• A Unique Art Form for a Unique Type of Mind: Experiencing Opera with Asperger’s Syndrome

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    In honor of World Autism Awareness Day, I’ve decided to write about what opera has meant to me in light of my Asperger’s Syndrome.


    When I fell in love with opera at age fourteen, I was a textbook Aspie. I had no friends my own age and no desire for any. I was being homeschooled, because actual school had become unbearable for me. When I had gone to middle school in the preceding years, I was always “the quiet one” who never played with the others at recess or expressed much opinion about anything. Which would probably surprise anyone who knew me in elementary school before that, because then, I was the girl who cried and had tantrums like a five-year-old even at age ten, and had been shifted from school to school and teacher to teacher because few people really knew how to handle me! If you want an explanation of that change, look up the Intense World theory of autism. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t have muted emotions or respond less to emotional stimuli than other people do: just the opposite, really! I had tremendous emotions inside me, but as I learned that fully expressing them in public was considered inappropriate, and as I realized I had nothing in common with most people I met, I responded by effectively shutting down.


    Opera, though I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, appealed to me because it spoke to my inner passion. Everything is heightened in opera. The music gives greater voice to feeling than any spoken dialogue can and prevents the singers from holding back in their emotional expression. No one disdains anyone for being “emo.” (Except in Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which is why it may be a while before I review any recordings of it here, despite the fact that I wrote my senior thesis about it – as someone who still struggles with emotional control, I don’t find it easy to listen to an opera where the effective message is “Self-control = good, emo = bad.”)


    For example, compare Violetta’s death scene in La Traviata (particularly in Zeffirelli’s film version, which solidified my growing interest in opera into full-blown love) to its equivalent in Greta Garbo’s Camille (which I already knew due to the excerpts shown in the movie version of the musical Annie). The Camille death scene is quiet and subdued, as is well and good for Hollywood: Garbo “goes gentle into that good night,” Robert Taylor doesn’t cry until the very end, and it’s underscored by sweet, gentle music. Verdi, Piave and Zeffirelli’s take on the same scene… oh my God! Tears streaming down Plácido Domingo’s cheeks, Cornell MacNeil shaking with sobs, even Teresa Stratas’s Violetta herself crying and lamenting her own fate in abject anguish, and every emotion enhanced by Verdi’s sweeping, pounding, gut-wrenching score. Not that I don’t appreciate dramatic restraint – I do, especially now that I’ve matured. But even at its most restrained (which is a rare phenomenon), opera gives voice to the feelings that the real world teaches us to suppress. This is why I’ve never agreed with people who say “Opera is all about beautiful music; ignore the silly plots.” As far as I’m concerned, opera is a magnificent form of storytelling, and that’s the chief reason why it appeals to me.


    At the same time, the stylized nature of opera creates a certain amount of distance that makes it more comfortable for me than purely realistic drama. Real-life tension and emotional intensity is very hard for me to deal with, more so than it is for most people: again, see the Intense World theory of autism. I don’t generally care for movies, or even straight plays, because spoken drama feels like real life and all-too-real turmoil playing out in front of me. Opera is different; as are musicals, which were my passion before I found opera. Let me go back to the example of Camille vs. La Traviata. In the money scene, when I hear Robert Taylor yell at Greta Garbo, it almost physically hurts: a real, ugly confrontation seems to be taking place, in what looks and feels like the real world, and I almost feel as if I were the one being emotionally attacked. The Camille excerpts were always my least favorite part of Annie just for that reason. In Traviata, though it still hurts to see Alfredo turn so viciously against Violetta, however temporarily, the fact that he sings it makes it easier to bear. I can get involved in the story without losing sight of the fact that it’s a performance: without it seeming too real and without the “Intense World” effect kicking in. That distance that singing creates is probably the reason why some people just can’t enjoy opera or musicals as drama. They want pure realism. But to my differently wired mind, the appeal of opera lies in a paradox. It gives voice to all the passions of humanity, yet cushions them in a way that makes them comfortable, even beautiful to see and hear, which they often aren’t when people let them out in real life.


    Ever since I discovered opera, it’s meant the world to me. It’s helped me learn about human nature, which I never had much success doing through real-world social interactions. It’s led me to make friends who share my passion. It gave me my niche in college when I chose Music History as my major. It’s given me something to share with the world and a means to connect with other people. I only hope that through my writing and my Opera Quest program for schools, I manage to share my love of opera with other Aspies and people on the autism spectrum – the unique art form just might speak to their unique minds just as strongly as it has to mine.

    • Fascinating, this. I know it’s a cliche, but: Thank you for sharing! But I’m curious, if the Traviata film is what won you over completely, what was the very first opera that caught your attention at all?

      • The first was “The Magic Flute.” Then “Madame Butterfly” after that. B.J. Ward’s comedy/music CD “Stand Up Opera” also helped things along.

    • Thank you for sharing how your discovery of opera has enriched your life! You are very brave to be so open in sharing your Asperger experiences. Your insights into both opera and your reaction to it show an understanding beyond your years, and I am so proud of you. Blessings on you! xo

    • Brilliant, heartfelt, authentic, gutsy and oh so deep.. This should be presented to the Autistic community…

      I think this is why children with autism relate so well with horses…because their “big” suppressed emotions can pour out into the large animal..and they feel so relieved…so healed….Horses, like opera, appeal to the aesthete, the dramatic and the expressive in us…

      There is a heroic element to horses which is similar to opera…on the grand stage of life.

      So moved by what you wrote here…so deeply moved…

    • This is a deeply moving and important statement about how opera touches you, and it is written beautifully. I think you have expressed the power of art for most of us in our lives.
      I, too love opera, but am not nearly as knowledgeable as you are. I look forward to learning from you.
      After my Mother died, it took several months for us to have a memorial service. I was with my sister and brother in law, and we were mourning. But the tears and the deep relaxing breathing didn’t occur for any of us until we decided to end a day watching La Boheme. Letting ourselves unclench and express the sorrow was a healing moment.

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