A day and a night at the opera

One of the greatest things about Germany is how the Germans cherish, preserve and celebrate high culture. One the most baffling things about it, is the Germans’ ability to enjoy it under any and all conditions.

Any German town that dares call itself a such has its own theater and/or opera house. Obviously, the quality of performance varies – small towns can rarely compete with big cities (unless its a town specifically known for its accomplishments in the field, like Weimar or Bayreuth). But even big city orchestras have their low points; one of my worst concert experiences was listening to Komische Oper orchestra as it limped its way through Tschaikovski’s Nutcracker. As a daughter to a professional pianist, a classical music aficionado since age six (see previous point) and a Ukrainian with Russian cultural background (see previous 2 points – there, you got your stereotypes at last), it was literally painful.

But even the worse possible conductor cannot rival the sheer shock of beer and a Bratwurst at the opera. We have already established that the Germans can’t go anywhere without their beer – and this goes for the opera as much as for anything else. I’m fairly sure that my first encounter with the buffet at a German theater was rather baffling for the people in line, who were probably wondering why that girl is standing in front of it with the facial expression of someone who has just been hit with a rather large mallet. Oh yes – they serve beer at the opera.

And that’s just the normal, indoors opera. One of the best – and most curious – parts about Germany’s love of opera are the public viewings. Germans will watch anything in public (note for future post), and classical music festivals hardly ever go without a free-of-charge live translation from the concert hall to an open air space – pretty much regardless of weather conditions, unless it’s snowing (Germans don’t like it when it snows. A classic nuts and toothless case.).

My first public opera viewing was in Bayreuth, during the Wagnerfestspiele (the annual Wagner festival). Having realized that my only way to have had seating tickets at the time of my stay was to have orderd them when I was 15 (average waiting time for Wagnerfestspiele tickets is 7 to 10 years; if you think I’m joking, go ahead and place an order), I opted for my only other option to see “Tristan und Isolde” played at the composer’s home town. So around noon I showed up at Bayreuth’s biggest park, wearing jeans (because it’s a park) and a pearl necklace (because it’s the opera), assuming there will be some sort of viewing arrangements.

What there was, was a sea of folding chairs and food stalls of the country fair variety.  i.e. – beer (of course), and Bratwurst. Now, it is not unreasonable to have some sort of easily prepared food sold at an event which lasts over 6 hours (It’s Wagner. This is actually a short opera), but you don’t usually expect an opera viewing to so closely resemble Oktoberfest.

And then I saw the picnickers.

In spite of the organizers’ best efforts, there were  – and this is my favourite part – simply not enough chairs. The park seatings were not enough to accommodate all the Bavarians eager to enjoy a day full of classical music. So they brought blankets and picnic baskets. And sat on the ground.

Now, this may seem normal and logical to you, but I was raised watching opera in a chair, wearing my best dress (the jeans were actually a feat), so watching people sitting on the ground in shorts and munching a Bratwurst to the sounds of “Das sage sie” was a culture shock of the most literal kind.

It only serves me right that by late afternoon I looked like this:

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Photo: Kristina Milicevic

What they don’t tell you when you go to Europe in the summer, thinking it’s all summer rain, and light showers, and lovely weather, is that it gets HOT. Blazing hot. Especially in Bavaria. Especially in August. I came from the Middle East and I was suffering (as is evident from the lack of any shred of self dignity). The only reason I’m wearing that cardigan in the photo is because it was either that or going home as a fried tomato (and I don’t do fried foods, they make you fat). Make no mistake – the Germans around me were just as miserable. They were the ones who thought up the paper hats. But they matched me on staying power – while still complaining about whose bright idea it was, to have a day-long open air screening in Bavarian mid-August.

Not that late summer evenings are any better. Bonn is currently celebrating Beethovenfest (Germans do love their “we had a composer live here, let’s throw a festival for him!” festivals), and the open air de jour was a live translation of “Fidelio” from the opera house. Around 8 o’clock in the evening the square in front of the historic city hall filled up with music lovers. Since the screening coincided with a pop festival at the neighbouring square, all the beer stalls – along with most of the younger crowd – were on the other side. This one had an open ice-cream café and a souvenir stand, which was offering, among other things, folding chairs and blankets. At first I was a bit confused about the blankets – cobblestones are not a ground you want to sit on, and the weather has been fairly pleasant the past few evenings. Not warm as such, but warm enough to get away with a jacket and a scarf.

I understood it pretty quickly, though. About 30 minutes into the opera, the temperatures dropped from chilly to “Oh my God, where are my ear muffs?!”, and even while wearing a woolen coat I was beginning to lose sensation in my toes. But trust the Germans to not let something as silly as weather spoil their classical fun.

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This elderly lady was almost as good a show as the opera itself. She covered up her elegant clothes in the branded 5-Euro blanket, ordered a glass of wine from the café, lit up a cigarette and leaned back in a motion that made it perfectly clear why Marlene Dietrich could only ever have been German.

By the time we reached the intermission all sensation in my toes was gone, and I opted for physical survival – the shivering made it too hard to enjoy the music. I can handle heat, but the dropping temperatures take readjustment. I did just come from the Middle East. Most of the crowd was still there as I was leaving.

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About Girl in Glasses

Freelance journalist
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