I had never seen an opera before I came to Vienna. All I knew about opera was the quote above. This was the late 1970s and I did not then have Wikipedia to tell me that the quote is attributed to either US baseball player Yogi Berra or to sportswriter Dan Cook.
In any case, I went one evening in blithe spirits to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera, to see Puccini’s La Boheme, expecting to have an experience that I would be mildly disparaging about later. If you are in your 20’s, short of money and long on energy, then the best way to see Opera in Vienna is to buy tickets for a standing place. Tickets were 20 schillings apiece, and their purchase involved standing in a queue for a couple of hours before the performance, in addition to the duration of the piece. From the vantage point of a lowly standing place ticketee, the Staatsoper at the time was tightly ruled by a bunch of brown-uniformed despots; doorkeepers and attendants who tried to uphold the dignity of the noble house by strictly regulating us slovenly tourists and opera novices. We were duly chastened for standing in crooked lines or for, God forbid, squatting on the floor to rest aching feet.
The prime standing places are located on the ground floor, at the rear center of the hall. The first 2 or 3 rows are coveted by music students because apparently this area has the best acoustics in the house.
At last, the opera began. The curtain went up. Mad, apparently bohemian, dashing about and singing. The sets and the lighting were beautiful. I ignored the high strung voices and admired the stage effects. Visually splendid show, I thought, but rather silly.
During Acts 2 and 3, my interest in the sets began to flag, and I listened to the singing. How absurd! They sing and recite lines to each other instead of talking like normal people. My mood is impatient and I am aware of aching feet.
Act 4: More singing, people come and go. I know Rodolfo well by now and rather like some of the singers and arias except when they go into singsong mode which sounds absurd. Enter Mimi stage left. She is obviously weak and ill, but still manages to sing with vigor. I get ready to snigger, but then something unexpected happens. Absurd though the exaggerated acting on stage, I get caught up in the sweep of the music. Mimi tells Rodolfo that her love for him is her whole life. They sing powerfully together some more. Mimi dies. Unexpectedly, I have been stirred by the music and my eyes are full, aching feet forgotten.
Years later, I went to live in Puccini’s Tuscan villa in a little village called Chiatri that lies in the hills between Lucca and Viareggio; a villa that was still owned by Giacomo Puccini’s descendants.. But that is another story… This one is a tribute to Mozart and appeared in a magazine called Vienna Life.
MAD ABOUT MOZART
He was not in Vienna for nothing. He was mad about Mozart, had been from the age of six when he heard the coloratura aria from an ancient TV rendering of the Magic Flute, accompanied by flimmering images of improbably costumed singers. Captivated for ever from that moment, he listened to everything by Mozart he possibly could. Seven years later the Queen of the Night descended to his pubertal bed on a staircase of song and he felt the flood of bewildering panic that accompanied his first wet dream.
Now a young adult, he was intimately acquainted with the workings of computers, software, chips and other nonedible silicates. This newly acquired knowledge did not displace his boyhood adulation. In contrast to Mozart in his productive prime, Vienna wanted him and he gladly accepted the offer.
In Vienna, he suffered at first from a surfeit of riches. There was so much going on all the time; culture pouring out of the woodwork, so to speak, in the many theaters and concert houses. The old lady was a nodding acquaintance from the queue for the queue for first night standing tickets at the opera. They often stood shoulder to shoulder like soldiers marching into battle, waiting for standing place tickets, unsung arias in their hearts; undaunted by the large and threatening uniformed attendants of the house. The attendants eyed the waiting standees as husbands eye prospective ravishers of wives; jealously.
They stood for hours in the queue and talked about music. She knew a great deal, belonged to an old family of passionate Mozart fans. How old is old? he asked, seeking enlightenment in the old world.
‘My grandfather came here long before the world war,’ she said, and the distant ring of her voice told him that it was the unnumbered one. ‘He came into a small fortune and travelled across the continent to Vienna, having heard that some mysterious manuscripts had been discovered in the ruins of an old villa.
