Just a Bit of Fun at the Expense of One English Social Stereotype*

We went to London last week, and stayed in Fulham, where I lived for several very happy years.  For the information of non-Londoners, it’s an area in the South-West of the capital, a twenty-minute Tube ride from the West End and Theatreland.  Part of Fulham covers a stretch of river between Hammersmith Bridge and Putney Bridge.  A truly idyllic mile frequented by crows, seagulls, ducks, cormorants and herons.

When I first moved to Fulham, in 2000, I used to joke that the night bus 14 wasn’t as threatening as other London night buses because the drunks on that line were intoxicated by champagne.  Another joke I heard from more than one person (or perhaps it wasn’t a joke) was that the most frequent reason for admission at Chelsea & Westminster Hospital Accidents and Emergency was a cut to the hand caused by a large knife slipping while trying to remove the stone from an avocado.  There is a pub called The White Horse, but which the locals know as The Sloaney Pony.  That is a fair illustration of one of the social types that reside in that area.  Indeed, Fulham is filled with what, at the University of Durham, we called screaming, stonking ‘Rahs.  Again, for the benefit of those who have never had contact with this sub-group of the English middle classes, ‘Rahs are second and third-generation Sloanes.  In other words, the banknotes in their wallets are so new, you can still smell the ink a mile away.  ‘Rahs tend to speak with a plummy accent but not with the clarity of cut-glass English.  Their speech is sloppy, lazy, and their vowels half swallowed because, let’s face it, oh, yeaaarrrh, it’s just t’much effort like to pr’nounce th’m.  Male specimens of this social sub-group are sometimes called Sebastian, Crispin, Oliver, Tristan or Rupert.  They often wear stripy shirts and chinos or corduroys.  Lace-up shoes are mandatory.  Back in my youth, they were seen sporting V-neck cricket jumpers or stripy rugby shirts.  Nowadays, they prefer crew neck lambswool jumpers.  Their female counterparts, often Isabellas, Mirandas, Juliettes, Dorcases and Chloes, can be recognised by their trademark string of pearls no matter the outfit, or, these days, a piece of “ethnic” jewellery.  Still, whether they’re wearing the green Barbour jacket of my generation or the more modern cropped tweed blazer or short mac, one characteristic remains unaltered: they still have longish blonde hair.

Last week, as H. and I were strolling through Bishops Park, there was a group of them standing outside an infants school, having dropped off their mini Ruperts and Mirandas in  Baby Gap and Cath Kidson outfits.  They stood there, chatting to carbon copies of themselves, jangling keys to people carriers and oversized Volvos.  “Look!” I said to H.  “I told you Fulham raises the national average for blondes by a large percentage.”  He looked at them with an expression of disbelief.  There were six or seven of them, all of them blonde.

There were more of them in the coffee shop where we went to have breakfast.  The table next to ours was a veritable aviary, with screeching, high-pitched giggling, and shrill outbursts of excitement.  It was nearly ten o’clock, and I wondered – as I did while living in the area – why these women weren’t somewhere else, engaged in money-earning employment.  Who pays for their leather designer handbags, their suede boots, their wide silver bangles, their smoothies and their pains au raisin? I guess some things don’t change, whatever the efforts of the various feminist movements.

* Gentle, genuinely affectionate fun.  To quote Mr Bennet, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Scribe Doll

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Books: Challenges, Traumas and Pure Pleasure

I remember a stormy night when I was about eleven.  We were living in Nice.  I don’t remember what prompted me.  I stood on a chair to reach the top shelf of my mother’s bookcase where she kept – along with other never-read books – The Complete Works of Shakespeare.  I sat at the kitchen table, ploughing my way through Macbeth.  I couldn’t understand any of the language, so I looked up almost every other word – without much success – in the Concise Oxford.  Electrified by the flashes of lightning and thunderclaps bursting outside, I was mesmerised by this hermetic text I could not fathom, convinced that within its lines were locked up great secrets I yearned to discover.

About a year later, my mother authorised the local library to allow me access to the adult section.  After my first visit there, I came back home with a book about Confucianism.  Only one sentence remains anchored in my memory: I spent my entire life trying to change myself but have still failed.  The only words I remember.  The only ones I understood, probably because the paramount importance of self-improvement was much advocated at meal times.  Still, when I finally returned the book to the library, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, as though I’d been given the key to important knowledge.  Where this knowledge was stored, or what it concerned, I had no idea, but at least having the key to it was a good start.

