Letters From New York, Part II – How To Laugh At the Opera

Letters From New York, Part II:
How To Laugh At the Opera

by Eric Davenport



The Metropolitan Opera House is beautiful. Its towering dome ceilings line with eighteen carat gold, and the wondrously grand architectural magnificence give the place an air of romantic brilliance. Nearly four thousand seats tower over the stage, in a grand display of breathtaking architecture. Stunning crystal light fixtures are littered through the house, with such sophisticated beauty they might as well be on display in the Museum of Modern Art.

It was not designed for teenagers.

That being said, neither was the opera. On the way to the show, our class was a mess. As the tour bus picked its way through the rush hour traffic (which in New York, is every hour), we scrambled to get ready. The guys on the bus were changing out of our casual clothes, and putting on ties, blazers, and belts; the girls were adjusting their hair and putting on makeup; all while Mr. Elmer looked frantically down at his watch, announcing to the bus that we would likely be late, and may have to stand for the entirety of the hour-long first act. That put the fear of God into everybody. Sitting through three hours of opera is a daunting enough task as it is – the thought of standing at the back caused a unanimous groan from all of us. Finally, when everybody had just about finished stuffing their clothes into their bags and getting themselves relatively fresh for the performance, our bus stopped at the Lincoln Centre.

“Okay everybody!” Bellowed Mr. Elmer, “We’re late, so we’re going to have to run!”

Soon, we found ourselves sprinting across the Lincoln Centre Plaza, while one of the chaperones crossed the street and ducked into a bar to watch basketball – a smart move, if you ask me. We made our way to the doors of the opera house, where we stood in line. It looked like we would make it, Mr. Elmer said, just in time to reach our seats. I looked over at Will, who had decided that changing out of casual clothes was an unnecessary endeavour. A lady clad in a fur coat and pearl earrings frowned at his neon green patagonia windbreaker, but he just smiled nonchalantly, revealing a wad of pink bubble gum resting on his tongue. I chuckled to myself. There we were, a group of disorganized Canadian high schoolers, panting frantically and chewing bubble gum in one of the world’s most prestigious, affluent, and successful operas. It seemed more like the plot for a Saturday Night Live skit than it did a macabre French opera. Nonetheless, we rushed up the towering flights of stairs two steps at a time, making it to our seats just as the theatre went black.

It took less than one act for somebody to throw up.

I didn’t actually see it happen. But in an opera, nauseated patrons often overshadow the performance itself, so naturally, word spread quickly. Five minutes after I had seen Nurse Natalie escort a silhouetted figure (who shall remain unnamed) out the back door, word travelled down the isle that someone had sprinted into the theatre a tad faster then was good for them. We all really should’ve seen it coming. What else could the combination of eating a rushed dinner, making a sprinting entrance, and watching a foreign opera yielded if not nausea?

However, as they say far too often in the business of entertainment, the show must go on. And it did, with few kinks or interruptions, until we reached the first intermission. Talk at the break leaned more towards our nauseous compatriot than it did the show itself, although those of us who managed to stay awake during the first act concurred that the show itself was not as bad as we thought it was going to be: at its worst an interesting social experience, at its best a mildly entertaining story showcasing tremendous talent from those onstage. But if the first act was only mildly entertaining, the second was a treat, with the bulk of entertainment coming from those in the crowd, as opposed to those onstage.

I don’t think I have ever laughed harder, at any point in my life, than I did during the second act of Les Contes de Hoffman, at the Metropolitan Opera. It is, at this point, worth noting that the show is a drama about loss and regret – there is hardly an ounce of comedy in the entire production. The comedy, however, started before the actors even took the stage. Madi, who I made a reference to in my last edition of the series, has a reputation for being easily cracked up. Knowing this, I took the liberty, for the sake of entertainment, to whisper a joke to him before the act began. I can’t quite remember what I said (and even if I did, the school might have problems with me posting it on their website) but whatever it was got Madi laughing. By extension, Madi laughing got me laughing, and me laughing got Fred, the grade twelve sitting next to me, laughing as well. Pretty soon, while we watched the singer on the stage perform a heart wrenching song of loss and betrayal, our entire row erupted into uncontrolled laughter. We tried as hard as we could to stop, of course, but it seems that the body always forces laughter at the most inappropriate times. By the end of the song, my lip was almost bleeding as I had been biting it so hard.

We all died down eventually, and the music became so peaceful and quiet that many of us fell asleep. Heads fell onto shoulders, and it seemed like an overwhelming peace had occupied our exhausted bodies. Until, of course, I looked over at Fred. The twelfth grader, with his suspenders clasped over a thick plaid jacket, and hair tied neatly into his signature “man bun” had fallen into what can only be described as a mild form of hibernation. His head tilted back so that his neck rested on the seat behind him, and his mouth was gaped wide open, clearly exposing his uvula to the entire row behind him. Specifically, the person who sat directly behind Fred was none other than our own Mr. Elmer. I saw him shoot a nervous glance down at Fred, scan the surrounding crowd apprehensively, and look back down at the snoring teenager in front of him. He had a dilemma on his hands, and it was pure comedy at its best. Eventually, he made the gutsy decision to wake him up. He yanked a string on his hoodie, and watched Fred’s head jolt up with a whiplash-esque movement. Of course, I, along with the patrons who were still awake, burst once again into a fiery laughter, which we tried our best, and ultimately failed, to control for the remainder of the act.

As the opera came to a close, the music died down into a peaceful, quiet piano solo. The sound of the keys echoed through the gigantic hall, and every movement from the pianist moved our class deeper into a deep slumber. The entire row of grade eight boys in front of us had their heads on each others shoulders, somewhat resembling a human domino effect. Madi, by some freak of human nature, had managed to fall asleep with his index finger pressing against nose, so that every time he exhaled he whistled a little. It was, if anything, an addition, rather than a hinderance, to the music. Just when most had reached their deepest cycles of sleep, the orchestra boomed loudly. In direct contrast to the gentle solo, the short, strong noises coming from the orchestra pit reverberated through the house. As the orchestra made their bellowing statement, people jumped out of their seats, eyes blinked open, and heads popped up from places one hadn’t even realized people were sitting. It somewhat resembled groundhogs poking their heads out of the earth, if you’ve ever seen that sort of thing.

We all groggily made our way to the lobby, trying to find Mr. Elmer so that we could get back to our hotel in Bergen, New Jersey, for a good night’s sleep. As I made my way out of the theatre, I bumped into a lady – or rather, she bumped into me – who had perhaps had a little more wine then suited her. She was older, but not old – maybe fifty or sixty – and wore a giant fur coat. She had bright red lipstick on, around her neck was a pearl necklace, and on her hands were diamond rings. She looked at me and said,

“I hope this isn’t your first opera!”
“It is,” I responded sheepishly.
“Well, that’s quite a shame,” she said, “because its not a very good one.”

I laughed.