Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Night at the Opera

The first thing I noticed about the opera was that the entire theater staff was smiling. From the elderly doorman in his smart braided jacket that he might have inherited from Michael Jackson, to the ticket takers grinning as if they had daughters to pawn off, big smiles were everywhere.

The next thing I noticed was that tickets were $60. That explained the grins.

The Orpheum Theater in Omaha is a splendid venue, one of seven ornate sisters originally built for the vaudeville circuit. It is resplendent in velvet, gilded in sweeping gold arches. It has a central chandelier the size of a bread truck. If I paid $5 for a show and the performers didn't even show up, I would feel I got my money's worth just to walk around, craning my head at its magnificence.

Grinning ushers herded us to our seat. It was in my favorite area, the narrow side of the loge, where there's extra velvet and gilding and you can spy on the floor people. We were right behind the box seats, so I kept looking over my shoulder and imagining, if anyone started shooting, how I might save the day.

But the only person who needed shooting was the old lady right behind me. The minute The Marriage of Figaro began and the cast started bellowing and hiding behind chairs, she began uncrinkling candy. It is a miracle of acoustics that a candy wrapper can drown out a professional opera singer, and second miracle that Italian music makes old ladies hungry for hard candy. For whatever reason, they always unwrap it as slowly as if it were given to them in a concentration camp and they had to make it last a week. I have never seen anybody, young or old, eat hard candy outside the theater.

Maybe it wasn't candy. After ten minutes of slow, piercing crinkling, I began to suspect she was making cellophane origami gifts for all of her grandchildren. I turned around a couple of times to give her that Midwestern faux-polite look, a combination of "how do you do" and "I'm about to give you a beating," a look that translates to "Perhaps, ma'am, you don't realize you're being obnoxious."  She might as well have been engrossed in her knitting, and didn't react to me. Perhaps she was knitting cellophane mittens.

Being a Midwesterner, I seethed to myself and never actually said anything. During intermission, after pretty much everyone in the cast had taken a turn hiding behind a chair, we moved up to the coveted box seats, long on leg room and short on crinkling. I always think of John Wilkes Booth when I sit there, knowing that at the Orpheum he would never survive the jump. He would not land dramatically on stage, but crash deep into the orchestra pit among the percussionists, where he belongs.

WI had not seen The Marriage of Figaro before. I speak a little Italian, so I'm pretty sure nobody got married, although I confess I napped a couple of times in the third hour. I also concluded that nobody in that performance had any business getting married, not until they made up their minds who they were in love with.

I was surprised by the youth of the conductor. He appeared to be a high school senior. He looked nothing at all like Bugs Bunny. But with talent beyond his few years, his hands swept in graceful waves, and his baton punctuated the air. The orchestra, in perfect unison, ignored him.

The musicians were arranged by attitude. The French horn players, according to some tradition I don't know, were all wearing flannel shirts. The oboists all wore expressions that said they had just argued about Nietzsche, and lost. The flutists were predictably slender and pretty, erect in perfect posture, blissfully ignoring the raging battle over whether they should be called flautists.

I knew the opera would be three hours long. I check details like that before agreeing to attend, ever since I was ambushed by a four-hour performance of Madame Butterfly, which was fat with madames but not one butterfly. The performance was touted because a famous ceramicist, known for making giant spotted eggs, had been convinced to try his hand at costuming. When the fat lady sang draped in a muumuu with large black spots, my mind drifted to Ben & Jerry's.

Soon came the moment I was waiting for, the reason I attended. My dear friend appeared on stage. He was among the chorus members, handsome in his newfound ponytail. Other ponytails in the cast looked suspiciously like they came from a Paul Revere costume. His rich baritone swelled to fill the open space as he moved with the confidence of Keanu Reeves.

The entire cast was fit and trim. The only lady remotely pudgy hadn't sang a note in twenty minutes, so the opera's end caught me by surprise.

We lingered a bit after the show, admiring the elegant surroundings. The ushers spread out in a dragnet of black uniforms linked across the aisles. Their smiles had eroded into grimaces. They swept us up and ushered us out.

"Wait," I said to my date as we stepped into the cold air, away from the lobby and toward a martini. "I never heard Feeeg-ahhhh-roooh! Figaro-Figaro-Figaro-Figaro-Feeeg-ahhhh-roooh."


"That's The Barber of Seville," she replied. "Rossini. This was Mozart. Marriage of Figaro."

"Oh."

"The Barber of Seville," I asked after a few steps, "is the one with the rabbit?"

"Yep."

How does opera always find a way to make me feel stupid?

2 comments:

  1. I said the EXACT same thing at the end! "Melissa, where is the 'Fiiiiigaro!'?"
    "Barber of Seville."
    "...I missed that one."
    "Sucks for you."
    "...yep."

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  2. We once had an opera company in our small southern town. A very large cultured woman,with all the costumes in tow, moved here from out of state. She became the resident Diva, securing all the lead roles. She just couldn't pull off Madame Butterfly. The opera company closed. We sought culture elsewhere.

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