That same winter, I got the mumps.  I was kept indoors, warm, and waited on for a month.  I was allowed more television than usual, and my mother brought me books from the library.  Owing to my illness, the self-improvement programme was put on hold, and she did look disapprovingly at my reading for the sheer pleasure of it.  I asked her to borrow Joseph Bédier’s rendition of Tristan et Iseut and that was the first book I remember reading which filled me with magic, and infected me with a passion for Mediaeval literature, art and music.  And words.  Beautiful words.

When I was fifteen, we moved to Rome.  One day, I found my mother’s copy of Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra lying on the coffee table.  She’d enthused about it over dinner, so I picked it up and began to read it.  I was bowled over by the histrionic wit of this man.  Shaken, turned inside out and zapped with new energy.  A God that danced.  It was as though my brain had just expanded so violently, it was about to break free from the constrictions of my skull…. even though I had no idea what Nietzsche actually meant.  I just felt that he was telling me that there was something out there that was so big and awesome, I wanted to access it too.

The summer after my sixteenth birthday was the summer I was traumatised by Dostoyevsky.  For some time now, there had been an awareness on the part of my mother and grandmother that my Russian was embarrassingly bad, given that it had been the first language I had learnt as a toddler.  Although my speaking was fluent, my spelling was atrocious and I read one syllable at a time, like a five-year-old.  What neither of them chose to be aware of was – for reasons pertaining to a twisted, dissatisfied teenage psyche I eventually grew out of – my deep dislike of the language.

So, that summer, judging the French school three-month holiday period to be “too long for doing nothing”, my grandmother decided to traumatise me with Crime and Punishment.  As she was also teaching me to knit, she saw the hot Roman afternoons as the perfect opportunity to combine manual and intellectual education.  So, while all sensible Roman residents would sink into a refreshing siesta, she and I would sit in the shady part of our balcony and take it in turns to read aloud and knit.  My knitting being as unenthusiastic as my Russian, when it was my turn to read, my grandmother would correct my pronunciation while undoing several rows of uneven loops.  Thinking about my schoolmates, who were probably bathing in the Sardinian sea or strolling in the Alto Adige mountains, I resented my lot, hated knitting, hated Dostoyevsky and (almost) hated my grandmother.  By the end of the summer, I was less familiar with the crime aspect of the novel than with the punishment.

For many years, I hardly ever read fiction, except when it was prescribed by school or university.  I found it hard to shake off the deeply-inculcated notion that you read in order to acquire information or improve yourself, and that novels, precisely because fictional in nature, were somewhat less valid forms of literature.  I envied people who said they loved to read, who described the pleasures of immersing themselves in a book.  I knew I was missing out on something but didn’t know how to remedy the situation.  Once again, I felt there was a whole, wonderful world out there but, this time, it wasn’t my intellectual inadequacy that prevented me from accessing it – it was something deep inside me, so intrinsically part of me that I didn’t know how to root it out.

The novel for me that opened the doors to other novels was Miss Garnet’s Angel, by Salley Vickers.  It was the summer of 2000, and I was attracted by the cover design: the reproduction of a Renaissance angel.  I picked up the book from the table display at Waterstone’s and read the back cover.  I saw that the story took place in Venice.  I’d just returned after a few days there, and longed to go back.  I bought the book and became totally engrossed in it.  I loved the main plot being interwoven with the apocryphal story of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael.  I loved Salley Vickers’s acute observation of human behaviour and her deep insight into emotions.  I loved her descriptions of Venice.

With Miss Garnet’s Angel, my reading habits changed.  Reading suddenly became something I gave myself permission to do simply for the fun of it.

My favourite Saturday morning activity became browsing in charity shops.  The advantage of cheap, second-hand books was that it allowed me to take risks on novels and buy them on a whim.  As a result, I discovered many wonderful books.

Fifteen years on, I love reading.  I feel free to pick up whatever I feel I will enjoy, whether it’s Booker Prize material or a thoroughly enjoyable crime novel.  I just swim among its words, let myself be carried away by the story, and form new acquaintances with the characters.

It’s delectable.

Scribe Doll

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London Night Sounds

The rumbling of the occasional car, speeding past our house.  A murky grey sound.

Snippets of human voices.  A woman’s giggle.  A crimson sound.

The arrhythmic clicking of stiletto heels on the pavement.  A copper sound.

The roar of the night bus.  A faint white sound.

The rustling of leaves, disturbed by the wind.  A golden sound.

The yelp of a fox.  A scarlet sound.

