11 August 2010

The Opera Hoodlums

Scene of the crime: The Music Hall at Dallas’ Fair Park

I confess I’m somewhat surprised by the reactions in Opera World to Glenn Beck’s recent tirade against American cities that continue to support the arts while basic services are being cut back in hard times. Apparently, Beck got all of his facts wrong, but we’re used to that, aren’t we? What strikes me is that we artsy elites are getting so defensive, when we know in our hearts that, facts aside, Beck speaks the truth.

If we’d just get rid of opera, symphony, theater, art museums, and after-school recreation programs, we wouldn’t need police. We wouldn’t need streetlights. America would be a safer place, because it’s precisely our cultural institutions that lead to delinquency and crime, especially among young people.

I could draw the connections for you, if I had a blackboard. It’s a well-known fact that Adolf Hitler liked opera, and thus we can see that anyone who likes opera is a Nazi. (People who like show tunes are probably, I don’t know, Socialists.) Street crime comes naturally to people like this. But I don’t need to reach far for examples. My own case illustrates the point.

I remember when it happened. I was 15, and I was attending a matinée performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, when something snapped.

“Life is nothing but moods and impressions,” I thought. “You can never truly connect with another person. What’s the point of living if you’re not going to seek out the most intense impressions you can get?”

In the darkened auditorium at Fair Park, I turned to my wingman, K-Vin. I had sensed that something was coming over him, too, something changing deep inside him, ever since the day, a few weeks before, when we’d gone to see the Van Gogh exhibition. While staring at the Portrait of Dr. Gachet, K started to shake. Within minutes, he’d knocked over a rack of postcards in the gift shop, and made saucy remarks to an old lady in the parking lot.

Now, as Frederica von Stade kept telling us she was not happy, the change in K was complete. I could see that he’d already begun to fashion a zip gun, using his playbill and some old ticket stubs.

Fort Worth’s Kimbell Museum:
We were looking for trouble … and paintings.

We didn’t exchange a word. We didn’t have to. We knew what we were going to do — what we had to do.

We’d probably have hijacked a bus, but in those days, there was no public transit in Dallas, and so we had to wait for K-Vin’s mom to pick us up. While waiting, I passed the time by signing false names to about a hundred raffle tickets for the Opera Ball, and K roughed up a theology professor from SMU, tying his shoelaces together and disproving the existence of God.

When K’s mom finally arrived, K stuck the zip gun to the side of her head and said, “Hand over The New York Review of Books, woman.”

Her eyes wide with terror, Mrs. P*** stammered, “I — I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

She’d scrimped and saved for that subscription, sometimes going without food and gallery openings just to afford it. I didn’t care. “Hand it over!” I barked.

“Boys — that stuff really isn’t for kids — ”

“Look, sweetheart,” K said in a voice I’d never heard before (though it closely resembled that of the legendary tenor, Fritz Wunderlich), “we can do this the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.”

She fumbled in her Channel 13 tote bag. “Here — take it!” she gasped, thrusting the magazine into my outstretched hands. “Just don’t hurt me!”

“That’s more like it,” I said. “Now take us to the Mansion at Turtle Creek. I got a jones for some crème brûlée.”

“And make it snappy,” K-Vin said. “There’s a Kurosawa retrospective at the Edison.”

So began our first spree. We didn’t get home until 9 that night. Mrs. P*** was never the same.

Neither were we.

The Edison is gone; the Inwood is all that’s left.

Soon, our gang expanded to include Karen, whom we called Anybody’s, not because she actually was anybody’s but because she liked West Side Story; Keith Kaski, who didn’t need a nickname because his last name was already kind of unusual; and Ben, whom we called K-Tel, because he collected record albums and because we had a thing for alliteration. Me? I was Killer … Killer Bill.

Our sphere of terror expanded, too. We’d check books out of the library, then return them to the wrong branch “by mistake.” We’d roam the streets, correcting other people’s grammar. We’d deface back issues of The New Yorker, blacking out the captions so the cartoons didn’t make sense anymore. We played Maria Callas and Ella Fitzgerald back-to-back. We read Proust — in reverse order — then gave away the ending to people who hadn’t read it yet. We had become what every community fears. We were ruthless, reckless, jejeune.

We hot-wired fuel-efficient, economy-size Japanese imports, drove them very slowly, gassed them up again, and put them back where we found them. We spoke foreign languages. Hell, we were such punks, some of us didn’t care whether the language was living or dead.

We went to galleries, the symphony, the ballet, Shakespeare in the Park. We ate in museum cafeterias. For the thrill of the moment, there was nothing we wouldn’t try — even endive. I’m not proud of that, but I’ve got to tell it.

Soon, we started doing the hard stuff.

You know what I’m talking about.


It’s a wonder I lived to tell the tale.

One by one, the gang fell apart after that. We lost K-Tel when he tried to exchange a boxed set of the Beethoven symphonies. “I want my Knappertsbusch!” he screamed as they led him away.

We lost Kaski to Abstract Expressionism and a girl who played the vibraphone.

And Anybody’s — well, you’ve heard how that turned out. Demon Kir.

I don’t want to talk about it.

One night, as K-Vin was spray-painting “Nietzsche is dead” in contrasting shades of teal and vermilion under the old Central Expressway overpass, he paused and said to me, “You think grownups will ever wise up?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“If only grownups would stop funding arts and recreation — stop giving kids a place to go where they can pick up dangerous ideas like Bergsonism and the Pythagorean chromatic scale — and basketball! If only they’d get us out of the library and back on the streets where we belong — then you and I might stand a chance of getting somewhere in life.”

That was the last time I saw him, before they caught him and sent him up the river to New Haven.

What a tragic waste.


William V. Madison said...

It should be noted that the top photograph is of Frederica von Stade as Mélisande; the lower photograph is of Teresa Stratas in the same role.

Mikebench said...

Brilliant, Billy! just brilliant... but I never knew of your troubled youth. I thought you turned bad later in life...... LOL

Seth said...

Thanks for this. I loved it! I particularly appreciate it being a youth who was saved from a dangerous path by the artform of opera.

Lincoln Madison said...

I recall a couple of occasions when I tried to rescue you from a life of culture and mayhem by pulling your opera records off the shelf and denouncing them as "poodle yapping" — but do I get any credit for my valiant efforts to correct your life's path?? What at the time was dismissed as a little brother's temper tantrum was in fact a last-ditch effort to steer you from Verdi and Bellini towards something more Fair and Balanced!

William V. Madison said...

Linc, I'm just grateful that you weren't lured down the path of opera-vice in your youth; I'm not sure how you escaped.

Anonymous said...

wonderful. had a good laugh!
rainer, germany

Joan Pask said...

It's too late for me, but can I recommend your brilliant commentary to my four young grand-daughters: Emma (16), Rosa (14), Violet (13), and perhaps most recalcitrant of all, because of her early attachments to reading, art, singing, and dance, Ingrid (6). All four are poised on the path to artistic and cultural elitism so dangerous to their development and to the well being of their fellow citizens.