Home > Uncategorized > Genre, Gender, Metal, and Opera on “America’s Got Talent”

Genre, Gender, Metal, and Opera on “America’s Got Talent”

Without Facebook (Thanks, Resha!) and online videos, I would have missed an intriguing (albeit indirect) convergence of music from two very different genres. A fan of musicians like Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie, 19-year-old Andrew De Leon appeared on America’s Got Talent to sing a bit of “O mio babbino caro” from Giacomo Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi.

Judges Howard Stern, Sharon Osbourne, and Howie Mandel expressed unanimous admiration for his efforts, preferring them over another contestant’s butchering of “La donna è mobile” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto.

Watch out, Florence Foster Jenkins!

I suspect that some classical purists are grumbling about how this segment dumbs down opera to bits for TV entertainment. To some extent, I understand where this assessment comes from. Yes, it would be nice to give opera more air time, and not just as some token nod that degrades it to some “high culture” pedestal. (Speaking for myself, Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” Tosca is more my speed, even though it admittedly isn’t for everyone, as the villainous Mr. White archly observed in Quantum of Solace.)

But, a dismissive attitude towards De Leon’s moment of fame seems rather elitist, harsh, boring, and lazy, ignoring some more intriguing questions that emerge. Mainly, how can (and why might) someone with a “goth” sensibility, who presumably listens to songs like this, perform an opera piece?

In the AGT segment, De Leon doesn’t make the connection when giving his brief autobiography. It’s a necessary part of the narrative: The element of surprise, which builds up over the course of a few minutes as he confesses to never having sung in public before, and banters with Stern, Osbourne, and Mandel before diving into the Puccini. It relies on the culturally-conditioned tendency to emphasize differences among music from different genres: Manson and Zombie are mentioned early on, and De Leon has cultivated a look that draws upon the former. Furthermore, based on Wikipedia’s “crowd-sourced” genre categories, both are associated with “alternative metal” and “industrial metal.” And then, from his mouth emerges opera! How can that happen? How could metal possibly connect with opera? De Leon doesn’t elaborate much, but he provides a few clues:

Growing up, I was alienated. Because I was never interested in athletics, or what everybody else in my family was interested in. Singing was always an escape. It was always a comfort zone.

And, after stating that he had never sung in front of anyone else before:

I think my days of being shy and being an outcast have reached their end, and I’d like to be able to really show what I can do.

In the first quote, he specifically mentions alienation from his family. In the latter, he more broadly states his sense of “being shy and… an outcast.” Might that imply a broader sense of alienation from peers? Might his musical inclinations have some connection with that? I suppose it can vary by specific contexts, but there are preconceived conventions about what people “should” listen to if they’re part of certain milieus (Pierre Bourdieu, habitus, and all that…). While easily pegged by some as music for “rowdy youth” or even “Satanists,” Manson and Zombie can have a special appeal to those who feel that they don’t quite fit in with their environment. Or is it the other way around? Are you an outsider because you listen to such music, or do you listen to such music because you’re an outsider? Taking it a step further, opera (and, by extension, classical music) is an even stranger musical inclination for adolescents. People at that age are “supposed to” enjoy rock, including stuff like Manson and Zombie. As for opera, they at best tolerate it, and develop an acquired taste later in life to indicate some degree of refinement and settling down… at least if they achieve an appropriate social and economic status.

In this connection, there’s a social affinity between both metal and classical music. Although not technically the same as opera, I mention classical because the two are usually yoked together. A 1990 study by Ernest A. Hakanen and Alan Wells identified so-called “adolescent music marginals,” specifically mentioning metal and classical within the title (along with jazz and country). While based within a very specific socio-cultural context, it’s interesting to note which genres are highlighted in the title. Furthermore, work by music psychologist Adrian North has found that people who listen to metal and classical share some personality traits. A Daily Mail article mentions such commonalities as being “creative, at ease with themselves and introverted,” along with obsessive about their music and possessing “a sense of theatre.”

Adding another dimension to De Leon’s performance is his choice of aria. “O mio babbino caro” (“Oh, my dear papa”) is sung by the character Lauretta, who is supposed to be portrayed by a soprano. In this sense, De Leon confounds both genre and gender conventions. This is not just a “cute” observation, as both words share some evident etymological roots; in fact, genre is the French word for gender. Also, from Georg Friedrich Handel’s Giulio Cesare to Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier, opera has a long history of gender bending, with women (and, earlier, castrati) portraying boy or young man parts. In a way, De Leon was following this operatic convention in his performance. And of course, there are the male rock stars who go as “Alice” and “Marilyn,” along with the emergence of “glam rock.”

So, is it odd for a male metal fan to choose a female opera role for a première singing performance, especially on a major television show? From a number of conventional perspectives, yes. But if one looks more deeply, it becomes odd to leave the stereotype “as is,” and not consider the potential connections between two seemingly different identities.

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