Opera and Monster Jams: A Common Ground?

It’s not often I get a chance to see two extreme sides of a fractured America walking side by side on the same Phoenix street.  But I did last Saturday night in the heart of downtown.

I’d taken light rail with Nebra to the stop at 3rd Street and Jefferson.  We were headed to the opera at Symphony Hall. 

I knew right away it was an unusual night.  For one thing, there were three rail cars in our train.  Not the usual two, or sometimes, like on a Sunday, say, when you see only a single car.  And the cars were full.  We stood the whole way.  I knew from experience the busy traffic was not entirely due to the showing of La Boheme, the silly and over-wrought Puccini opera which is sung in Italian and set in Paris.  This after all  is not New York City. 

Stepping from the rail car and veering west, waves of other folks, mainly families with small children, met us head-on, steering east.  Their attire struck me as very casual, their demeanor happy and noisy.

I wore my Sunday best, unhappily traded off had I my faded blue jeans for dressy black slacks.  I also wore my properly sedate game face, though in truth it was more glum than sedate, not being ecstatic at revisiting the opera.  In my virginal visit I had been less than enthralled with Tosca, another Puccini composition.  My goal was to adventure into a realm of which I had not been fully exposed.  To be more “edifying”  as my grandmother preached.

I asked a traffic cop where these legions of  happy people were going.  He said there was a “monster truck show” at Chase Field, the big stadium where the Diamondbacks will start their 13th baseball season in a few months.  Music to this segment of America is not a foreign-sung aria.  It is the sight and sound of giant trucks using their 150,000 horse-power engines to negotiate an obstacle course that includes smashing over puny cars I see on the street everyday. 

Later, when I took time to go to the internet, I discovered the event at Chase Field was called a “Monster Jam,”  just one of five similar competitions held that same night throughout the U.S  Of course I had heard about these Jams.  Just never bothered to see one. 

These big trucks have names, I learned.  Donkey Kong, Captain’s Curse, El Toro Loco to name a few.  And they trucks driven by real people.  At least one driver, Dawn Creten, is a woman.  These competitions are held all over the world, in places like Helsinki, Barcelona and in Malaysia and New Zealand.  There will be many more of these events at different points leading up to the World Finals in late March at a fitting place I should’ve guessed without having to look it up — Las Vegas, the capital of crass. 

At Symphony Hall, a soft buzz of voices permeated the lobby.  I don’t know if it was SRO, but there was a nice crowd.  Some dressed to the Nines in coats and expensive ties and backless gowns and fancy jewelry.  But many more like me, a step or two down, and liking it like that.  And while mostly a gathering of  white folks, clusters of  blacks, Hispanics and Asians sat not too far from me.  Our seats, near the back of the auditorium, cost about $75 a pop, and I wondered what the price of a ticket to the Monster Jam was. 

Monster Jams were just gaining national traction when the 100th anniversary of La Boheme‘s première performance passed in 1996.  I read U.S. companies perform La Boheme more than any other opera with the exception of Madame Butterfly.  If true, it is hard for me to grasp.

The plot features two of the most emotionally-starved human beings imaginable.  Rodolfo, an impoverished poet, and his consumptive girlfriend, Mimi, spend most of the four acts exclaiming and bewailing their love for each other until the tragic end put me too out of my misery.  I’ve been there, I know teenage sick love-puppies when I see them.  If an adult American male connects with the wimpy Rodolfo, I stand aghast.  And talk about stupid.  He tosses sheets of his play into a stove to keep him and his friends warm.  While it provided the only humor during the sobering two hours, almost everyone knows paper burns fast and offers little heat.   By the end, when Mimi dies, my most profound feeling was overwhelming gratitude.  I was ready to go home.  

Those spectators in the front of the auditorium, the season-ticket holders and members of the sponsoring Arizona Opera I assume, immediately rose and to my amazement  applauded wildly as the final curtain fell.  That group of front-sitters were without doubt among the most knowledgeable present.  They knew when to start applause for a yet-unfinished aria, and they knew when to stand and applaud after the second act, the cafe gathering, the only time the entire ensemble appeared.  But for my taste their applause was too calculated and bereft of spontaneity.

I stood like many others in the back to clap politely for the encore.  I did applaud  loudly for Timothy Mix, who played Rudolfo’s more mature roommate, Marcello, the artist.  Mix’s was a dominating performance, even to my untrained ear, in an otherwise limp undertaking.  As I’m sure many new opera-goers discovered over the years, it is for those wonderful and powerful, highly trained voices and the orchestra that attracts. Not the plots.  And in some intricate way I made an unlikely connection between La Boheme and the Monster Jam.

The patrons of both are hooked on the extremes.  Extreme sport on one hand, and extreme music on the other.  Both rest at the far ends of the scale in America.  The opera refined and intellectual, the Monster Jam loud and visceral.  No question, though, that the big Jam is closer to the middle than opera.

I suspect that neither crowd that Saturday night in Phoenix knew much about the other.  I would bet the vast majority of  the Jam crowd had never seen an opera.  And vice versa. 

America is in this deep rut in almost every way.  We specialize far too much.  We find an interest or two and bore deeply, giving our hearts and souls, as Rodolfo did to Mimi.  We do that with the exclusion of almost everything else.  It would be pleasant to see a more flexible America, a more adventuresome citizenry with more open minds.  Open minds.  Now that’s a modern American pipe dream if ever there was one. 

At this rate, I may even talk myself into watching the next Monster Jam.  But another Puccini will have to wait.

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