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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A night at the opera in Verona, or, When is opera not opera? When it's pure spectacle

We should have known this wasn't going to be a normal night at the opera when the crowd at the Arena at Verona started doing the Mexican wave. I'd only seen the Mexican wave at the football, so it was quite a shock - at the opera no less, but at Verona's Arena? But maybe that should have been less of a surprise, given that the ancient Roman amphitheatre - Italy's most perfectly preserved and built in AD30 - was a venue for gladiator matches long before it showed Aida. Admittedly, the opera hadn't started yet. Well, it had eventually begun after a lengthy delay of a couple of hours, as the mightiest and most foreboding black clouds we'd ever seen started rolling in before deciding to settle upon us. But then the performance was stopped soon after so the stage hands could batten down the set after the wind began to howl, knocking over an ancient Egyptian pillar or two that had so far stood the test of time. But the dramas had begun much earlier that evening...

When I'd gone to collect the tickets I'd been told would be easy to get from the press office, naturally they weren't there. Although I was encouraged to come back later while they would "see what they could do", when I returned there were no tickets, the opera was about to begin, and (despite showing my business cards and referring to the letters of commision I'd previously emailed; we were there researching guidebooks, you see), the guy in the press office melodramatically accused me of simply trying to get seats for free. I reacted appropriately, turning on my heels and storming off to the box office, determined to buy the most expensive seats left in the house and return to throw them in his face, then head off to dinner. However, when I asked the woman at the box office what seats were left and explained our predicament, she sincerely apologised - unfortunately there weren't any decent seats left, they'd sold out weeks ago, but she'd give me a couple of tickets up top for free! Thinking this must be karma, I forgot about the press guy and we charged in and hurriedly hiked all the way up to the top section to our giddy-inducing seats, well, um... steps. A couple of hours and a couple of beers later, and somewhat
lightheaded from the altitude, we were being rained upon as those around us rose and cheered with each Mexican wave.

We contemplated leaving several times, but we couldn't. We were working after all and needed to experience this. However, when Aida finally started, we were wishing we had. From those seats up in the clouds we could barely hear the opera. We could barely see it either, but we had expected that, however, we somehow expected the acoustics (or speakers) would carry the sound. No such luck. All we could hear were the giggles and nonsense-talk of the American teenage girls in the last row behind us as they sent text messages and took photos of each other on their cell phones. And just as the Mexican wave had begun so a tidal wave of bored chatter started. People began showing eachother their new iPhones and their holiday photos. Nobody could hear anything, but nor did they seem interested in watching either. It suddenly dawned upon me... the people up here weren't really there for the opera. It was all about the spectacle. If they had come for the opera they'd have bought the expensive seats down below weeks ago, the seats where you could actually see the stage and hear the sound. They just wanted to be able to say they'd been. Or to prove they had by showing their friends a photo.


Travel Muse said...

Wow that's no night at La Scala. It does look like a soccer stadium in the picture. My husband and I once went to a ballet performance in St. Petersburg where halfway through they stopped the ballet for a pas de deux and the entire audience started rythmically clapping along. We were astonished. It was absolutely wild.

Lara Dunston said...

You're right - this was an altogether different experience to La Scala! And the worst thing was that we'd been to La Scala just a couple of weeks before so the experience was fresh in our mind.

But your St Petersburg experience sounds wonderful! We also saw ballet there and it was fabulous. I had so many memories of my uncle (who lived there for many years) telling me about how he loved going to the ballet and being so close you could hear the ballerinas slippers on the wooden floor, and we got great seats there and it was the same! Wonderful stuff!

Travel Muse said...

The St. Petersburg trip was a special birthday gift from my husband and I don't believe I've ever been more seduced by a City. I loved everything about it!

Lara Dunston said...

Hi TravelMuse - how lucky you were! It's such an enchanting city isn't it? I'm determined to live there for a bit one day and learn Russian - my grandparents are Russian and the fact I don't speak it is shameful!

Erica said...

Too bad you didn't get more out of the experience. Aida is terrific. I saw Aida (but not the opera, the musical) at Broadway a few years ago. I think this "They just wanted to be able to say they'd been." applies to lots of events and sights around the world. Some people are more interested to say, or brag, they've been somewhere rather than enjoying the experience only for themselves.

Lara Dunston said...

Hi Erica - Oh look I got a tonne out of the experience as a travel researcher and someone fascinated by why and how people travel.

And I love Aida. I'm mad about opera in general and love a night at the opera as much for the rituals and setting, the theatres themselves, and the people-watching, as the performances.

But seriously I don't recommend that anyone serious about the opera go to the Arena at Verona unless they're going to buy the best seats - where they can actually hear and see the performance!

Yeah, bragging rights is big for a lot of travellers, you're right. But we all get a bit of a kick out of that sometimes, don't we? The thing I hate is when it's at the expense of the actual experience. Hmmm... might have to do a post on that one too! Thanks once again for the inspiration! :)