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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, June 13, 2016

On Orlando, the Opera and Growing Up in Brooklyn

A reflection on fear, terror and the massacre at Pulse.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Frame-grab from The Simpsons episode "Bart the Genius"
© 1989 Gracie Films/20th Century Fox.

When I was a kid, you didn't talk about going to the opera.

My parents took me to my first four operas when I was nine years old, and when I was a student at a private school in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. And I learned quickly that Turandot and La bohème were subjects best avoided on the schoolyard.

I had enough problems as a kid. My mom and dad meant well, but they were two generations older than I was. And they had their issues too, including a running battle with cancer that my Dad ultimately lost in 1985. Opera was a summer treat for us, a visit to the then-New York State Theater in Lincoln Center, an ice cream cone and a few acts of Verdi. But it was a secret pleasure.

I grew up in Sunset Park, but went to school in Bay Ridge. As the "other" kid from the "bad" neighborhood, I had a lonely childhood. And I loved music classes but quickly learned to be embarrassed about my singing voice, and to not show too much enthusiasm while participating lest one be mocked for it or worse yet chased and beaten up.

I learned fast. I learned that you could not, must not tell your classmates that you enjoyed La Traviata, Candide by Bernstein or Carmen by Bizet, even if you didn't quite understand every nuance of those works. I learned that you could talk about music in peripheral terms, maybe like Bugs Bunny or Star Wars. And I played trombone, so that helped a little being in with the "uncool" band kids.

However, you could not mention to your schoolmates that you'd been to the opera that week because deep down you were afraid of labels: "queer", "homo", "faggot." Those who knew me in high school knew that I was pretty careful about my interest in opera early on, despite taking my first-ever girlfriend to Le Nozze di Figaro at the City Opera for our first-ever date. (It didn't work out. Now, we're friends on Facebook.)

When I started college, I ran into another round of disacceptance and flat-out homophobia--even though I was a heterosexual kid (and still am.) I I had a roommate who used to question my sexuality (I was a 17-year old virgin, confused about things and unable to communicate what I wanted or was "into.")

One night, lying in our dorm beds, he whispered...."Hey Paul. Are you a...faggot?"

I was outraged. my own bedroom.

I responded: "Come over here and find out, big boy."

And then I moved out of the dorm for a few days. Still went to my classes. My floormates thought I was dead. And yes, part of me was.

Sophomore year, I got a new roommate, a considerable upgrade. I started taking music as an academic subject so I could finally talk about opera and art. At 19,  I finally found like-minded people on the early stages of the Internet. And I started buying opera recordings and blasting them out of my dorm room. In my 20s, I found those people for real and started my career.

In the aftermath of Sunday's massacre in Orlando, Florida, it's been hard to know what to write. Bit for those of you like myself in shock at this horrifying act, I want you to know that I know what it's like to have terror. I know what it's like, in the wake of Orlando to be afraid to go outside. And I know what it's like to feel like you don't  have a safe place to live, or a place to land, and to live in fear of being judged all the time.

None of you are alone in this. None of us are.

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