Shortly after the first chorus began I became aware of a presence in front of me, between me and the orchestra pit. When I sat down I had registered its existence but because it was so unexpected I had simply ignored it. However, this was not the sort of presence that was prepared to be ignored for long. A transistor radio aerial came into my line of vision, swinging madly in time with the music. After some moments this was replaced by a fighter aircraft heavily armed with three fierce looking missiles on each wing. Given where we were, the old eastern block, I suppose it was a Mig. Then the aerial came back into view, though in a new incarnation: as an alternative to the conductor’s baton it had now become a sort of tooth pick. The small girl, who had been equipped with this and the plane to entertain herself when the music failed to hold her attention, was chewing the thin end with some vigorousness.
I should have minded it less if she had contracted the aerial. As it was, the Chinese boy, the young woman sitting on my right and I myself were all in some danger of being struck in the face. This left me with the inescapable question, “What sort of women are the Ukrainians intending to produce in their quasi post-Communism epoch?”
The First Act came to an end. Not withstanding the atrocious Italian pronunciation of most of the cast and the indifferent orchestral playing, I was not unenjoying the performance. The act seemed shorter than I’d remembered it which, I suppose, meant I must have been more engaged than usual.
The child disappeared but her existence gave me an opener with the boy. He was 21, from a city near Peking and a music student, a conductor. He had spent four years in Odessa and was completing two years in Lwow.
“My parents are not rich but they can afford to send me here. And I am making some money from teaching Chinese” something that seemed to amuse him enormously.
“Do you know how to teach Chinese?” I ventured to ask.
“No. Not at all, but I am trying”.
We both burst into laughter. Delightful. We talked about the performance and the opera itself which he is studying. He asked me what I thought about the soprano.
“Well, she’s not Joan Sutherland.” Then something occurred to me. “Could I have a look at your score? I thought `Caro Nome` was in the first act.”
“But I don’t remember it.” Had I been sleeping?
He giggled. “They cut it. That’s what they do here”.
Suddenly, and in very good English, the young man on my right asked,” Is this your first time here?”
“No”. I came clean. “I’ve been to the ballet which I don’t recommend.” I was wondering whether I would recommend an opera company that left out the best, albeit the most difficult, parts of an opera. “Why?”
“What happens now? We`ve never been to the opera before.”
Hence the provisions?
I told him about interval bells and how normally the time would be spent queuing for a drink at the bar, though not here because there isn’t a bar. He was very chatty. How unlike Poland where I don’t think I have ever spoken to a stranger at the opera. Now, within minutes, I was having conversations on two flanks.
“We are loving this. Unfortunately, we have to leave at 8 to get home. We don’t live in Lwow. We wont see the end.”
“She dies,” said I as the curtain went up on Act 2 and immediately regretted it.
“How sad,” he murmured. “What of?”
“TB or something.”
Or was that just Mimi? Bother, I didn’t want to be wrong. And with that irritating thought but with the happy absence of the small girl, Act 2 began.