The shriek of a motorbike.  A black sound, like tar.

The rhythmic clang of the train, not too far.  A brass sound.

The high-pitched whirr of the light bulb in the angle-poise lamp on my desk.  A tinny sound.

Sweet recorder sonatas by Telemann, wafting out of my CD player.  A dark honey sound.

The tick-tock of the second hand of the alarm clock by my bed.  Black and white sounds.

The click of the front door; one of my flatmates coming home after a wedding reception.  A candy-pink and sky-blue sound.

The thud of the front door; another flatmate returning after a night on the town.  A red sound.

The translucent harmony of moonlight, floating through the air.  A silver sound.

A cat meowing across the street.  An emerald-green sound.

A night wind, blowing through the streets.  A diamond-cut sound.

Stars, shining in the sky.  A myriad of colours, like the notes of a glockenspiel.

I cannot sleep.

Scribe Doll

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Seven Quirks of British Restaurants

No.1

Is everything O.K.?

Have you noticed how waiters wait for the exact moment when you have your mouth full, before they ask you that? I often try and cheat them by staging my forkfuls when they’re not around but, almost as though they’re watching me from a distance, no sooner am I munching away, than they pounce.  “Is everything O.K.?” Naturally, all I can emit is an unintelligible groan, and a nod.  I wonder if their timing is purposefully strategic.  Perhaps they’re trained to schedule their question precisely when you cannot speak.  Yes, I know, as my mother – or the Aunt Alicia in Colette’s Gigi – would say, you could train yourself to chew and speak at the same time, elegantly.  But still…

It was a relief going to cafés and restaurants while living in Brussels.  There, nobody comes to intrude on your meal unless you specifically request their attention.  Only at the end, as you’re settling the bill, does the waiter ask Ça a été?

No.2

The cake on top of the napkin

I don’t know if this is a strictly British practice, but I’ve not encountered it in Italy, the U.S., Germany, France, Greece or Spain.  You order cake, or a sandwich, and it arrives lying on the napkin, as though it needs to be comfortable on the cold, hard plate.  Surely, the point of the napkin is to be spread on your lap, and used for dabbing your lips and fingers – a point defeated from the start if, by the time you have slid it out from under the cake or sandwich, it’s covered in chocolate, cream or dressing.

No. 3

The parmesan and black pepper rations

In too many establishments, once your meal is served, the waiter approaches and offers you black pepper.  Then s/he gives the oversized mill a couple of twists over your plate, and walks off.  I might want to add pepper halfway through my meal, but the option is not available.  Is black pepper so expensive, restaurants cannot afford to keep a small mill on the table, together with the salt shaker?

The same discourse applies to grated parmesan.  When your pasta is served, the waiter brings a bowl of parmesan, and sprinkles a spoonful on your dish.  If you say nothing, he sprinkles a second spoonful.  At that point, s/he marches off, unless you specifically request more.  If you do, s/he expresses shock, as though you’re being unreasonably greedy.  Sometimes, I tell the waiter, “just leave it here, I’ll help myself” and that creates a mini panic response…

No. 4

Salt mills

I know this is entirely a matter of personal preference but who actually enjoys crunching large salt crystals? What’s wrong with a salt shaker that dispenses fine salt powder which blends in easily with the food?

No. 5

Salt and pepper mills/shakers

“Katia, the table is off-balance,” is what my grandmother would say if, while setting the table, I’d forgotten to put the salt shaker in the centre.  Time and time again, I go to restaurants and cafés where there is no salt on the table and I have to ask the waiter to bring it to me.  The other day, I asked why they didn’t just keep salt and pepper on every table.  “People steal them,” the waitress replied.

I was speechless.  Are we so poor a nation? Or so thieving?

No. 6

Iced water

Personally, I think automatically serving water with ice cubes in a country as cold as England is somewhat peculiar.  Still, at least thus far, this is a free country, so people are entitled to order iced water if they wish. But why do waiters insist on bringing me iced water after I’ve specifically ordered it “without ice”?

No. 7

Halloumi, Hollandaise, etc.

I doubt I’m breaking the Official Secrets Act by stating that traditional English food errs on the side of – how can I put it diplomatically? – well, let’s say on the side of the bland, and is, originally, far from vegetarian-friendly.  We’ve come in leaps and bounds since my introduction to English cuisine, at the age of nineteen, when it was meat and two veg, no salt, and pudding consisted in drowning anything at all in custard.  Still, perhaps cafés and restaurants should expand their horizons a little further and, once they’ve discovered a new ingredient, not it serve exclusively over and over and over again.

