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June 14, 2007

Victorian Zombies & Opera Freaks

by Vanessa Bertozzi

In his post, Robert Levine refers to Lawrence Kramer's article in the New York Times about classical music as analogous to the museum and their cultural significance as sites of "revival." I'd like to comment a bit about revival--specifically about what brings the life back.

Perhaps it's true that classical music is just one niche among many now. It will attract its segment of the population, just as there is a thriving subculture right now called steampunk. The people who choose this style, aesthetic, and guiding lifestyle theme (one choice out of so many!) are buoyed by interest in all types of gadgetry steam-powered, made of brass. Think oily Victorian leather waistcoats, goggles, and jaunty, hand-built machines that chug along on steam. On the surface, steampunk seems anachronistic, oddball, "totally random" (...why this choice out of so many?). But when you talk to people who consider themselves steampunk and observe them, they don't just "like steampunk." They dress up in it. They invent gadgets and build them themselves. They write and illustrate manuscripts of science-fiction set in an alternate 19th century universe. Many of their friends met through steampunk activities--or rather, they and the people whose company they happened to enjoy in the first place found others and created this subculture from scratch. And so you can start to read expressions of identity from the ways that these people create and access media, art, and social situations. They value intellectual curiosity, an engineer's hands-on capability, a quirky difference from the mainstream-- born of a realization that their way of life is teetering on the edge of complete technological obsolescence.

When talking to opera fans, I get a vertiginous feeling, similar to meeting steampunks: these people are fascinating--because of their knowledge, dedication and fascination with opera, steampunk, manga, baseball, etc. People within these interest groups have so many stories to relive with each other, so many activities to partake in, so many opportunities to boast about their esoteric knowledge, so many ways of relating specific experiences into guiding principles for a way of life. The present day interpersonal dynamics and expressions of meaning are the very things that bring the Victorian imagination back to life. Or a certain performance of Aida in a particular theater as vivid as it might have been in the 1870s.

When looking at a subculture from the outside, things look very different than when you're inside and fond of a certain way of doing things, when you get the inside jokes. I think part of the problem here is that for people who haven't grown up with classical music, they have understood it as high culture which others tell you ought be good for you--that is, dead. For those who live inside the looking glass of classical music, what brings the music back to life for you? What are the expressions of identity from this subculture and what do its participants value? Maybe romantics are different from modernists, and opera freaks are different from chamber music fans. I can't quite say, though I'd be interested to hear from those of you who would know.

Posted by vbertozzi at June 14, 2007 9:41 PM


I love this blog. I had never heard of steampunks but there is certainly a revival of kooky Victorian facial hair for men in the college town where I live. The handle bar mustache is particularly popular.

With regard to classical music, what brings it alive for me is playing it, making it, in my living room, for fun, with friends.

I'm not a great "watcher" of music. I like to be singing, or playing it. Participating in some way. Maybe if there were more "interactive" concerts, we'd see a classical music revival.

Also to note. I sang professionally for a while and our concerts were very ill attended. But, my High School choir concerts (where I program mostly classical music)are standing room only. So...how do we capture that audience and keep them? How do I make my concerts so meaningful, that the next time a professional ensemble comes to town they rush out to get tickets?

I'm also a huge fan of forcing classical music down peoples throats in strange places. Such as, 13th century polyphony heard in parking garages. I'm sure this is done in big city subways, but not so much in the midwest.

Posted by: M at June 15, 2007 7:03 AM

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