My turn came up; I would be accompanying M to the opera. He has been to a number of operas already, of course, but now he has companion tickets, and he’s looking for company. For the first time since we came to Berlin, M and I would be going out in the evening without the kids. A date.
This was a last-minute switch with S. She was the one who was supposed to see La Traviata with her dad. But for a number of reasons, including a biology test slated for the next day, I would go in her place. And I was not prepared.
“You haven’t even read the synopsis,” M said.
“I can find it!” said E, jumping up from her puzzle on the floor. She sat down at M’s laptop and proceeded to log in to the Metropolitan Opera website, and in a moment she had brought up the synopsis of La Traviata, the exact page he’d suggested. Eying her like she’d grown wings, I sat down beside her and started to read.
She may be astute enough to navigate the Met Opera website, but she is still seven. She stood next to me and talked the whole time I was reading. I asked her to please be quiet for a moment, but she couldn’t. I scanned the page to figure out the plot; I sorted out the characters: Violetta, the courtesan; the Baron, who takes care of her; Alfredo, who loves her; Alfredo’s father, who tries to drive them apart. And all the while Violetta is fading away from consumption, otherwise known as TB. I didn’t get much more than that, as this was like cramming before a test with an odd little teacher standing next to you asking “Are you done yet? Can we play now?”
M and I were nervous about leaving the kids alone for the evening, knowing they would have to put E to bed without a grownup around. It’s hard enough for me to put her to bed. Sometimes she digs in her heels and won’t fall asleep and keeps calling for us from her bed. The thought of the girls getting frustrated with her, E crying, the noise bothering the neighbors late in the evening, S unable to study for her test… the whole scenario seemed ill-thought-out and I wondered if I should stay home.
Over take-out Indian at the kitchen table, we talked about the kids’ school projects and we discussed the good behavior we expected in the evening ahead. S told us that she had a friend who wanted to come over to study for the biology test with her. E tends to be better behaved if a friend is over, so that seemed like a promising development. We talked about E’s new second-grade assignment they call “The Happiness Project,” in which the kids interview people about what makes them happy and try to understand the nature of happiness. C gave us an update about her play. And then it was time for us to leave.
M and I walked to Nollendorfplatz to reach the U-Bahn station. As we walked, he slipped into teaching mode and told me all about La Traviata and what to listen for.
He told me that the opera is a based on a play by Alexander Dumas about his lover. Verdi wanted the opera to be set in contemporary times, mid-19th century Paris, but the censors made him set it in the era of Louis XIV. Now of course it’s set whenever the producer wants it to be.
He told me it was a flop when it premiered in Venice. Today it’s one of the most popular operas around.
He explained that the arias are in AABA form, in which you hear the theme, then it repeats; you hear something different, then it’s back to the first theme. And he sang me a number of examples from the opera as we walked, and this made me very happy.
By now we were on the train, and it was fairly full, but he was just getting warmed up, so he ignored the passengers crowded around us and went on. He told me about how Alfredo’s aria has a recognizable line, and when Violetta starts to think she might love him back, she sings AAB, but where we expect A to return we instead get a C that turns out to be part of the song he had sung to her earlier. She tries to talk herself out of loving him in the next verse by reasserting her own line, but Alfredo’s voice breaks in from off-stage with the C again, casting doubt on her being able to live without his love. The English major in me appreciated all of these details.
The Staatsoper (State Opera) usually performs in a jewel box of a theater on Unter den Linden, but the building is under renovation this year, so they are using the Schiller Theater. This location is apparently far less opulent, but it’s still a theater; besides, it’s just fun to be out. I couldn’t believe how many young people were in the audience. The hall was packed and every seat was taken.
The production was in Italian with German supertitles. I was very glad I had an idea of what was happening from my crash course in Verdi on the way there. Every now and then I’d look up at the supertitles to try to read the words. They didn’t help me much, but I was amused to be able to read the phrase “torture myself” from the name of the quad I’ve been rowing in, “Quael dich.”
The production was modern, with some sort of screen wrapped over the entire front of the stage, a bit like a shroud, perhaps, and Violetta appeared on the otherwise empty dark stage in a dress that glowed from within through some kind of electrical wiring. It was eerie and awesome. She was a blonde wearing white, and every other character was dark-haired, wearing black. There was one chair in one scene; other than that there was not a single prop. There were only white lights on the floor, almost like highway strips, and there was a video element screening the entire time, casting oblique images like shadows of people dancing at a party, or the headlights of cars driving on the Champs Elysees in the rain.
At intermission we drank some apfelschorle and ate a pretzel, or rather M did, as I was still too full from the Indian take-out. I called home and talked to S, who told me in a whisper that E had just fallen asleep and all was well.
We returned for the third act, in which Violetta dies, though in this production things are somehow reversed and she is left standing while the men around her appear to be the ones who are dying, clutching their bellies and writhing on the ground. We heard some young people in the audience snickering behind us and I wanted to snap “It’s a tragedy, people!” but thought better of it. I think the idea was that the men were injured by their own callousness while she actually dies of TB. Anyway, there she was glowing in the dark again, and it was beautiful.
We followed the crowd out the door and returned to the U-Bahn station to go home. We couldn’t help but overhear a young British couple arguing as they waited for the train, and when the train finally came and we all got on, M pointed out that they weren’t sitting together. It made me rather sad to see the hurt look on the young woman’s face. Their falling out made it feel more like an accomplishment that M and I were still sitting beside each other after all these years.
We got home and all was quiet. We asked S how it was putting E to bed, and she told us that she, C, and her friend had sat on the floor around E’s bed singing songs to her, mostly Beatles songs like Hey Jude. When they finished, E, lying in bed, asked if they would get her notebook from her backpack. S told her it was late and she should go to sleep.
But E said, “We’re supposed to write down the things that make us happy. I want to write this down.” And so of course they let her.
I can’t help but think that M and I should probably go out more often.