American Sociological Association

The Opera Fanatic

Claudio E. Benzecry, (Honorable Mention) for The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of an Obsession

How to explain the love for opera? How to analyze how and when a taste becomes a passion? To answer these questions, Claudio Benzecry enters the world of the standing rooms of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. Based on a multiyear ethnography, interviews and archival work, The Opera Fanatic analyzes how a cultural product usually considered as esoteric, exclusive, and exclusionary can become a constitutive part of personal identity.
While most sociological answers have focused on how class predicts the access to cultural consumption, or how participation in a cultural activity can be exchanged by resources, connections, and possibilities for upward mobility, this book focuses on taking “the love for” reported by the fans at face value; understanding love as a social form, as a moral career, as a narrative that people build about themselves, and as an individuation process. Opera allows connoisseurs the chance to construct themselves through an intensive emotional bond and an experience of self-transcendence. In unearthing this experience, the book brings further complexity not just to the study of “elite” consumption but to the sociological study of culture at large.

Becoming a fan means getting to know opera and understanding what it means to be an opera lover. It entails making comparisons, associating and distinguishing one’s private responses from those of others. Benzecry is at his best in describing the bodily techniques opera amateurs have acquired for the construction of an intense aesthetic experience; though they learn collectively how to move, when to clap, and where to stand, they still close their eyes, attune their bodies, and plunge into it alone. As Randall Collins noted in his Contemporary Sociology review, “Benzecry’s vision of socially prepared solitudes opens a way for sociology to do justice to the things people love.”

Aiming to go beyond the case, the book generalizes to other similar practices of intense embodied attachment—what he calls “the love for”: collectors, sport and rock fans, and other kinds of “manias.” Identifying differences and similarities, Benzecry locates the importance of this study for Bourdieusian theory, symbolic boundaries, embodiment, and impression management. As such, the book brilliantly achieves the rare combination of rigorous ethnographic work with big theoretical ideas.

The book won the Best Book award from the Sociology of Culture section and a retrospective review essay in Contemporary Sociology included it among the “Ten Major Theory Books since 2000.” It has been translated into Spanish and is forthcoming in Chinese.