20. September 2022 · Comments Off on Memories of the Opera · Categories: Memoir

The local classical station was playing the overture to Lehar’s Merry Widow operetta just now, and I was reminded once again of how very, very popular that musical was, in that halcyon period before the Great War, which turned out to be World War I, the first in an ongoing series. The melodies were infectiously toe-tapping and hummable, the operetta itself, incredibly popular – everyone went to see it; essentially a blockbuster about eighty years before the concept was invented for movies. The music went around the world; it seems that nothing presented on stage was so insanely popular until at least half a century later. Musical historians estimate that it got produced around the globe in every single city with pretentions to a music industry, and got tied into advertising everything from woman’s hats, to corsets, chocolates and whatever.

And when the Girl Scout troop that I belonged to went on a grand European tour – of the student charter flight-youth-hostel-EurRail variety – in the summer of 1970, we went to the Vienna Opera and watched a stage production of the Merry Widow … from the very top balcony, because we were all teenagers and on a budget. I don’t think that there were seats for us in the nosebleed row – it may have been standing room only. The view of the stage was amazing – honestly, the leading ladies’ decolletage looked as big as a tea-tray, from a vantage point so far up in the eaves and looking almost straight down at the stage. (It was standing room also when we went to see a performance of Richard III at the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford. I still have the program for that: Patrick Stewart was in the cast. When I went to the science fiction conventions in Salt Lake City in the mid-1980s and mentioned this to someone standing in line to get an autograph from Armin Shimerman, they said that I should go to a Star Trek convention where Patrick Stewart was appearing and freak him the hell out by asking him to sign it. Eh.)

I was one of those in the group who had a somewhat imprecise grasp of German, and also a knowledge of classical music, so it was bound on me to tell the other girls in whispers exactly what was going on, plot-wise. Which was a fairly simple task, based on what I already knew, thanks to being marinated in classical music, thanks to Mom, who had KPAC on all day, every day. The music was the important element, though – I think we all left humming the main waltz theme.

We were staying in a youth hostel in Esterhazy Park, not very far from the opera house – an old Nazi air raid shelter, which is now a dungeon museum. Probably a much more suitable use for the place. I rather liked Vienna, all things considered – it reminded me most of London, with ancient churches, palaces and parks around ever corner, all dusted with the faintly shabby air of an empire long gone.

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