Yes, halloumi cheese is lovely, and made a welcome change from mozzarella, after the latter had outstayed its welcome as the successor to cheddar.  Now, however, wherever you go, it’s halloumi.  Halloumi burger, vegetable hash with halloumi, salad with halloumi.  Why don’t we also try various varieties of goat’s cheese, manchego, ossau iraty, fontina, asiago, blue Shropshire, to name but a few?

Another relatively recent feature in restaurant menus is hollandaise sauce.  A tangy addition to many eggs and asparagus dishes.  In small doses, though.  Sadly, British enthusiasm for this perceived bit of sophistication means that   eggs Florentine and eggs Benedict are served drowned in it, the way custard used to drown stodgy puddings.

Scribe Doll

(This is a revised version of  a post first published on 24 July 2011)

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Voice, Stone, Wood and Air as One

I love Early music.  I love its level-headedness, its lack of mood swings.  It’s everlasting YES.

Part of the reason I listen mostly to Mediaeval, Renaissance and Baroque music  throughout the day is because, besides its being soothing and immensely reassuring, it doesn’t distract me from my work.  I am a literary translator, and I spend most of my waking hours like the 21st Century version of a Mediaeval scribe, hunched over my laptop, a shelf full of heavy dictionaries behind me, perhaps one or two lying open on the messy table, writing in somebody else’s voice, trying to read their thoughts, second-guess their intentions, and “Englishing” them.  I need music in the background to centre me, calm me and, above all, music that will not distract me.  I cannot work with passionate music that throws tantrums, asks questions, is emotionally egocentric, or demands that I get up every couple of minutes to either turn up or turn down the volume. I need music content in its serenity, stable, with certainty that will provide a sturdy, friendly support to the doubts and anxieties that go hand-in-hand with trying to pass for somebody else in another language.

So, day in, day out, I am accompanied throughout the day by friends like Léonin, Pérotin, Josquin des Prez, Salamone Rossi, Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Mouton, Guillaume Du Fay or Gilles Binchois and – if I am in the mood for something a little more modern – J.S. Bach, Telemann, Vivaldi, Von Biber, Hume, Tartini or Thomas Baltzar.

*   *   *

One piece I often listen to is Guillaume de Machaut’s Messe de Notre-Dame.  I’ve had a splendid recording by the Hilliard Ensemble for Heaven knows how long but, like most Mediaeval music, one hardly ever has the opportunity to hear it live.  Then, last Friday, I went to a concert of Lent-appropriate music – mostly Early – at Norwich Cathedral.  The  programme included the Kyrie from Messe de Notre-Dame.

It was a revelation, like hearing a completely different piece of music. Like going from a monochrome, mono-dimensional photograph to a colourful bas-relief.  A rich embroidery, an illuminated manuscript, that takes shape before your very eyes.

Although I knew, of course, that early polyphony was intended for the arches and high vaults of Gothic architecture, hearing it for the first time in Norman-Gothic Norwich Cathedral vividly brought home just how flat and colourless it sounds by comparison on CD.  You suddenly realise that this music was intended to come alive when human voices, stone architecture, wood carvings, stained glass and the air itself join as one despite their separateness.  Like a murmuration of individual starlings that form a single, shapeshifting form that swirls, shrinks then spreads across the evening sky.

I hadn’t until then been so keenly aware that it’s the counter-tenor part that is the guiding force that holds everything together and gives energy to the whole piece, like a golden thread weaving through the blue of the tenors, the deep red of the basses, and the purple of the baritones.

The human voices are released into the air, which carries some notes to the wood carvings, as though contact with the latter would give them a richer, earthier sound.  Other notes it sweeps up and hurls against the white stone pillars so that they might bounce off them with more brightness and brilliance.  Others again it slides over the bright-coloured stained glass windows, and lifts them slowly up to the fan vaulting, where they quiver before spreading like a gossamer cloak over the entire cathedral.

And, as I sit in the wooden pews where, nearly a thousand years ago, Benedictine monks sat, listened and prayed, I am in awe of this miracle of mathematics, in which human voices, stone, wood, glass and air all come individually alive by coming so perfectly together.

Scribe Doll

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A Tree with a Name Beginning with S

“I need a new tree friend,” I say to S.  “A tree like my oak Merlin, outside my window in Wimbledon.”

