International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Paris Opera: From Our Archives
Without a Programme
would argue that ballet and opera are no longer living arts. That
is, they do not affect the cultural landscape in the same way films
or other media do. To be sure, a new and excellent ballet can and
does affect a number of people and change them, but not society
as a whole. It does not seem to be something that the modern mind
connects with. Nevertheless, on my honeymoon I went to see a ballet
in the amazing 1875 Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier.
My wife had given
me these tickets during the previous Christmas and we were both excited.
Neither of us had ever seen a live ballet before.
it turned out that the two seats she was able to score for that night
were not adjoining, or even in the same "box." We split up
inside the beautiful old opera house, promising to meet at intermission.
I was immediately struck by the enormous six-ton chandelier, ornate
gold facings, and plush red seats. This was what I expected from a ballet
in Paris, an ancient ritual in a domain of flamboyant riches.
ceiling, painted more recently by Mark Chagall, took my breath away.
Yellows, reds, blues, and greens swirled around scenes of Dionysian
revelry. Couples embraced and I thought of my wife, and vainly tried
to peer down and around to where I thought her box might be. Meanwhile,
a French family entered the box, and their young daughter complained
that she couldnt see. So, being the polite gentleman I like
to think of myself as, I let the small girl take my seat. Immediately,
I knew I made a mistake. My view of stage left became partially
blocked by a pillar, though if I leaned out over her I could see
The ballet of the
day was Paquita, apparently a typical 19th century production.
As the music struck up, I realized that I did not have a programme,
and even if I did, it would be in French. I certainly had not read up
on the ballet, did not know the libretto, and as the dancers appeared
I realized that I was going to have no earthly idea what was happening.
I could appreciate a few things immediately, of course. The costumes
were bright and colorful, made with care and extravagance. The dancers
themselves performed athletic spins and twirls and jumps that put pro
basketballers to shame. A barbarian like me could wonder at these marvelous
skills, even while remaining in the dark about the story.
Rather than let myself be swept away by the music and dance moves, I
decided to try to fight my confusion and figure it out. Gypsies, bullfighters,
and soldiers mixed on the stage, all seeming to fight over one Bohemian
girl. The company stood on the edges watching the performance like the
chorus in Greek theater. Groups of children ran across the stage in
several scenes and I wondered how much they understood of what they
were doing. I had always enjoyed the symphony, but here it seemed tangential
rather than the primary attraction. Having attended operas and musicals,
I kept expecting the dancers to burst into song, and their silence baffled
The girl in my assigned seat blew her nose loudly and the mother hit
her on the shoulder. Nevertheless, she did it again, louder. I tried
to ignore her and concentrate on the plot. The gypsy girl has a falling
out with a gypsy man. A soldier is much nicer to her and seems like
the hero. The gypsy steals a locket from her. A bald guy in red hangs
around the background, and I surmise he is the devil. The second act
is easier to understand. The gypsy goes to kill someone in a bar. The
bald guy, who appears masked and certainly must be the devil, encourages
him. They invite the soldier in to the table and are going to get him
wasted, and then stab him.
Of course, the girl who loves the soldier isnt going to let this
happen. They set the table for pasta and meatballs, which I find to
be an odd choice in what I thought was Spain. The gypsy and soldier
eat, and the girl sticks around, even though the gypsy doesnt
want her to. She switches the glasses, and breaks the bottle "accidentally"
so no one can drink more. The gypsy king drinks while the girl dances
around, providing entertainment. The gypsy keels over, and drops the
locket. The girl and soldier grab it and escape through a magical passage
in the chimney.
At intermission I share my interpretation of the events with my wife,
who looks a bit confused herself. She has been focusing on the technique,
the beauty in the dance, and the music. She mentions the dozens of movements
happening at once, the nearly mechanical wonder of the performance.
I shrug. "I still wish I had the libretto."
After intermission I cant locate the right box and only by peeking
in through various curtains to look for the little girl in my old seat
do I find it. A ballroom scene full of soldiers follows. I use my powers
of literary analysis and peg this as "the heros return to
his world." The girl accuses the bald guy in red, who is not the
devil, but some rival or other lord of the solider. He is dragged off,
looking quite put out. The parents of the hero accept the gypsy girl,
and this has something to do with the locket stolen earlier by the other
gypsy. Perhaps she is not a gypsy after all, and by some 19th century
logic is acceptable in their polite society.
The story is over but the dances continue, all fairly similar. The music
spins like a carousel, round and round. The last few dances lose narrative
coherence and seem completely extraneous. At this point I realize that
the entire story was only an excuse for spectacle, that Paquita
did not strive for emotions like opera, but rather worked as a feast
for the eyes and ears. Was it only this piece? Or do all ballets work
this way? Does that make it better or worse?
Regardless, I had been entertained trying to figure out the plot, even
if it wasnt important. The performance also challenged my ideas
of what to expect. Dont those two characteristics combine to make
the "living art" that society needs? Maybe I wasnt such
a barbarian after all. Maybe there was a place for ballet in the modern
mind. However, as I got up to leave, I noticed the parents of the little
girl in my former seat shaking her. She had fallen asleep.
© Eric D Lehman Feb 2009
Elehman at bridgeport.edu
Eric D. Lehman is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of
Bridgeport in Connecticut and has previously published reviews, essays,
fiction, and poetry in various journals, such as Hackwriters, Umbrella,
Artistry of Life, Red River Review, Identity Theory, Entelechy, Switchback,
and Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal. His book
'Tales From the Park City' is forthcoming from The History Press.
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