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Classic Dilemma: How to Expose the Reluctant to the Arts


I n a memorable episode of "Cheers," the culturally overbearing Diane Chambers (Shelley Long) tries to talk the guys into joining her for an evening at the opera. They react as if she's suggested two years' worth of root canal work.

Sure, there are legions of male patrons of the arts, but what about that other legion that cringes at the thought of listening to an operatic voice sing anything but the national anthem at the Super Bowl? Is the opera/symphony/ballet anti-macho?

HE: This is a real soapbox issue for me. The arts are everyone's cultural birthright, and they identify us as a society more accurately and fully than even our common language. But so many people--in many cases men--avoid going to the symphony or the ballet or the opera because they see serious music and dance as something either mysterious, unfathomable or sissified. They're afraid they'll feel uncomfortably ignorant or patronized, and that they'll get ragged on by their friends.

I can't count the number of times I've seen guys' eyes snap open when they've heard certain pieces of music played for the first time. I have a friend who had given classical music a miss all his life and who became a rabid Mozart devotee after hearing his "Requiem" just once. It just hit him where he lived. He charged around for weeks, asking, "What other stuff did this guy do?" and making record store owners rich.

SHE: It's all in the family. If men and women grow up with the classics, they appreciate them all through life. When I was a tyke, I fell asleep listening to Puccini, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and the like. Great music was the centerpiece of our existence.

HE: Early exposure makes all the difference. But if that exposure convinces a boy that he's somehow odd if he'd rather play piano than play tailback, then he's bound to equate music--or dance, or art--with rejection or, worse, punishment.

We're a strange society that way. Here, if a boy wants to sing in the choir, he may get the needle for being a goody-two-shoes. In Wales, he'd get the needle if he didn't sing. Here, some fathers would rather see their sons torn apart by sharks than allow them to take up a career in ballet. In Russia, they'd give the kid a medal.

SHE: When I was a teen-ager, my boyfriend was invited to dance the ballet. His mother's best friend was a ballet teacher and she needed a muscular boy to accompany her female students.

John--an incredible basketball player--was mortified. I can still see him turning scarlet when he gave me the news. He was terrified of losing his macho image.

But he learned to love the discipline of the dance. He found that ballet required great strength, that it was a dance of athletes.

HE: Fortunately, I think we're starting to get beyond the idea that beauty equals weakness. I imagine there were more than a few athletes in the audience of the Joffrey Ballet's new production of "Billboards" this week at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. So far, in its run in San Francisco and Los Angeles, it's gotten broad attention as unconventional, sexy, even cross-generational. To wear a cliche further, it's apparently a ballet for people who don't think they like ballet. It's even been called a "date ballet" in the same sense that "Sleepless in Seattle" is a date movie.

This is all to the good, whether it stinks or soars. The payoff is that people are going to the ballet who might not have considered it before. And a few of them might be impressed enough to come back and check out the Joffrey a second time, and a third.

SHE: When it comes to opera-going, supertitles have made the difference for me. I love knowing what singers are saying!

My mother enjoyed operatic arias. They were frequently on the record player when I was growing up. And I was struck by the passion expressed in them. But, being a logophile (and a romantic) I longed to know what the singers were telling each other. It was frustrating.

Supertitles have also taught me there is a lot of comedy in opera. It isn't all death among the ruins.

HE: Those devices help the draw, true, but opera for real men has surely been kicked up several notches by the fact that three of the greatest tenors of the 20th Century are alive and in their prime at the same time. That spectacular bit of operatic male bonding that Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras did with Zubin Mehta at the Caracalla Baths was the musical equivalent of the Stanley Cup playoffs. All they have to do now is issue bubble gum cards.

SHE: OK, so an opera-and-ballet-adoring woman wants to talk her husband into attending a night of art. He says he'd rather stay home, quaff a little ale and watch the greyhound races. What would you tell him?

HE: That he's letting inertia and ignorance deprive him of something that has the potential to change his life for the better. The arts are life. They make us what we are. They define us. They offer us the opportunity to see our best selves mirrored in their performance. Ignoring them cheapens us and makes us spiritually poorer. The greyhounds will be there next week.

SHE: Did you hear that, honey?

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