On many summer weekend nights in the mid-1970s, my parents loaded us into our used VW microbus and drove about an hour north so we could take part in a grand musical spectacle. Volkswagen aside, we were not following the Grateful Dead. With promises of ice cream sandwiches for all during intermission, we set out for the Lake George Opera Festival. You must give my parents a lot of credit -- or assume they were highly medicated -- to take on such a project. My brother, sister and I were all accomplished eye rollers at this point, far more interested in the promised ice cream than anything that happened on stage. In our defense, how could anyone think that James Fenimore Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans" could successfully be adapted to the operatic stage?
In spite of ourselves, we all learned about opera -- and even managed to appreciate the art form's over-the-top, in-your-face, take-no-prisoners posture. I am certain that my parents' insistence that we attend Puccini's "La Boheme" is the reason I now adore Jonathan Larson's updated version, "Rent." And I know it gave me the background I needed to truly value the experience when my high school drama teacher scored dress rehearsal tickets to see Luciano Pavarotti in Verde's "Aida" at the Met. Exposure to cultural experiences is always the first thing to go when money is tight, but the value of enrichment cannot be calculated. I understand the world differently because my parents and teachers
The same year I attended "Aida" in New York City, my high school friends and I won top honors -- and $100 cash -- in a lip-sync contest for our outlandish interpretation of the B-52's "Rock Lobster." In a seersucker suit and my dad's wingtips, I strutted and gestured -- even writhed on the floor like a convulsing lobster -- to capture the prize. It wasn't opera but it had elements of grandiosity. My performance was a distant cousin to the first Italian opera -- Euridice -- which wowed guests at a Medici wedding back in 1600. Let's face it, everyone loves a spectacle.
Although I never became a devotee, opera has always had a tangible, if modest, presence in my life. From my aunt's opera performances, to my mom's chorus presenting Handel's "Messiah" at Carnegie Hall, to my own Handel solo in high school, opera has been a touchstone to my family's collective memory. Recently opera has resurfaced in my life through YouTube. I've rediscovered it through the work of one of today's opera superstars -- 41-year-old German soprano Diana Damrau. When you have a moment today, find a Damrau clip of the "Queen of the Night" aria from Mozart's "Magic Flute." Don't worry if opera has never been your thing or if you find the art form somewhat off-putting. Set all that aside because Damrau's soaring voice -- and the seeming ease with which she conquers extremely difficult pieces -- will remind you of humanity's great possibilities. I always feel inexplicably better about the world and my place in it after hearing her sing.
Although this aria has become Damrau's most performed piece, she made history when the Metropolitan Opera hired her to perform two different roles in "The Magic Flute" in separate performances during the same season. But her mastery of this particular opera does not define her. Tim Ashley of the Guardian calls Damrau the Meryl Streep of classical music. He writes, "Her artistry is phenomenal and paradoxical" in that she "achieves a sense of total immersion in her material without quite ever letting you forget the powers of technique, intelligence and calculation that inform her singing." It is easy to understand why she's a darling of the opera world. Her dogged pursuit of excellence combines with her charisma and staggering talent to make her, in the words of Opera News, the only opera star today "who conveys the can't-wait-to-get-started joy of singing."
It is a shame that opera is a favorite target of the anti-intellectual movement in America. Enjoying opera is tantamount to heresy among those who fashion themselves true patriots. Susan Jacoby, author of "The Age of American Unreason," argues that this anti-rationalism is rooted not just in a lack of knowledge but in an arrogance about that lack of knowledge. "The problem is not just the things we do not know ... it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place." How revealing it is that anti-intellectuals claim to esteem Enlightenment thinkers John Locke and Thomas Jefferson yet steadfastly refuse to be enlightened themselves.
Anti-intellectualism denies us a world of experiences that push us to be our best selves, and its outdated, hollow criticism of opera's "elitism" prevents us from learning from someone truly superb. In this era of YouTube, opera is accessible to anyone with an internet connection. You need not have facility with language; it doesn't take mastery of Italian to appreciate virtuosity. You also don't have to spend gobs of money, travel far or waste a precious summer evening watching young opera singers valiantly attempt to sing about the French and Indian Wars. You simply need to choose a more pleasing clip on your electronic device of choice.
Do something bold today. Stare down the anti-intellectuals by enjoying Diana Damrau's unparalleled talent and then tell your friends about it. Excellence should be shared around.