My new friend S. is a children’s and young adult fiction writer.  She doesn’t find anything odd or unusual about a middle-aged adult being friends with a tree, or, for that matter, that the tree should be called Merlin.  She takes a sip of coffee.  “Have you tried Lion Wood?”

“It’s too far to walk and up that steep hill,” I reply.  “I need a tree nearby.  Somewhere I can get to easily and say hello whenever I feel like it, without it becoming an expedition.”

Through her rimless glasses, S.’s blue eyes look sideways, to that corner of her mind where she probably stores her list of suitable trees.  I know she’s making a mental note to find me the perfect rooted confidant.

I’ve been within easy reach of one specific, special tree, for most of my adult life.  In Cambridge, it was the copper beech watching over Leckhampton Gardens, and the canopy – practically a tent – offered by the trailing branches of a weeping willow.  In London, there was the wise cedar of Lebanon in Bishops’ Park, and, later, in Wimbledon, my room looked onto a large, powerful oak.  It was a tree with stories and insight.  Merlin.  I don’t know why Merlin.  The name just kept popping into my head whenever I looked it him.  Him.  Because, for some reason, to me he was unmistakably a he.  On the night of St Jude’s Storm, I went to bed with the certainty in my heart that he would not crash against my windows, that he would keep me safe.  And he stood sturdy all night.

*

H. and I were strolling in the Cathedral precinct, a few weeks ago, when I suddenly stopped in my tracks.  “There it is!” I said.

H. also stopped and looked around.  “There what is?”

“My tree!”

Your tree…”

“Look! There! Straight ahead.”

H. accepts, with infinite patience and warm indulgence, that I was born with a certain amount of madness, so did not query my use of the possessive pronoun but followed my pointing finger with his eyes.  “Wow. That is impressive,” he admitted.

WP_20160207_002Before us, at the back of the Cathedral, beneath the flying buttresses, the most majestic of trees.  A cedar of Lebanon.  Tall, dark green, sprawling, some of its branches trailing on the grass, with round cones bobbing gently in the wind.  Alive.  Very much alive.  I slowly approached, took off my glove, and stroked its needles.  His needles.  Immediately, I felt many eyes turn towards me, watching me, studying me.  Quizzical, wary, judging, alert.  A chubby, pale green chiffchaff.  A couple of blackbirds.  A sparrow.  Wood pigeons.  And all the eyes I felt upon me but did not see, could never see with my eyes.  Chirping, whistling, tweeting, cooing.  Who is she? Friend or foe? What are her intentions? Shall we allow her into our world? And then there were all the voices I could never hear with my ears. Among them, a deep, booming voice.  A bass baritone full of warning but also promise.  A warning against contempt, a promise of reward for honour.  I couldn’t hear it, and yet I knew it was there.  The voice of the tree.  I leaned against the trunk and ran my fingers on the bark.  His bark.  A name suddenly resounded through my chest.  An ancient name.  S –.  What was that name? Yes, it definitely starts with an S, I sensed again, the healing power of the tree penetrating my hands and my back.  Tremendous power.  The kind of power whose respect you long to earn, whose friendship you want to deserve.  And a storyteller tree, custodian of mysteries, of knowledge.  A keeper of secrets.

I wonder how old it – I mean he  – is.

*

I text our friend J., who is a tree surgeon.  “Are you acquainted with the cedar of Lebanon at the back of the Cathedral? Do you know old it is?”

He replies, “Measure its girth.  One inch for every year.”

I take the tape measure from my sewing basket, and recruit H.’s help.  184 inches.  One hundred and eight-four years? It looks older, given its size and sprawl.  I try asking the Cathedral staff.  They don’t know.  “Ask one of the guides,” they say.  “If it’s a historical tree, one of the guides is bound to know about it.”

I suppress a snort.  A “historical” tree? Aren’t all trees historians, record-keepers of man’s fleeting visits?

*

“Let’s go and visit S –,” I say to H. after breakfast this morning.

“That’s an excellent idea,” he replies enthusiastically.

As we approach the cedar of Lebanon, as always, I find myself slowing down, stepping with caution, with deference to his awe-inspiring majesty and gravitas.

WP_20160207_004I get it into my head that I would like a cone.  In all the times I’ve come, I’ve never seen one lying around.  I ask politely.  Suddenly, I am convinced that I will be given one today.  I start walking slowly on the soft carpet of needles beneath the sprawling branches.  Nothing.  I am surprised, given the recent gales.  Perhaps after the next gust of wind.

There it is.

I pick it up.

Thank you, S –.
I hold it gently as I take it home and place in on my work table.  It has a wonderful smell of resin.  It’s beautiful.

