At the opera with the FT: Gay Talese

Gay Talese has hated opera for almost all of his 78 years. The legendary journalist’s father, a tailor, played it all the time in his shop in Ocean City, New Jersey, and at night, after dinner. “For Italian-Americans, opera was about the only respectable thing they had going for them,” Talese says. “Otherwise, it was just mafia, mafia, mafia. And, of course, Mussolini.” The young Talese wanted to be American, not Italian, so he resented the Verdi and Puccini, this soundtrack to the boyhood he didn’t want to have. And yet, here we are, more than half a century later, going to see La Traviata.

With its sweeping red velvet staircases and crystal snowflake chandeliers, the Metropolitan Opera is perhaps one of the more suitable backdrops the world has offered up for Talese: it is, at least, one place where his unsurpassed elegance is not quite as much of a reproach to everyone else and their slovenly ways. We are talking, after all, about a man who dresses in a three-piece suit and cufflinks to go to work writing downstairs, in his study, alone. Tonight he is resplendent in a navy pinstriped suit, an orange and yellow polka dot tie, a red satin pocket square, a red scarf and a hat that conjures the 1950s newspaperman he once was. With famous pieces such as “Frank Sinatra has a Cold”, published in 1966, Talese was one of the founders of the “New Journalism”, and has since written many popular and controversial books, such as Thy Neighbor’s Wife, about freelove in America, and Honor Thy Father, a portrait of the Bonanno crime family in the 1960s.

Talese stopped hating opera exactly three years and two months ago, when a friend takes him to see a rehearsal of War and Peace, and he finds himself eating a hamburger in the cafeteria of the Metropolitan Opera, where the singers, stagehands and electricians eat, and he sees a blonde sitting at a table. He strikes up a conversation with her, and it turns out Marina Poplavskaya is an opera singer from Moscow.

He invites her to his Christmas Eve party. She tells him about intrigues between singers. And later they travel together to Moscow, Barcelona and Buenos Aires for a piece he ended up writing about her for The New Yorker. “She is a free woman,” Talese says, “moving, travelling. She liked hotels.” Talese’s journalistic interests always have a romantic tenor: he wants to know people’s stories the way other people want more ordinary things like love or money or success. He wants to know how Poplavskaya transforms herself from an average woman buying apple juice on the Upper West Side to Violetta on stage in front of 4,000 people. So it is his interest in one sturdy young opera singer, with hair the colour of corn hanging 3ft down her back, that brought him to opera, or more precisely, back to opera.

This is the third time Talese has heard this particular performance of this particular opera: the first in rehearsal, then on New Year’s Eve, and now here again. Everything for Talese is a passion, an obsession; he is never a little bit interested in anything. He has, at the venerable age of 78, considerably more intensity, energy and curiosity, than most of us can muster at any stage of life.

Of all the things Talese has been attacked for in his life – and that would be many, many things, from sexism to immorality – one of them would not be a lack of charm. After the first act, in the midst of the surprisingly diverse, well-dressed crowd, we run into an acquaintance of mine, a banker I hardly know, and within a few minutes, Talese has bought him a glass of champagne, and launched into his journalist’s questions. He asks the banker when he met his wife, how long he had been married, why she wasn’t with him, and whether they were happy, but all with such flattering attention, such sublime tact, such dazzling friendliness, that the banker has not noticed that he has become The Story.

I myself had two secrets I had resolved not to tell Talese. Before the end of the evening I have told them both to him, in great enormous detail, plus another I didn’t even know I had. When did I tell him? At the bar, where we stopped for a few minutes for a Scotch and a brownie? While we were sitting in the seats waiting for the opera? I don’t know what I was thinking. It is futile to resist. There will come a point in any evening with Talese where you will want to please him and give him what you have, which is an anecdote, a secret, a narrative, and even the opera, gorgeous and distracting as it is, will not prevent the inevitable.

. . .

This is a stark, modern Traviata, with Violetta in a red cocktail dress, and a plain white stage, with a giant, menacing clock. But the opera still manages to be lavish, over the top. What Talese loves about opera is what Talese loves about everything: the stories. “The stories are our stories,” he whispers later, “the betrayal, the affairs, the searching, the unhappiness, the misalliance, the sexual indiscretions, the love.” There in the strains of the music is Violetta dying of love and tuberculosis; there is, Talese points out, the headlines of all of our New York tabloids that day involving the sexual misconduct of a football player; there is the banker and the affair, and the hidden discontents, which Talese has, during intermission, unearthed; there is his own 50-year marriage to the editor Nan Talese, which he is currently writing a book about.

While he was writing his article about Poplavskaya, she would give him her iPod, and play opera. He recognised the music, he somehow retained the sounds for all those years. But it was the sound of his boyhood, and he didn’t resent it anymore. If Talese were sentimental, he might think he was making some sort of peace with his father, but Talese is not sentimental.

The curtain falls. The audience stands. Poplavskaya, risen now, after what Talese calls “her slow motion mortality”, takes a low dramatic bow. People turn on their cellphones, and think about taxis, and reach for their coats.

I would, of course, go anywhere with Talese, like to the corner bodega to buy a carton of milk. But the opera is better.

Katie Roiphe is a professor at New York University. Her latest book is ‘Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Marriages’ (Dial Press). ‘La Traviata’ runs at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, until January 29.

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.