I should have known something was wrong when the performance started five minutes early. Nothing ever starts early in Italy. And I mean ever. I know from personal experience. Two years ago I was singing in “Die Goetterdaemmerung” at the Teatro Petruzzelli and the opening night began so late that the function afterwards had to be cancelled. The restaurant where it was to be held had closed for the night and the staff had given up waiting and all gone home to bed. It was so accepted that the performances would begin late that singers themselves would arrive well after their scheduled times so as not to be waiting around unnecessarily. We often left the theatre well towards one o’clock in the morning. At Saturday night’s performance of Aida in Verona some people hadn’t even taken their seats when Placido Domingo entered the arena and began the overture. The heavens opened exactly five minutes later, right on nine o’clock, and the orchestra left the pit to the sound of rumbling thunder and with an impressive display of lightning rending the sky in two behind them. It was an extraordinary atmosphere for a couple of minutes with the huge Egyptian pillars of the on-stage set lit up theatrically. If the rain hadn’t been pouring down one might have thought it all part of the action. The only action thereafter however was of the off-stage variety. There was certainly plenty to see and observe, some of it highly dramatic and far more entertaining than many Verdi operas I have seen.
The arena seats around 22,000 people and it was almost at capacity on Saturday. When the rain started bucketing down the audience divided automatically into two groups. The first group was of the “let’s get out of here as quickly as possible” way of thinking which meant that around half the audience began running for the tiny exits around the perimeter. There they got stuck in a bottle neck of pushing and shoving, succeeding only in getting wetter and wetter. Imagine trying to squeeze a wet sheep into the top of a coca cola bottle and you get the idea. The second group were of the “we are going to wait here and see an opera no matter what happens because we have paid for it” mentality and they decided to sit it out in the hope of an improvement in the weather. They had come prepared with rain coats, umbrellas and plastic hats, none of which was remotely successful in keeping them dry. But I admired their optimism. Even when water was cascading down the aisles, the programmes had turned into nothing more than sodden wads of paper and loudspeaker announcements were being made to the effect that “there will be no singing in the rain,” they held their ground.
Half an hour later we were all taking refuge in the catacombs. Squashed, saturated and stuck. Unable to move forward, unable move back. But at least it was dry. The lady pressed up against me in a thin and sodden sequinned gown looked askance at me and said “I can’t believe it can you?” My reply, something along the lines of “Well, it is an outdoor event and it could be worse I suppose,” did nothing to appease. I probably shouldn’t have added conversationally, “Pity though. It hasn’t rained here all summer so it’s very bad luck. Just like being in the UK isn’t it? This sort of thing happens all the time there.” She stuck her face right up against mine and said quite firmly, “NO. It doesn’t actually.” Umm…O…K… no, I guess it doesn’t then. It’s a bit difficult to be overly intimidated by a middle aged woman in a see through evening gown with her wild, rat’s tail hair stuck at angles all over her face and her mascara clearly not of the waterproof variety, but I was pleased the arena is a place of entertainment now and no longer a venue for fighting your enemies to the death.
At 12.30am, long after my friend and I had called an end to our anticipated evening’s entertainment and finished a delicious dinner nearby, we passed by the arena on the way back to our hotel. Thousands of people were still waiting. Optimism had turned to desperation. There was the occasional shout and even a “boo” or two to be heard. Kids were fast asleep in their parents’ arms. The rain was still pelting down with no sign of abating. The problem is that if even one bar of music is performed then no refunds are given. And therein lies the answer to the unusually early starting time!
Breakfast the next day in the hotel was a bit like going to a wake. Long faces everywhere. One lady had saved up to buy her husband a 60th birthday gift of a ticket to his favourite opera and had flown with him from Vancouver for the occasion. Travellers from as far afield as Australia, America and Japan were despondently saying things like “it was a once in a lifetime thing,” “we won’t ever get back here again,” “it’s just so disappointing,” and so on. It was difficult not to be sympathetic. Then a lady from one of the tours says in a big loud voice with a hint of superiority, “Oh, I am SOOOO glad I didn’t pay for the option of the opera performance. I was tucked up in bed in the warm last night with a glass of wine by 9.30.” There’s one in every group isn’t there? How to win friends and influence people on your vacation!
For my part, I have no idea if I will ever be in Verona again. But it doesn’t matter. These days I am fairly philosophical about such things and I think I have a pretty good idea of what’s worth worrying about and what’s not. I got to spend a memorable weekend in a beautiful place with a wonderful old friend from my school days; worth so much more than any night’s entertainment. And as a singer I am reminded that, on the rare days when it sometimes seems like just a job, when I think I would rather stay at home than drag myself off to the theatre for another night on stage, for some people a night at the opera is much, much more than an evening out. It’s a passion, an event, an occasion, a financial sacrifice, the realisation of a lifetime’s ambition even. And when I think of that, I feel like the luckiest person in the world.