Shortly after midnight recently at the Ontario airport, Shawnet Sweets stepped off a six-hour flight from New York, jet-lagged but giddy. Her weekend in Manhattan, she said, had featured a leak in her hotel room ceiling, followed by a move to a room with no heat. Still, the trip, for which she had saved for several months, had been an absolute success.
Sweets had seen soprano Elizabeth Futral at the Metropolitan Opera in the rarely performed 1835 work “La Juive,” an experience she described as beyond her expectations -- “Perfect.”
That verdict wasn’t altogether surprising. The 42-year-old Sweets is such a devoted follower of Futral that last year she put off buying a condo and instead used part of her savings to see performances by the singer in Chicago and Dallas. When the soprano sang the role of Cleopatra in Handel’s “Julius Caesar” at Los Angeles Opera in 2001, Sweets -- whose e-mail handle is “operageek” -- sat through the dress rehearsal and seven performances back to back. In all, she’s seen Futral 17 times. Despite an uneasiness about air travel, she now collects frequent-flier miles for the express purpose of what she calls “opera hopping.”
In the rock world, acolytes of the Grateful Dead have long been known as Deadheads. People like Sweets are highbrow Deadheads, who follow a favorite singer around the world, from city to city, opera house to opera house. They sometimes hang out backstage, and -- like their rock brethren -- collect T-shirts, posters, key rings and rare recordings. In Internet chat rooms, they trade tour schedules and bits of gossip.
Some go by monikers that are takeoffs on their idols’ names. A group of Placido Domingo buffs is known as Domingan Nuns or, less charitably, Domingo Dollies. Followers of Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli are Bartoli’s Buddies. There are Pavarotti Pushers and the Von Stade Vanguard -- fans of mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.
Others aficionados are nicknamed for their love of a particular composer. Richard Wagner fans are known as Ring Heads, a reference to the composer’s four-opera cycle “Der Ring des Nibelungen.”
Among these opera groupies, it is not unusual to find a dedicated fan who has seen Domingo perform 50 times and who spends several thousand dollars in any given year on air fare and concert tickets.
Opera is an increasingly popular art form in the United States: Over the last two decades, its audience has grown more than 40%. Last year, 6.6 million people attended at least one live opera performance.
Although the bread and butter of an organization such as L.A. Opera is season-ticket holders, one opera Web site that details upcoming seasons worldwide found that 60% of visitors to the site had traveled abroad the previous year to attend a performance. Such trips don’t come cheap, but by comparison with other performing arts audiences, operagoers are older and better off, according to a study by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Yet in pursuit of this passion, some fans make extreme sacrifices. Traveling to hear a beloved singer in a particular role, some incur years of credit card debt. Others simply suffer mockery, ridicule and alienation from impervious friends and family.
To see the Italian soprano Renata Scotto perform Puccini’s “Il Trittico,” a triptych of one-act operas about jealousy, death and greed, James Jorden, then 21, hitchhiked 18 hours from Baton Rouge, La., to Dallas.
“I walked out of that theater a completely different person than when I walked in,” he says. “It’s like falling in love: One moment you’re one person, the next moment you’re somebody else.”
A decade later, Jorden packed his belongings, sold his car and moved to New York. He had to experience Scotto’s last season as a leading soprano at the Met. He also saw her perform in Turin, Italy, on a trip that cost him all his savings and more. But as the sunglasses-wearing, bouquet-bearing diva came out after the show and Jorden said he had come from the U.S. just to see her sing, “she smiled and said, ‘I hope I was worth it,’ ” he recalls. “I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.”
Not that these die-hard fans expect everyone to get it.
Opera is like golf, says Ann Parkin. “It makes you ecstatic or bored rigid, but there’s no in-between.” The 61-year-old follows the young Spanish baritone Carlos Alvarez. She has heard him in concert 25 times, traveling to Vienna, Paris, Bonn, Washington, the Swiss cities of Geneva and Zurich and numerous spots in Spain -- Madrid, Malaga, Barcelona and Majorca -- from her home in London. Before she swooned over Alvarez, she was a fan of Domingo, whom she has heard in 50 performances over the years.
Despite her enthusiasm, her friends and two sons are mystified.
“People say, ‘I couldn’t bear all that screaming and all those fat people,’ ” she says, before explaining that the key to the experience comes down to suspending disbelief. “The stories are really stupid sometimes, but you just get swept away.”
Sherwin Sloan had seen rock bands such as Cream in concert, but that didn’t prepare him for Wagner’s “Ring,” a 15-hour German operatic epic inspired by Nordic mythology -- the story of the beginning and end of the world, complete with dwarfs and Valkyries.
“The first ‘Ring’ was overwhelming. I was very moved,” Sloan says. “My children asked me, ‘Is there something wrong? You haven’t spoken a word for three days.’ Well, ‘The Ring’ did this to me.”
After seeing the work, Sloan began listening to Wagner recordings obsessively. When the cycle had spun for a while, his teenage children’s concern deepened into despair.
It was time for intervention.
“They said, ‘We can’t take it anymore. It’s either “The Ring” or us,’ and I said, ‘I’ll help you pack.’ Next day, they bought me earphones.”
