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Parsi fall
The opera was not that bad. The hamvatans were.

By Houman Younessi
October 17, 2003
The Iranian

Why are some of us such pompous asses, and at the same time such vulgar cretins? OK, OK, I know that as soon as I have said it, many of you would put me in exactly the same category of people that this article is aiming to refute; but I like Opera.

I don't know what it is about the genre, but I enjoy it. It could be the simplicity of the story line, performance unadulterated by needless and graphic violence, vulgar display of human anatomy in the name of sensuality, or a pace that tires rather than pacifies. It could also be that in opera I see an innocence we have lost, of an age gone by. It could be the appeal of the simplistic yet universal moralizations that evokes in me the feeling of the unity of humanity.

It could be that opera reminds me of my younger years, may be it helps me to hold on to the remnants of my dissipating youth, by casting me -- well, at least my mind -- back to my college years when opera was a treat I would give myself whenever I had been good. It could be the elaborate costumes, the color and the pageantry. I must love that or else why would an otherwise (hopefully) sane person deck himself up like a peacock in caps, gowns, colors and what not and parade in front of thousands -- every year -- in a ceremony called "Graduation"? Or it could simply be the music, the chants, o, those heavenly arias....

For whatever reason it might be, I like to go to the opera. And at the risk of being labeled anachronistic and pretentious, I do so when opportunity permits.

It was a mild early autumn day in New England. Our regional opera company had one of my favorite operas staged. It was a must, we had to go, and go we did.

As we arrived in time for the performance -- having parked in the "mortals" car park and strolled to the entrance at which we now were standing, I noticed a late model Mercedes S500 pull up right in front. The curb-side backdoor opened and out walked a maturing lady in a glittering long evening dress and a ... wait for it .... a heavy, hirsute, knee high fur coat.

The issue here is not one's moral objection to wearing fur. I wear leather shoes and belts myself. The issue is that it was over 65 degrees! I was already too warm in my tee-shirt and sports coat, ... fur? The combination of the way-out-of-place glitzy dress, the Merc. pulling up at the curb to unload the lady and the fur coat was so overwhelming that I noticed just about everyone's attention being diverted to this spectacle. A few sarcastic comments here and there could also be heard.

Being the nosy creature that I am -- and despite the advice of my very socially wise spouse -- I went closer to investigate. Sure enough she was accompanied by three middle-aged pot-bellied, inappropriately dressed (business suit, striped business shirt, no tie) balding, short gentlemen and an olive-skinned younger man of about twentysomething (This one was impeccably dressed; for a wedding or a funeral that is). As I got close enough, the discovery was made. Sure enough they were hamvatans!

Well, who am I to judge people? Maybe she is anemic and feels the cold more than you and I do. Maybe tonight was laundry night and the Milky Way was the only dress left on the rack for her to wear. It could be that the gentlemen's tie racks had simultaneously been transported to another dimension. Socks get lost, why not ties? It could be that the young man had been at a funeral before arriving for the evening's entertainment. A wedding would have been less likely as very few have them on Thursday afternoons.

The performance (I mean of the opera) was not bad. It was in fact quite good for a regional company; the lead characters particularly.

During the intermission however, my wife and I happened to be standing close to the hamvatan contingent (honest, this was NOT by design). I could not help but hear the conversation. It revolved around the performance. The young man was saying that he was enjoying the program and never did realize that opera could also be entertaining. One of the older gentlemen interjected by saying that be that as it may, the performances were, however, abysmal. She agreed. Showing her agreement by saying that at such and such stage the leading lady "defecated instead of vocalize" ("be jaaye khoundan, reed").

Derogatory comments were also made about the physical size of our prima donna -- the one on the stage that is. OK, she was a rather large woman portraying a young, Italian damsel who is envisaged to be better proportioned, but this is no reason to insult the person. Others in the party joined in to dispense equally vulgar descriptions of her anatomy, each comment followed by a barrage of loud laughter. Nothing remained sacrosanct.

Now I am no musicologist. But I know enough to recognize that a) the performance was not that bad; in fact it was quite good and that b) the total lack of employment of proper terminology on the part of our hamvatan critics was only an indication of their lack of adequate previous exposure to the genre; certainly not enough to make such sweeping judgments. Besides, if they were so discerning in their operatic taste, why not take the effort of attending performances at national level venues? They could have gone to the MET; New York City is not all that far away.

At any rate, why is it that some of us are such pompous assess? Why is it that some of us can not learn how to act (or even dress) in a socially acceptable fashion? Why do we have to pretend to be experts in absolutely everything, even things we know nothing about? And most importantly, why do we have to be so vulgar?


Houman Younessi teaches at a university in New England.

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