‘He was an expert, could perhaps decipher the scrawled signature, might from the construction of the bars and phrases of the music tell who the composer was.’ The young man was impressed and whistled softly.
‘No whistling in the queue, please,’ said the attendant.
‘What did he do for a living, your grandfather? Was he a musician?’
‘Oh, that’s a long story.’
‘Well, we’re going to be in this queue for the next three hours.’
‘You wouldn’t want to hear an old woman’s improbable tale.’
‘I’m all ears,’ he avowed.
She was strangely reluctant to begin, but the queue was long, his legs ached and he insisted, wondering what manner of skeletons lay in her family cupboard.
‘You see, grandfather wasn’t a musician, but he knew a lot about people. He felt that composers transmuted bits of their soul into music when they wrote their pieces.’
‘Rather like Einstein and relativity?’ he said brightly. ‘E=mc2. Matter becomes energy; soul becomes music.’
‘I… suppose so,’ she agreed doubtfully.
‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t interrupt your story. Your grandfather, you were saying…’
‘Yes, my grandfather was perceptive, something of a ‘kenner’ (a connoisseur) when it came to people and their motives.’
‘Like Freud,’ he suggested. She was really annoyed.
‘They all relied on intellect rather than intuition,’ she snapped. ‘My grandfather was long dead when Freud’s “revolutionary” theories gained wide currency.’
‘I won’t interrupt again,’ he promised humbly. ‘Please go on.’
She gave him a belligerent look that made the steel rims of her spectacles glint like armour.
‘The manuscripts were discovered the year before the great war started.’
‘1913,’ he ventured.
She nodded, in approval this time. ‘Yes, 1913. The Titanic sank in 1912, the year that I was born, and the manuscript was discovered a year later. The family moved to Vienna as soon as grandfather heard the news, of course. There was a great controversy going on at the time. Whose work was it really? It was ascribed to several composers, but to relate the work to the style of any one of the major composers was extraordinarily difficult. Grandfather was allowed, with some reluctance, to see the hallowed sheets of yellowed paper; he insisted on seeing the originals. In those days there were no sophisticated chemical tests as they have now.
First of all he asked to be left completely alone with the sheets of music. They hesitated; after all, these were valuable pieces of paper and he was a stranger, there was no knowing what he might do. They finally allowed him five minutes alone with the papers.’ She went on to explain in great detail the tests he had made.
‘He held it close to his nose and breathed in the scents of the composer, traces of soul left behind on the paper. It was extraordinarily difficult, he declared later. Almost as though the music was written not by a man but by a ghost. Sweat broke out, soaking his shirt and a few drops fell on the manuscript, smudging the precious scribble.
He carefully dried the paper and then called for a piano. He wasn’t much of a musician, but he could read notes and pick out tunes, which he did. You see, he was not searching for music in the notes, but for the soul of the dead composer. When he played the first few bars, even with his inexpert playing, he knew it was music of extraordinary sweetness and purity, like all the colours of the rainbow transformed into sound, like fire and ice, snow and flame, rivers of molten lava meeting the sea, passions and great joys, everything that rages in the red-hot core of the earth and beneath the surface of human beings; everything was there in superabundance, an extraordinary smelter of sounds. It was mad, it was divine, it was frightening, the utter innocence and sheer insanity of it.
Grandfather gave a great cry and collapsed in a heap on the piano keys. They heard the discordant notes, broke open the door in great alarm and found him, pale with terror, sweat pouring off his face in a gushing fountain, like water out of the rock that Moses struck. He had fallen on the manuscript, obliterating all the notes. They spent months reconstructing the original music, relying heavily on grandfather’s photographic memory, for he was the last one to have played the music.’
The queue had been moving like an engorged python, steadily but slowly in the direction of the box office. At this point in her story, they were there. The old lady stepped smartly to the window and bought her ticket.
‘Wait, wait,’ he cried in despair. ‘You can’t go in now. I want to hear the end of the story.’
The attendant grasped him firmly by the arm. ‘You have to buy a ticket and stop blocking the kassa. And no talking inside. They’re performing Mozart today, not just anybody.’