I have always loved the theatre. I love just going into the buildings, letting the atmosphere wrap around me! Even our quite new Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, with it’s warm wood and airy light pouring in all those huge windows is exciting. But so much more are the old history-soaked theatres of Europe.
When I was young, many, many decades ago, I travelled with my mother for over a year, visiting England, France, and finally touring through Spain to come to rest in Barcelona, where a world- renowned ophthalmologist was going to take a look at my eyes to see if I was a candidate for eye-surgery. That part is not really germane to the story, except as an explanation of sorts as to why we were doing this ‘Grand Tour’ sort of thing in the first place!
While in London, we went to Covent Garden and I saw my first opera in that lovely theatre. It was La Traviata, and although I was familiar with the music, the performance lifted me right back to the 19th century. Luckily this was before the era of so much experimenting with modernization of productions. After that we went to theatres in the west end to see some plays– Sheridan comes to mind– and again the buildings themselves contributed to the experience. This was long before the building of the Globe, by the way. This was the fifties and there was still some rationing, and bomb sites were visible around every corner. But the theatres were flourishing in all their glory!
In France we made it several times to La Comédie Française, and bathed in the glories of the French Alexandrine, and though at the time I did not get more than about a third, like the audience the plays were written for, I knew my classic mythology! We went to some ballet, too, at the incredible Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera and one of the grandest theatres I have ever been in, and that is saying something!
In Spain the theatre I remember from those days was the Liceo in Barcelona. Have been back there since several times for opera, but this first time it was Spanish dancing, Antonio and Rosario as I recall, and they were amazing! Catalan was forbidden under Franco, of course, so there was not a speck of it around.
I have traveled in Europe many times since, visiting friends, doing research in the Comédie Française for my thesis, but I didn’t start seriously seeking out opera on my travels until my brother began organizing trips for opera-lovers in London and Toronto. I had never gone on any organized tours before, thinking it would be too much like being shuffled about like cattle, but going with this group, many of whom were familiar to me from the opera here, was different. We did not hop from place to place, with no real time to get to know the atmosphere of the cities and towns we visited. There was time to sit in cafes and people-watch, time to wander, time to get familiar with the byways, as well as the highways. And if you lost your ticket, my big brother would hope to it and fix it for you, pronto!
Best of all, there was the chance to see rarely performed opera, like the one we saw in Prague, The Tsar’s Bride by Rimsky-Korsakov; and the amazing experience of being in the elegant but small gem of a theatre where Mozart conducted the premiere of Don Giovanni, also in Prague. And Venice, in the wonderful Teatro La Fenice, for Traviata again, ironically the Toronto production in modern dress, with Violeta wandering around in her black satin slip in the last act, dragging her mink coat behind her.
And then there is the incomparable Saltzberg Festival!
It is very difficult to even get good tickets here so going with a group is the easiest way to do it. This is a formal event, which does much to lift the experience to a much higher level of opera-going! Imagine yourself in your long dress wandering through the elegant crowds of Austrians, dressed in silk and satin and velvet versions of their national consumes, carrying your
champagne out into the cobbled courtyard at intermission, as the moon rises over the battlements of a castle! Around you the polyglot crowd ebbs and flows, discussing the production. And these productions tend to be amazing! The singers are all superb, of course and the directors outdo themselves in their efforts to catch the bravos of the opera-lovers. It does not always work! Don Giovanni shooting up in the park comes to mind. But he could sing!
I could go on and on, waxing poetic about theatres, opera, and travel, but I think I have made my point! I love it all: the trips, the music, the old buildings with their wonderful atmosphere of bygone days, but I will spare you. I leave you with this photo of me at Saltzberg, about to head out for yet another wonderful evening.
(This article appeared first in a slightly different version as a guest blog post for the Mesdames of Mayhem travel series this summer. Caro)