Since then, Wagner and opera hopping have become Sloan’s life. He has seen “The Ring” 63 times.
The retired ophthalmologist heads the Southern California Wagner Society, which he founded 20 years ago. But mostly he is on the road, conducting opera tours. Every summer, he takes a group of Wagner fans to Bayreuth, Germany, the original home of “The Ring.” Tickets to the festival there, excluding hotel and travel, begin at $1,000 -- if you can get them. There is usually a yearlong waiting list.
“The Ring” is performed over the course of the six days: “Das Rheingold,” “Die Walkure,” a night off, “Siegfried,” a night off and “Gotterdammerung.” (Clearly, the tetralogy is not for everyone. Tchaikovsky, who attended the premiere in 1876, later wrote that, when it was over, “it was like being released from prison.”)
Sloan has heard Wagner in Bayreuth; San Francisco; New York; Munich, Germany; Helsinki, Finland; Zurich -- even Adelaide, Australia.
“The ‘Ring’ fanatics are like those who followed the Grateful Dead around,” Sloan says. “You meet the same people all over the world.”
For Pat Beresford, “my baritones” are not distant idols, friends or acquaintances. They are family.
Growing up, she wanted “to be a singer in the worst way, and it wasn’t going to work for me,” Beresford says.
The retired book publicist, who lives in the Pacific Heights section of San Francisco, about a mile from the opera house, instead sponsors young singers.
“I’m realizing what I wanted to do through these young people,” says the 75-year-old, who estimates that she’s spent at least $70,000 on scholarships and other expenses for up-and-comers.
“It’s a lot of money, but what happens is, I’ll get a frantic phone call: ‘Pat, I’m maxed out and I have an audition in New York.’ ”
In addition to financial sustenance, she provides emotional support and the occasional tuxedo. Beresford, whose business card reads, “Opera mom,” also frequently travels to see singers when they perform important roles.
The payoff is simple: “I see women in their 60s, looking as if they’re ready for the undertaker. They have no fun. This gives me joy and adrenaline.”
For singers, on the other hand, attention from devotees can be overwhelming, even a bit scary.
“Sometimes you think people are stalking you,” says Futral. When it comes to some fans, “you hold them at arm’s length.”
Yet opera is nothing if not emotional, so perhaps it’s not surprising that fans are too, she says. And understanding and appreciating opera require an intellectual investment.
“Pop music is pop music because it’s so easy to consume,” Futral says by phone from New York between rehearsals. “An opera fan to me is a little more hungry.”
She has met Sweets only once and knows her mostly by the handwritten notes that the fan often sends after a performance. Futral says she appreciates such gestures, because they confirm that she has touched her audience. “She is the perfect opera fan,” the soprano says.
Sweets, though, doesn’t fit the typical opera audience demographic.
“I didn’t have a lot in common with the others,” she says of a recent post-performance dinner party in Dallas, where other guests were mostly white and rich. “Because I’m a black girl, they thought it was unusual. They asked, ‘Oh, wow, how did you get into opera?’ ”
Introduced to the art form as a young child by her grandmother, Sweets can still remember sitting in their Crenshaw district living room, watching Beverly Sills on TV and listening to scratchy records of German soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
Her grandmother promised: One day they would visit the Met together.
The older woman died before they could realize that dream. But when Sweets finally reached the famed opera house for the first time three years ago, she placed a picture of her grandmother underneath her seat. And together they saw Pavarotti in Puccini’s “Tosca,” about a monstrous police chief whose lust for the singer Tosca brings death to himself, Tosca and her lover.
Until recently, Sweets worked as a ticket seller for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, taking home $400 a week. Last month, she switched ticket booths, from the Phil to the Los Angeles Opera, a move that won’t save her money (the opera house doesn’t offer discounts for employees) but will enable her to watch dress rehearsals for free.
Sweets estimates that she spends a third of her income on opera. Last year, when she dipped into the money she had set aside for a down payment on a condo, her mother couldn’t understand it: “You’d rather have opera than a roof over your head?”
But opera has pervaded Sweets’ life.
The music has inspired her to take up the violin. She wants to learn Italian so she can understand original lyrics. Her down time is typically spent reading opera gossip on the Web. She recounts the story of one fan admitting he missed his son’s graduation ceremony instead spending the money on a Renee Fleming performance: “Some people on the list thought it was bad, but most were like, ‘Well, it was Renee Fleming....’ ”
She, for one, understands his passion.
“People think you have to be really sophisticated to listen to opera, but it’s all about emotion. We all have had love and lost it, or been so angry we’ve wanted to kill someone,” she says. And then there are those moments when a gifted singer brings a nuanced interpretation to a well-known role and makes it new.
Sweets was familiar with the story of Violetta -- the courtesan who sacrifices herself for the man she loves in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Then she heard Futral sing the part with Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa.
“My grandmother used to say, ‘One day you’ll see a singer who’s going to change the way you hear the music.’ ”
For Sweets, that was Futral.
“It was the same opera, the same notes. But it changed my life.”