March 16, 2008

The Moron of Seville


Steve was my best friend in high school. Even if he could be a little fastidious at times, he was smart, and had a keenly honed sense of the absurd. A visit to an office supply store could reduce us to helpless hysterics. (Office supply stores still have that effect on me.)

            He was also the first kid I ever met who came from an academic family. Such things were very rare in Green Bay, given the size of the local university. His mother taught Spanish there, and his father was a world-renowned professor of philosophy. His specialty was phenomenology.

           In a very crude nutshell, phenomenology is the philosophical study of an individual’s internal, conscious perception of the world. It was founded in the 1920s by a German named Edmund Husserl, and one of his students—Jean-Paul Sartre—would later use phenomenology as the basis for what would come to be known as existentialism.

            But that’s not really the issue.

            Steve’s dad was a small man with glasses and thinning gray hair. He wore cardigans, smoked cigars, wrote longhand with a fountain pen, and moved very slowly. He spoke slowly, too. In fact, the very act of speaking seemed to require some conscious effort on his part, like he had to concentrate on forcing the air out of his lungs and out of his mouth. But he had a very dry sense of humor (so dry that I often missed the jokes), and was one of those people who knew everything there was to know about everything. Shockingly brilliant man—the first of that kind I’d ever met. He didn’t just know philosophy—he knew art, literature, history, music. Especially music. More specifically, especially opera—the walls of their living room were filled from floor to ceiling with thousands of very carefully-catalogued recordings.

            He fostered my love of Wagner and Mahler, and introduced me to a few twentieth century composers as well, like Carl Orff and George Crumb.

            In spite of that, I always had the impression that he didn’t like me very much. He intimidated the hell out of me back then. Whenever he spoke to me directly (rarely), I found myself frozen and barely able to respond. At other times, I tried way too hard to impress him, usually with disastrous results. He could sense that I was trying too hard, and I think that only fed his contempt. Yet he was the reason I went on to get a degree in philosophy. When I was in high school, he represented everything I wanted to be.

            (It’s kind of sad to think about it now, considering what I’ve become.)

            Well, one autumn during my junior year of high school, the opera came to Green Bay. That had never happened before. We had a city orchestra, but no opera, so when a touring company came though, it was a big deal. It made the news and everything. There was a big spread about it in the paper.

            My guess is that this little opera company was hitting a bunch of podunk, opera-less towns across the country, trying to bring them a little culture. Because of that, they knew that had to go with a real crowd-pleaser, so they of course chose The Barber of Seville. It’s light, it’s funny, it’s short, and some of the music was recognizable. What’s more, they’d be performing it in English, so audiences wouldn’t have to worry about reading along.

            From Steve’s opera-loving dad’s perspective, it was far from ideal, but it was something. Living in Green Bay, he no longer had the opportunity to see live opera the way he did when he lived in New York, so he bought tickets for his entire family. Much to my surprise and delight, he got one for me, too. I was desperately hoping to make a good impression.

            That night, we all packed into their car (which always smelled of stale cigar smoke) and drove to the West High School auditorium, where the performance was taking place. Back then, performance spaces in Green Bay were few and far between—they jumped from bars to dinner theaters to the Veteran’s Memorial Arena with nothing in between. As a result, the orchestra—and any other “serious” music that came through town—relied on rented school auditoriums.

            Much to everyone’s surprise, the performance was sold out, and the auditorium was packed with the cream of Green Bay’s elite—academics, doctors, lawyers, and the rich asshole snobs who lived on the east side of town. Even back then I thought it was kind of embarrassing to see all these people standing around, all dressed up and pretending to be cultured. In retrospect, I guess I was doing exactly the same thing.

            We took our seats, and I found myself sitting on the aisle next to Steve. Even though his dad was four seats away, I was still very nervous about the whole thing.

            Everything seemed to be going fine, but the minute the lights went down and the orchestra began playing the first notes of the overture, I knew immediately that I was in trouble.

            See, the overture to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville provided the complete score to Chuck Jones’ 1949 Warner Brothers classic, The Rabbit of Seville. At least What’s Opera Doc? was scored with a mish-mash of Wagnerian themes. Not this—it was the whole damn cartoon.

            So there I sat in my jacket and tie, attending my first opera and trying to impress a philosophy professor with my appreciation for music, and all I could see was Elmer Fudd with a rifle in his hands and a fruit salad on his head.

            Steve was having the same trouble, it turns out, and about five notes into the overture, we both started laughing. The more we tried to swallow it, to contain ourselves, the worse it got, with his laughter feeding mine and vice-versa. In spite of our best efforts to control it, before long we were shaking the entire row.

            That was it—that was the end of the opera for me. Throughout the rest of the performance, I had recurring visions of Bugs Bunny with a bottle of fertilizer, or Elmer Fudd fighting off an electric razor, and it would all start up again.

            By the end of the opera, my stomach muscles hurt and my eyes were blurry with tears. When we got back to the car, I was mortified. I’d completely blown it. I’d tried to be all sophisticated, but ended up a buffoon. On the way home, the only thing Steve’s dad said about the performance (or anything else) was “that translation was pretty godawful.”

            When they dropped me off, I went into the house almost numb with shame. My first opera (light comedy or not), and all I could think of was a fucking cartoon. I was an idiot, and I’d never be able to show my face at Steve’s house again. He and I would laugh about it ourselves, but when I was alone, I was humiliated,

            It was a few weeks later that Steve told me he’d finally talked to his dad about our behavior that night, and that his dad had made a confession. When he was our age, he said, he’d gone with his brother to see The Barber of Seville for the first timeand they both did  exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason.

            I didn’t feel so bad after that. But then Steve talked his dad into bringing us to see Excalibur (we needed an adult, as that theater was particularly strict with it’s R rated films). In spite of the Mahler, Wagner and Orff on the soundtrack, sitting there with the professor turned out to be a far more mortifying mistake than the opera. Christ, it would take years to shake that one.


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