The Loss and Gain of a Spectator

4:23 pm

The Opera is a place for pretense, even if it may be the kind that doesn't mean to cause any harm.

Why seek the stage for entertainment when the act starts at the entrance?  Your ticket is the cheapest available, a mere fiver, but you are dressed (or you think you are dressed) as though it could have cost five times that.

In fact, you aren't interested in the opera at all; the singing and the acting together involve far too much make-up. You are here to watch the ballet instead; with a live orchestra, geometric patterns dancing against the light, and no singing, it has an appeal of a different kind.

The inside of the Royal Opera House is like an overwhelming stage set. People in their best costumes participate wholeheartedly and unknowingly in an impromptu drama. The old and the rich sip their champagne on the ground floor, young nervous men escort their girlfriends to the restaurant for a pre-ordered, pre-rehearsed meal and everyone else moves in dizzy speeds, hurrying to get to their seats. As you go higher up, the ticket prices get cheaper and the ambiance becomes more and more normal. When you arrive at the final floor of the opera house, snatches of conversation establish your fellow amphitheater audience to be similar to you in that they are deal seeking, arts craving, ballet synopsis reading souls with that cruel habit of generalization.  

Like them, you think you are smart and have read about the ballet beforehand. You know that the story is about a girl, Tatyana’s unrequited love for an independent, selfish boy, Onegin who doesn’t know himself. The story sounds like a cliché but you are willing to forgive that aspect of the drama in light of everything else you expect to receive from the evening.

A bell rings, the doors open and you are inside. The hall is dressed up too but with its aquamarine ceiling, gold carvings and red lampshades, the garishness of everything else, if at all, ceases to be of any consequence.

The orchestra starts playing Tchaikovsky. The musicians are hidden away in a basement without a roof. You notice they receive no introduction, and so do I.

From my seat, I can’t see a small section of the stage but I can see the orchestra and I can see a slice of 19th century Russia as trained ballet dancers with strange body shapes, recreate Pushkin’s Onegin for our pleasure.

Most parts of the ballet only excite some surface based emotions in me. The music is the same for it’s not the original opera that Tchaikovsky wrote, but an adaptation for the ballet. Onegin, the indifferent, only receives my indifference. Tatyana, the romantic, only receives some of my sympathy. The characters don’t receive much from me, just as I don’t receive much from them.

As we go into the second act, Tatyana’s love for Onegin has been rejected. We were expecting this and now that it has happened, you don’t care too much and neither do I.

Then the music changes. And heaven knows why, but now I’m crying.

Perhaps I cry for all the dancers who are portraying someone else’s emotions in someone else’s clothes, for the musicians who provide the impression that they can’t wait to go back home from this dreary half-basement job of playing someone’s orchestra to perfection without applause, for the fear that you, me and our garish friends, who are so desperate to appreciate someone else’s work from another time with such little understanding that it seems unlikely even if pessimistic, that we will ever create anything substantial of our own.

Or perhaps it is because of what I finally receive from this evening - music that is so exceptionally beautiful in parts; that once belonged to Tchaikovsky but now belongs to me.

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