Sunday, February 13, 2011

A Night at the Fights, a Night at the Opera

In the past month, I have experienced an unusual pair of personal firsts. A few weeks ago, I attended my first live boxing event; a week later, my first opera. (Anyone who knows me will tell you at which event I felt more at-home.) At the surface, there seems little common ground between the oldest, most primal sport, and what some would argue is the highest form of art. But after attending both events, I couldn't help but draw parallels between them.

Prior to the first bout at Windy City Fight Night - UIC Pavilion, January 28th, 2011

At both events, my attention was immediately transfixed by the attire of the crowd. At the opera, this was not much of a surprise - many are there in order to be seen just as much as they are there to see the opera. Even on one of the coldest, most blustery days of January, the opera veterans were perfectly pressed and manicured, their hair gelled or pinned just so. Some managed to get away with something edgier (including a man in a fur coat and a mullet hair cut who stood in front of me in line for the bathroom during intermission), but in a way that was still somehow befitting of the opera. Whether traditional or edgy, the name of the game was style. It left me reflexively smoothing out the lumps in my argyle sweater-vest for the better part of the evening.

But I was just as struck by the style of the fans at the fight. Collectively, they were easily the best-dressed group of people I had ever seen at a sporting event. These were not the same sweaty, aging frat boys that one would find at Wrigley Field on a summer afternoon. Nor were they, as some might presume, the kind of people that seek out the comforts of windowless bars at 2pm on a Tuesday. To my great surprise, I actually felt more under-dressed at the fights than I did at the opera. Maybe under-dressed isn't the right term. Maybe I simply felt out-cooled. The patrons of the boxing event all seemed to have tapped into a hip, urban sense of fashion that I've apparently been missing. It occurred to me then that this, too, was an event that people attended because it somehow improved their personal credibility. It even feels cool to tell people later - what did I do this weekend? I went to the opera. I went to the fights.

But certainly there is more to it than feeling cool. There are a hundred other things one can do to make himself feel cool. What brought us all to the fights to begin with? What brought us all to the opera? I would suspect there are few casual fans of opera, just as there are few casual fans of boxing. One does not simply buy a ticket to an opera or a boxing event on the same whim that one would buy a ticket for a baseball game or a rock concert. One does not simply do these things to be cool.

For both boxing and opera, there is historical greatness, and to love the opera or to love boxing is not only to try to keep close to that greatness, but also to keep the greatness alive. And those who keep it alive are a small, passionate bunch. I very much doubt the mainstream is lining up to hear music sung in a language other than their own, in a mode that isn't exactly easy to hum along to. There are Broadway musicals, there is cinema - there is even TV. The opera is outmoded. But simply to let it die would mean to let greatness die. To let Mozart and Wagner and Bellini die.

Some, too, say that boxing is dead, and although I disagree with that bit of hyperbole, I will concede that never again will a fight mean so much to so many as the fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling. Or even Hagler and Hearns. Or even Tyson and Holyfield. In both cases, there is a longing for what once was. Whether you're a fan of opera or boxing or both, you're hanging on to an old greatness. You're hanging on to something that isn't as great as it once was.

Joe Louis knocks out Max Schmeling on June 28th, 1938.

Nonetheless, it is unfathomable in the mind of either fan how people cannot love it the same way that they do. I must admit that the opera I attended, at times, seemed more than a bit silly to me. The plot unfolded about as gracefully as a Saturday morning cartoon. During a pivotal scene, the soprano mourns over the unconscious body of the man she had recently fallen in love with. "He is the first man I have ever kissed," she moans. "He cannot die." I'm sure some of the poetry is lost in the translation, but I couldn't help from remarking to a friend during intermission, "They aren't exactly subtle, are they?"

But the opera-goers did not come for subtleties. They have come to experience emotions laid raw and basic as the scrawlings in an adolescent girl's diary. When those emotions are coupled with extravagant set pieces, a professional orchestra, and the sheer talent of the performers, it becomes something undeniably beautiful. Opera fans cherish the opera because it serves as an opportunity to revel in the basic things, the primal things - maybe even the immature things - that we are not otherwise allowed. And where else can something so base turn into something so breathtaking?

The basic, the raw, the unsubtle - certainly these drive many fans to the fights. It is why some whistle at the bikini-clad women who walk the ring between rounds, it is why they straighten in their seats for a better look at the sight of trickling blood. And certainly all this seems very silly to outsiders. These things in themselves may not be beautiful, but they are part of an experience that somehow, like the opera, becomes beautiful in spite of itself. The night I went to the fights, an undefeated fighter nearly suffered his first loss in round 4, when his opponent sent him to the canvas with a short, straight right hand. He staggered through the rest of the round, hanging on just long enough to make the bell. In the next round he rallied, knocking his opponent out. An energy had been running through the crowd throughout the course of the fight, and at the moment that the fight was over, the crowd rose to its feet in uninhibited applause. This was not merely "cheering." This was the type of adulation that is inspired by something greater than athletic achievement, by something extraordinary and beautiful.

I heard the echo of this energy a week later at the end of the opera, when the people in the crowd shouted "Bravo!" and applauded with an enthusiasm that betrayed the stuffy aura they had cloaked themselves in, exposing their designer suits and fur coats to be just as much a costume as anything the performers were wearing. There was a desperate gratitude at the core of their applause, as if the performers had given them something more than music. The players took their bows, and it wasn't difficult for me to picture the victorious fighter standing on stage in their place, sweaty, bloody, his trembling arms raised in a V above his head.

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