan culture and the way a person responds to art.”

Kirkus Reviews

"Claudio Benzecry’s ethnography of opera fanatics at the venerable Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires is a path-breaking and insightful work of cultural sociology. Aside from offering a nuanced portrayal of how opera lovers think, it launches a frontal and convincing criticism of Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of taste."—Andrew Moravcik, European Journal of Sociology

Andrew Moravcsik, European Journal of Sociology

"The study of such a particular world needed to be conducted and published. It has been done in Argentina—a very particular context—and through really outstanding work. Now, inspired by it, it is on us, particularly in Europe, to keep delving in the profile of the opera fanatic."

Jean-Philippe Thielay | NonFiction.Fr

"The Opera Fanatic is a wonderfully eye-opening work that draws us into the complex world of the opera fanatic in Buenos Aires. Thoughtfully crafted and vividly written, it will appeal to a wide audience and be an excellent addition to courses on culture, social psychology, and qualitative methods."

Black Hawk Hancock | American Journal of Sociology

"One of the ten major theory books since 2000. . . Benzecry’s vision of socially prepared solitude opens a way for sociology to do justice to the things people love."

Randall Collins | Contemporary Sociology

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Part 1: Background

1. An Opera House for the “Paris of South America”

2. “It was love at first sight”: Biography and Social Trajectory of Standing-Room Dwellers

Part 2: Foreground

3. Becoming an Opera Fan: Cultural Membership, Mediation, and Differentiation

4. Moral Listening: Symbolic Boundaries, Work on the Self, and Passionate Engagement

5. Heroes, Pilgrims, Addicts, and Nostalgics: Repertories of Engagement in the Quest for Transcendence

Part 3: Finale

6. “They were playing in their shirtsleeves!” Downfall, Memory Work, and High-Culture Nationalism

7. “We’ve told you all about our life”: Conclusions and Implications





American Sociological Association: ASA Distinguished Book Award
Honorable Mention

ASA Culture Section: Mary Douglas Prize

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