[Jennifer Raiser is an avid long-time Burner, Burning Man Project board member, theme camp leader, and Black Rock Ranger. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Nob Hill Gazette and most often for her publication, SFWire.]
“How was Burning Man?” they inquire as I ascend the shallow red-carpeted stairs leading up to the Opera House. It is five days after Exodus, and I am reluctantly back in San Francisco, Center Camp of the default domain. I am here to mark the festive highlight of another tribe, the ninetieth annual Opening Night at the Opera. To some, this happy occasion commands the same kind of importance that we associate with Burn night. Tonight’s task is to write about the grand gesture of opera and the people who are its patrons. I am charged with distilling and interpreting the evening into an article to be read by those who attend, and those who do not. The dual role as enthusiast and observer is familiar. On playa, I am a passionate participant, a Ranger, a theme camp leader, a volunteer and an author; here, I am a friendly alien who comes from that arid planet near Gerlach and happens to pen a social column.
Acquaintances here are polite and prodding about the desert. They indulgently inquire about Burning Man in the same way you might bring up a shared alma mater, or a mutual love of licorice, knowing it is a certain conversation starter. Some truly want to know, some want me to know that they know, or think they know, about my annual retreat to my happiest (and saddest, and most demanding) place on earth. I try to disarm their suspicion with the comparisons between tonight and the burning of the Man. In both places, I remind them, like-minded spirits gather to share a communal dinner, enthusiastic dancing, and well-stocked bars openly coursing with goodwill. We are corseted and costumed in ensembles carefully curated for the occasion. We mark this artistic triumph with the biggest party of the year.
Many in the social set present the playa as a trope that will invariably invoke my enthusiastic response. They know I will pick up their thread to discuss gifting, or Leave No Trace (LNT), or the untarnished beauty of the desert as I ardently attempt to dispel their images of a somewhat derelict dance party. Nearly all know someone who has gone, a sister-in-law or mechanic or college-age child of a friend, but they are mostly incredulous that anyone would actually want to go. If you have only heard about the nudity, or the dust storms, or the portapotties, it sounds torturous.
“It’s my retreat week, my annual restart button,” I enthuse. “When you take away people’s money, and their running water, and their electronic devices, magical things happen. It is an intentional community, with art and participation and play. We build a temple covered with memorials and tributes written on every available surface….” I will go on as long as intermission or politesse will allow, all the while working to ameliorate the negative notions largely reinforced by my colleagues in the media. I am amused to observe their veiled struggle to imagine me as a furry-booted hippie raver. If only I were that cool on the playa.
We are back in Kansas, not Oz. My sparkly backpack has been replaced with a tiny but tempting apple-shaped minaudiere, and satin slippers substitute for my caked cowboy boots. The hair so recently raked into a straw broom by dust and Dr. Bronner’s has been tamed and teased into a weightless crown of bobby pins and hairspray. I am slightly ashamed that the hairdresser used more water to wash my hair today than I did to wash my entire self all week.
In the lobby, the playa provides a wise friend with whom I had shared a white-out storm exactly seven days and two hours ago. He was a goggled and bandanna’d newbie then, but identifies as a Burner now. He is already considering his costumes for next year, and proposes a theme camp concept. Like an invisible alkaline magnet, we are soon joined by another desert denizen, this one so passionate about her Burn that she wears a ring studded with tiny diamonds the exact color of playa. I introduce the two, and they share the knowing smile of a secret society. Our Skull and Bones is a Gate patch, not a Whiffenpoof. Over in the orchestra seats, I spy one of the Ranger shift leads squiring his girlfriend towards us, his khaki now transformed to black tie. The omnipresent epaulets of dual squawking microphones are absent on his sleek tuxedo. It is strange to introduce him by something other than his call handle. When he joins us, we admit that we are not sure whether we feel fabulous or fatuous to be radically included in this particular communal effort.
This experience of otherworldliness is not one-sided. On playa, I occasionally swap opera stories with a Ranger buddy, a reformed attorney who travels to La Scala and The Met when he is not volunteering or burning. In our camp chairs in Outpost Tokyo, we consider which performances to prioritize, which singers not to miss. It feels slightly subversive to refer to the nuanced ceremony of the contralto in this center of civic responsibility and self-reliance. In the same way, it feels contrarian to justify the violence of Thunderdome during this intermission, although ironically, that is also the reliable place to discover bel canto. “Ritualized combat is one of our touchstones,” I affirm. “I know it sounds strange, but organizing the battles serves a social purpose in our community.” Anthropologists, talk amongst yourselves.
The lights flicker as intermission ends. The performance resumes, the predictable tragedy unfolding as Rigoletto sings. Honor unravels. The good one dies, the bad one lives. As the curtain falls, I feel achingly bereft of the operatic experience that is BRC, with its dramatic, passionate, engrossing examples of human goodness and frailty. I am wistful, wanting to live within the heightened sensation of the performance, or the altitude and depth of the previous week. I struggle to honor the immediacy of this evening and all that it does offer. I conjure the feeling of riding my bike past the Temple at dusk to marvel at nature’s set design of scarlet sky and fiery sun. In that moment, I felt entirely present, completely alive as one inconsequential 52,385th of the known universe. Out there, sensations drift into your psyche with ease. Back here, they require more effort to grasp, and to integrate.
How was Opening Night? How was Burning Man? Each year, the ending will be the same. The heroine dies. The Man burns. And, if we are fortunate, we will remain fully present, ready to honor both. Normal life is neither playa nor opera, but within their intensity we can discern the deeply embedded lessons that will sharpen our ordinary experience. Our challenge is to truly inhabit this evening, and every evening, with the vividness of a playa sunset, the sweeping emotion of an aria, and the wonder that we are alive to experience them all.
Sidney Erthal – Burning Man Photos
Neil Girling: the Blight – Burn Night Photo
Drew Altizer – Opera Photos