It’s perfect.

Thank you.

Scribe Doll

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Zebras at the Opera House

Last night, I eagerly tuned in to the BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot.  It’s one of my favourite operas.  I didn’t listen to it till the very end, though, because I wasn’t grabbed by the performance.  I found Nina Stemme’s Wagnerian soprano too heavy and too lacking in crystalline quality for Turandot.  I felt that her diction was a little sloppy and, on several occasions, I thought I heard her swallow consonants and leave out vowels.  Marco Berti’s tenor, for me, was too thin, too deprived of richness, too throaty for Calaf.  I also didn’t care for the pace of Paolo Carignani’s conducting.  I found it too fast and lacking in drama.

Some of the above comments are a matter of personal taste and preference.  However, when the Met audience applauded uproariously, sounding as though they were about to bring the house down, I suddenly realised something: the audience always applauds uproariously at the Met or Covent Garden.  It’s almost expected.  It’s totally predictable.  And I wondered: is it a matter of manners or lack of discernment? Does the audience take its cue from the critics? Does fame equal quality, equal wild applause?

There was a time when audiences would hurl tomatoes, boo and hiss at performances and performers who failed to live up to their standards.  I don’t agree with such abusive behaviour.  Of course I don’t.  My many years working in the theatre has taught me just how hard everyone involved in a production works, and their efforts should be met with respect.  But, surely, it should also be an audience member’s privilege to express disappointment with a show or a performer, if s/he feels that the quality is inferior to expectations.  After, all, shouldn’t clapping and shouting “bravo!” be like restaurant tipping, i.e. subject to the standard of service received? There are many respectful ways an audience can convey the fact that it doesn’t like something.  Not clapping, for example.  Another, more drastic, expression could be leaving during the interval.  I know some people do that, but then how come whenever I attend an opera or listen to a live radio broadcast, there’s always – always – such roaring applause? Sometimes I almost wonder if it’s pre-recorded.

* * *

I first started going to the opera when I was sixteen, in Rome.  The Teatro dell’Opera hadn’t been revamped yet, and much of the upholstery was the worse for wear. The place was drab. On the rare occasion when a famous singer was scheduled to appear, you would have to start queuing for tickets at the crack of dawn.  The first person to arrive would take it upon him or herself to tear up little pieces of paper with numbers scribbled on them, and hand them out to anyone joining the queue.

I have fond memories of many a Sunday afternoon spent in the galleria, surrounded by characters who lived and breathed music, and were not afraid to express their opinion, even in voices that carried across the  auditorium in the silence that preceded the opening bars of the second or third act.

A ticket in the gods cost less than admission to the luxurious Barberini cinema, where the latest films were shown first, so I went very often.  Moreover, since I mostly went everywhere on my own, I found it much less intimidating to go the opera than the cinema.  Nobody up in the galleria found it odd that a teenage girl should turn up without parents, friends or boyfriend.  Before leaving home, I would wrap a piece of milk chocolate in foil and put it in my coat pocket.  By the interval, it would have softened exactly to my liking, and I would snack on it while listening to the other music lovers provide an in-depth, no-prisoners-taken, critique of the performance.  Mostly, they were music students from the Santa Cecilia music academy, and other, older, opera aficionados who could not afford a seat in the stalls.

In any case, the stalls were where the fur coats sat.  And the fur coats, we galleria regulars all knew, would applaud at anything that moved on the stage.

I remember a Rossini Semiramide with a spectacular set, and a Massenet Manon (which, my galleria betters, assured me, sounded far better in Italian than in French) where Raina Kabaivanska’s dress caught on the banister of a staircase, preventing her from walking down until rescued by a slow-on-the-uptake Des Grieux.  Then, Italy being well known for its art, its fashion, but also for its frequent strikes, there was the time when I attended a chorus-free performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

My first opera was Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.  My heart pounded at the opening bars.  The singing was excellent.  The set, however, was another matter.  At one point, the curtains swished open on several plywood or cardboard cut-out horses.  One of them had an unusual pattern of pink and orange stripes.  The conductor raised his baton.  The man next to me was watching through his binoculars. His voice carried loud and clear across the void.

“Look at that – they’ve even got zebras!”

The conductor lowered his baton amid a crescendo of shushing from the fur coats down in the abyss, and supportive giggles from the galleria occupants.

Now that‘s what I call audience power.

Please also read ‘Turandot – a Story of Redemption’

Scribe Doll

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