Lwow: a night at the opera.

Walking to my lodgings in the clear but falling light after the rehearsal late on Saturday afternoon, I came to the Opera. The Opera dominates the main avenue of Lwow, a city of imposing and handsome public and private Italianate buildings dating variously from the last five hundred years. I dont like the Opera building. It is late 19th century and strongly influenced by Paris rather than Italy, overblown with civic pomposity both inside and out. It seems misplaced in a city of such elegance and lightness.

Like Fleet Street in London, the Opera was built above an enclosed river. Unfortunately for the architect who killed himself and investors who lost money, the engineers had their shortcomings. The building began to subside as soon as it was completed. This necessitated immediate under pinning and constant monitoring. Like a tart caught  leaving an hotel by the early breakfaster, perhaps a sense of shame and a desire to hide its mis-placed face drove the building downwards. Its descent to oblivion should be encouraged. A sunken opera house would be a real tourist attraction.


A largish crowd had gathered outside. Waiting for a performance, obviously. You might think so. But no. Because of its position crowds often gather here at all times of the day. Their dress code gives nothing away. The people who eventually take their places in the stalls are no differently dressed than those who remain outside in the crisp air.   


I went up to the posters to see what was on but, since no consideration is given to non-Cyrillic readers in Lwow, I was none the wiser. I remembered the ticket office or Kasa is just tucked inside the main door. There were not many people about. A woman was being served with just a man behind her. I decided to wait.


The singers and musicians I had been coaching since Wednesday had unanimously and wisely decided they needed to go home early. With 4 days of hard work behind us and with the recital concert approaching, I was glad they had. Anyway, I needed to be alone. Lovely people but teaching is exhausting. However, I wasn’t much looking forward to a long evening with nothing to do. Not that I had any great expectations of the opera but it might be better than a book and a lonely dinner. The last time I was in Lwow I had seen the ballet. The orchestral playing was poor, the dancing self-conscious, inelegant and poorer than the playing. My expectations were low.

The cashier spoke English.

“Traviata. We have tickets at all prices.”

I’ve never liked Traviata. I decided to spare myself.


The first time I had contact with Traviata was during a production of The Taming of the Shrew at the Ghione Theatre in Rome. I had written all the incidental music except for one piece. The director, the late Edmo Fenoglio, wanted the Brindisi from Traviata for a scene in the last act. Edmo gave me the recording he wanted to use. I copied it and gave it back to him. Somehow, during the editing I cut the first beat. We used cassette tapes which were tricky since I had no proper splicing equipment.  For reasons I cannot exactly remember, though probably nerves caused by the impending opening, Edmo had a tantrum. No, he would not let me have his recording again. We had a terrible row and we didn’t speak again until after the first night which, with three days to go, was not an ideal situation. Yes, he shouted orders at me from the stalls and I shouted back again from the sound and lighting box three floors up, but we avoided conversation.

To resolve the impasse, I went out and bought another recording, admittedly not the same as his or as good, but cheaper. I was doubly irked that the management would not pay for it despite all the hard work I had put into the production, effort which far exceeded my responsibilities as composer. Edmo was livid that he was not getting the music he heard in his head. Tough, then give me the bloody cd.


Edmo was a clever, sensitive and lonely man and, before our row, we got on well, as we did again later. Most evenings after rehearsals I would eat with him at his expense in some of the better restaurants in Rome and discuss the day’s work. He had a very sensible approach to my bohemian condition. “So long as someone can pay when the bill comes that’s all that matters”.

Many of the suggestions I made he implemented, especially concerning the very uneven cast. He simply seemed to close his eyes to some of their quirks and shortcomings which, though perfectly understandable on one level, I thought professionally unwise. So did he when faced with the facts.


One problem was our Shrew, the proprieties of the theatre and an actress of some distinction. It would be fair to say that she was a little long in the tooth for a first love and would never have been cast in the part in normal conditions. One of the physical characteristics she had developed for the role was an exaggerated flapping of the elbows to indicate how angry she was, a sort of anger meter.  Quite why she had picked on this one doesn’t really matter; actors often develop habits during rehearsals which a word from the director can eliminate in a moment.  Far from helping her, it aged her and reminded me of January in the Canterbury Tales. Worse. It was hammy and made her look like a chicken attempting lift-off.  

Reluctantly, Edmo agreed to mention it. Though old friends from the academy, our shrew was also Edmo`s paymaster and had to be treated with caution.  

The morning after one of our dinners, he had a quiet word with her. The elbows retired, to general relief.


Since that first encounter with Traviata I have seen it a few times but always found it tedious.

I decided to give the no-doubt dodgy Lwow production a miss. But on leaving the theatre I had a change of heart. I went for an upper priced ticket which still only meant about $12.


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