What should you do when you plug “opera” into the Twitter search engine, and the username “Opera Rat” pops up? Isn’t it obvious? You click “Follow” — immediately.
I love funny people. As far as his affection for opera goes, Roberto Romani, aka “Opera Rat,” is the real deal. It may also interest you to know he has loads of personal appeal and can be as fiercely snarky as a Moray eel. He’s curt, terse and pithy, and a real word smithy, too, which he comes by via both inclination and education.
(Okay, I’m done rapping. Any more internal rhymes, and I’ll be dragged away by the Middle-Aged-White-Women-Can’t-Rap police.)
Most importantly, Roberto shares my viewpoint about opera–that it is a very accessible performance art and shouldn’t be relegated to elite audiences.
His moniker, “Opera Rat,” captured my imagination. So, I invited him to appear on “opera-toonity.” I had to know. Was “Opera Rat” a play on the word opeRATic? Did he have a love/hate relationship with opera? Was he a squatter in a big old Midwestern opera house sneaking prop food?
Turns out the answer was d) none of the above. So why does he call himself Opera Rat? Admit it. Your curiosity is piqued. Read on, my friends.
First, let me say I’m delighted to have you meet my readers on Sunday Best, Roberto.
1. Fans of Opera Rat are dying to know more about your username. Why Opera Rat? As opposed to Opera Lion or Opera Devil? The only rats I know of in the classical realm are from classical music (think ‘Nutcracker’). Isn’t Opera Rat oxymoronic? I started my career as a sportswriter, and in covering basketball I heard the term “gym rat” – someone who doesn’t have much talent but who loves the sport and is always hanging around the gym. That’s what I’m going for: a take on opera from someone who isn’t an insider, who doesn’t have musical education or credentials, who just loves being at the opera house. Everyone is asking about the name. I should probably put something on the blog about it. I suppose the worlds of basketball and opera don’t overlap enough for people to get it.
2. If my fact-checking is correct, it seems as though your embrace of Social Media (Twitter, blogging) is a recent pursuit. What was the impetus for the foray? I was ill for a week with a throat infection and no voice, which is hell when you’re a teacher. Sitting at home bored I started surfing opera sites and ran across some links to great tweeting on opera. On a whim I started the OperaRat tweet to join the fun. The name turns out to be fortuitous because it says what I’m tweeting about and it’s short, which I’ve learned is key for getting retweeted and building a following.
3. You started with Twitter and then migrated to a blog. Did you need more than 144 characters to convey the essential Opera Rat? Well, 140 characters is the perfect size for wisecracking, and at first that was enough, because I didn’t think I was qualified to be more than a wisecracker about opera. But opera needs to open up. It’s become too insular, too self-referential. I just read a review by a guy who was comparing a production of “Die Frau ohne Schatten” to the 15 previous ones he’d seen. Fine, but you start to lose the sense of awe and wonder that draws the regular person to opera.
4. What can Twitter and blog followers find/read at Opera Rat that they can’t find anywhere else? I’m aiming to bring that awe and wonder. I want my blog to be a place where anyone who’s discovered opera can find fun and enthusiasm and camaraderie. There’s not much out there for opera fans who aren’t necessarily know-it-alls, who go to the opera as much for the thrills and chills as to develop their taste or intellect. It’s a shame, because opera, historically, was not highbrow entertainment, as you can tell from the sensational subject matter. I think opera is still the user-friendliest of all the fine arts because it has a story to follow. Eventually I’d like to contribute in offline media too, but not the opera press – I’d love to write about opera for Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone.
5. Why do you teach where you teach and what do you teach? Anyone who can teach college anywhere is lucky. I’m even luckier because I teach at my alma mater, the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin. I’m also the main advisor there, which is a blast. It’s rare to teach where you went to school – colleges don’t like hiring their own graduates as teachers, too incestuous. But I’m a lecturer teaching from professional experience outside the ivy, not a research professor. During my career I morphed from a reporter into a PR guy, doing political and issue advocacy, and that’s what I teach now: strategic communication. But the academic job has allowed me to go back in civilian life to writing and reporting, which I love.
6. You’re cheeky, what with your Fantasy Opera League and Golddigger Night ideas. Where did you get your sense of humor? I bought it off Laughs.com. It was pricey but they gave me free shipping.
7. Did you start listening to opera as a kid? When did opera overtake your life (I mean, I know it overtook your NCAA bracket)? I started listening to opera as a kid, against my will. My mother is from Italy and she played it in the house. I didn’t like it – it sounded like women screaming and men yelling. But it must’ve given me a dormant bug. About 10 years ago I got bored with rock music and started listening to classical radio and was immediately fascinated with opera. Then I went to a couple of shows and felt the tingle and it took off from there. The funny thing is, rock has bounced back lately, and there’s so much access now with the Internet, it seems like music in general is taking over my life, not just opera. A couple of days ago on a trip to the Twin Cities I discovered Minnesota Public Radio’s fantastic progressive rock and classical radio stations, and now I’m streaming them through the Internet into my house and car and downloading music left and right. It’s sensory overload but it’s great. I’d write about rock too but it’s adequately covered. Opera isn’t.
8. Do you like modern opera as much as classic opera? I admire a lot of the modern stuff but I don’t love it. I wish modern composers were writing in a more traditional style, with melodies you hum later. On the other hand, too many of the classic operas have insane story lines. If modern composers would marry an accessible musical style with updated storytelling, I think opera would explode. A couple of weeks ago I saw “Elmer Gantry” at the Florentine Opera in Milwaukee and that’s the sort of modern show that could make opera back into popular entertainment. The crowd went berserk over it. But it’s not a sellout – it’s classical music.
9. Any faves – titles, composers, performers? It changes. When I first got into opera it was exclusively the bel canto stuff my mother brought from Italy: Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini, Verdi. Then I had a phase with Eastern Europe: Janacek, Tchaikovsky. Last month I saw Berlioz’s “Damnation of Faust” at the Lyric in Chicago and was knocked into the aisle by it. So now I’m on a French jag, though Berlioz wrote in more than just a French style. If I had to pick an all-time favorite composer it would probably be Donizetti, with “Lucia di Lammermoor” my favorite opera. I’ve still never seen it in person. I just can’t seem to cross its path at the right time.
Thanks for your time, Opera Rat. And continued good luck as you build your social media platform. Here’s hoping a production of “Lucia di Lammermoor” soon crosses your path.