My First Opera Remembered

"L'Orphée" marked my first opera--a beautiful tale that swept me away with tides of excellent execution. I was expecting Greco-Roman and I got mid-century, but I can hardly say the surprise disappointed me. Based upon Cocteau's 1950 film, "L'Orphée" transported me to a Beatnik's world of visual simplicity and philosophical complexity. But this is not a review and it's certainly not a critique. It's a tale or, better yet, an entry in a dream diary.

You see, "L'Orpée" was my first opera. As much as I try to remember the details of the performance and the production design, the memory evanesces into the calming mist of a 'first.' The specifics of a 'first' may be foggy, but you know more than anything how a 'first' felt. And my first opera felt magical and awkward...but mostly magical.

I went with my friend, a history major and a Southern girl with generations of 'Southernness' to her name. She seemed a fitting companion for a show at the Virginia Opera in Richmond. We took the bus from Virginia Commonwealth University's Monroe Park Campus because that's what you do when you're young, poor, and in heels. Driving and paying for parking was not an option; neither was walking those couple miles in stilettos. Everything we did after getting off the bus would be done in true BCBG style, we promised.

The day had started with an impending sense of rain. Clouds cast a pall over Richmond and the humidity teased my curls. I had driven from home to campus and managed to wiggle into a free parking spot. After dashing into the VCU library for what I had hoped would be a bathroom break, my friend texted me. She was at the bus stop. I sighed and heaved up my purse and camera bag from the floor of the library lobby. I watched the bus roll up to the stop, exactly the place I had to be in thirty seconds.

In my haste to reach those double-doors in a timely manner, I almost (literally) stumbled into my friend. Instead I (figuratively) stumbled into her. She sported her grandmother's tweed blazer and a cloche hat, both truly from 'back in the day.' Still wobbling from my run, I stopped long enough to push a few words out of my mouth. Together, my friend and I walked to the bus, ankles not yet caving in from the height of our impractical shoes.

We boarded the bus and sat down. The driver, just then on his union break, made no hurry to move. Meanwhile, I was still panting from my sprint. Outside of the bus, campus was quiet. It was Sunday, a day of rest for all but scholarship and graduate students. When the bus finally lurched forward, my friend and I grew giddy. Release the doves!

As we inched block by block, our thoughts grew more disjointed. The topics of conversation do not matter now; what does is that our clocks had stopped. The more anxious we became, the farther away the opera seemed. We were experiencing some kind of time warp. The opera would not take place for another week or month or year. Better put on the spacesuits because the Virginia Opera was perhaps light years away.

In our chatter, my friend and I missed our stop. We darted off the bus at the Medical College of Virginia, 4 or 5 blocks from our destination. Amongst a spattering of sleet, clinging to a shared umbrella, we shimmied through the elements. Though miserable, we were also determined. We would step into that theater looking glamorous. Maybe not entirely dry, but glamorous.

Eons later, a spectacled woman with a coral smile greeted us at the ticket window. We had made it and our hair was only slightly damp. Soon our hearts would swell with the sound of orchestral music.

After claiming our tickets, we checked our coats, pleased to be served by the type of mild-mannered old man of bent back and turtle's grin that you imagine checks coats at every opera house in the world. His name was probably Eddie.


Almost immediately after we settled into our seats, the show began. They had been waiting for us, but since we had now sat down and crossed our legs, there was no reason for them to wait any longer.

I hardly believed it when intercession arrived. As the lights dimmed, I assumed it was a transitional effect and that the spectacle would resume shortly thereafter. Instead, my friend and I realized it was intercession. Other people popped up. We decided to putter around the lobby in search of sustenance. I went for a Shirley Temple, while my friend went for candy and booze. We tried to sip cooly like the elegant older women who surrounded us. But we could not resist gab. Again, we chatted our way nearly past a deadline.

A bell rang.

"Intercession must be over," I gasped, staring in horror at my barely touched Shirley Temple. Curly Top's face seemed to cackle at me from the pool of red drink.

My friend and I exchanged a glance and started chugging our drinks. I tried to ignore the sting of bubbles rippling through my nose. That's not to mention the elegant older women who cooly placed their unfinished drinks on the bar.

"You can drink inside the theater," an usher said, practically on the verge of giggling.

I was so relieved and excited that I half-sighed, half-spat out my Shirley Temple. At this point, my cup was 9/10 empty, but I brought it with me, anyway. I was young, I was poor, and, yes, I was in heels. My friend and I hustled back to the mezzanine.

The second act swiftly started.

When the show ended, we were in a daze. Gathering up our things, we trudged back to the bus, ending the evening with supper at a diner where all the waitresses wore low-cut camisoles and fishnets. When the half-heated fried chicken and refrozen crab cake arrived, we knew the dream had ended.

This piece originally appeared in Quail Bell Magazine, a place for real and unreal stories from around the world.