The two people sitting next to us at the opera were Rowlandson caricatures.
She was mid-60ish, tarted up in black lace, false lashes and a push-up bra. He was roughly the same age but grotesquely obese, with a beach-ball belly that shined shirt-white from the bottom of his vest to the top of his trousers. His belt was lost to sight under the roll of gut.
Worse, stale cigarette fumes soaked out of every fiber of his suit.
The two had arrived late; the lights already had dimmed for La Boheme, but the music hadn’t begun. The two tripped their way over toes and bounced off knees along the row.
It is all too common a sight at the symphony or opera. The wife drags the businessman husband out for a night of culture. He usually falls asleep by the third movement or second act.
Only this husband’s cough kept him awake. This wasn’t the polite, dry ”ahem” in the throat that is universal ambient noise at a concert. It was a huge, wretching, sputum-gargling chest-cough that boiled over every 30 seconds or so for the first two acts.
At each intermission, the two left the hall, coming back with a renewed halo of smoke.
By the third act, the man began another obnoxious behavior that normally makes me fume: He began singing along, under his breath. Normally, I say, but strangely not this time. Instead, I found his singing curiously touching. Philistine or no, his humming told me he was making a connection with the music.
It also became obvious that he knew the opera quite well and that, in fact, he had it memorized.
It also amused me that it was only Mimi’s part that he sang, and it made me wonder about him. Perhaps he identified with Mimi, perhaps he loved deeply, perhaps he was dying, perhaps he dressed up in women’s clothes at home.
Whatever it was, it made me like him, in an odd, repellent sort of way.
When the drama was over and Mimi was dead and resurrected for applause, I could hear him critique the performance for his wife, ranking it among the Bohemes he had heard, pointing out its strengths and its failings (every opera production has both). It was a crudely objective- sounding set of judgments he pronounced, like the faux-scholarly recording reviews in Fanfare.
And I realized that for many men, this passing of judgment is their way of admitting they were moved.
And he became all the more human to me for that.
Among the morals in this parable is that everyone finds sustenance in art. My tussive businessman may not care a whit for Picasso or Brecht, but this Puccini lit his candle. Another may despise Puccini and find life’s breath in Thomas Mann or Jimi Hendrix. It even may be found for some in black velvet Elvis paintings.
It is not the particulars that count, but that there is something in art that is needed to sustain human life.