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An Electrifying Night at the Opera in Budapest
My plan for this week was to write about the situation in Syria. The latest Lead Inspector General report on the counterterrorism operation in Iraq and Syria came out a couple of weeks ago, and there were a couple of interesting pieces on Syria in Foreign Affairs in the last week, so it felt like time to examine the latest.
But you know what? We need a little break from heavy stuff. After the election drama, which is slowly resolving but is far from over, Ukraine, the climate summit in Egypt, Twitter, and a somber holiday, I think something on the lighter side is in order.
In going through some of my notes and cast-aside material from my book recently, I came across a draft of something I wrote back in 2010 and it seemed random enough to dust off and turn into a post.
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In May 2010, a few weeks after my third reporting trip to Iraq when I spent a week embedded in Kirkuk followed by a week free-roaming Baghdad, I needed to decompress. I found a cheap flight and cheap hotel and ventured off to Budapest for a few days of unapologetic tourism.
I roamed the two sides of the city (I preferred Pest), visited museums, baths, and bars, and happened upon the annual Palinka festival where I ended up drinking the potent spirit and eating spicy sausages with a Delta Airlines flight crew that was overnighting in town and had also wandered across the festival.
However, the most memorable part of the trip was the night at the opera.
One of the items on my sightseeing list was the Hungarian State Opera House. The 19th-century building is one of those ornate beauties you only see in European capitals. It’s simply a temple to art.
While I was on my tour of the house, I checked the schedule and saw that there was one performance while I was in town. It was a production of Strauss’s Elektra later that evening.
It was going to be my first opera, and Elektra is not exactly entry-level material. Add to that, I hadn’t read Electra in any form (the original Sophocles story, the Eugene O’Neill play, or the Jennifer Garner movie—wait, that was different) since high school, and at that I’m not sure whether I actually read it or just discussed it in class.
The following account is the experience of going to the opera for the first time to see a performance of a story that you are vaguely familiar with, and it’s sung in German with Hungarian subtitles on the screen over the stage, so there is no possible way of understanding the dialogue. Plus, it was a modernist/surrealist production so it was way outside the box of what you would think of as an opera show. So, the on’y way I could write it up was by imagining how an 8-year-old would describe the experience to grandma—or how someone would live tweet the show.
The curtain rises on a two-level set. The bottom portion looks like a swimming pool. The walls are toothpaste-green tiles that extend up about 7-8 feet. There is a staircase on the left side that climbs to the top of the pool. There’s no water in the pool, and on the bottom is a pile of bags of topsoil and a small sapling growing out of a bag.
The upper level is a giant three-sided wooden box, the size of the stage. It is tilted forward about 30 degrees or so, and that exposes the stage behind the box. In the back wall of the box is a mirrored panel about 10 by 15 feet, and given the angle of the box, it provides an overhead view of the floor of the pool.
There are about a dozen women in white towels, some wrapped in a single towel, a few also have their hair wrapped in towels. At the far, back edge of the stage there is a row of showers, and there are two naked women showering with their backs to the audience.
Essentially, the whole set looks like some sort of spa or bath house—although the giant wooden box on top that is tilted forward doesn’t look like anything I can fathom as being part of a bath house.
The towel-clad women begin singing. They scurry about the stage singing. The naked women continue showering. After a while, a woman comes out in a white spa suit, and she looks like an instructor or headmistress or some other imposing figure. She causes the others some measure of anxiety and seems to order them about.
The naked women finish showering and towel off as the others continue to scurry about and sing. A woman in a white wedding dress comes onstage and sings as well. There is a large woman in a towel who seems to be an important character and sings with the woman in the dress.
Eventually, they are all chased offstage by the woman in the spa suit, and a couple of guys in white spa suits enter the stage with a laundry basket and pick up a couple of the towels. They all clear the stage.
A moment later, a crazed woman with bleached hair, a black prom dress and some serious goth eye makeup stands up from behind the bag of topsoil at the bottom of the pool. She sings. She continues singing and moving around the bottom of the pool. After a while, she starts to dance around with the sapling. She drags it around the stage. I can’t remember if the woman in the wedding dress appears at all during this part, but the next thing that happens is that a giant white bed descends from behind the tilted box above the pool.
There is a platform holding the bed that’s connected to wires used to lower the bed. There’s a woman on the bed in a black gown. She looks a little like Cruella de Ville from 101 Dalmatians. There are two women standing on the platform next to the bed. They are wearing white business outfits. This whole thing reminds me of the scene in Young Frankenstein when Igor lowers the bed from the ceiling because of the bed and the wires.
The woman in the black dress gets out of bed and begins singing to the goth chick in the pool. The two other women sing a little, and then they get back on the platform and ascend with the bed.
Cruella climbs down into the pool, and she and the goth sing and seem to argue. It gets heated. The goth woman grabs an axe from behind the potting soil. She goes after Cruella.
For the life of me, I have no idea what the hell is going on and what the narrative is. That said, the orchestra sounds brilliant in the historic hall, and the singing is haunting. Plus, there’s a goth chick running around the stage waving an axe. Apparently, opera is as bizarre and violent as depicted in Bugs Bunny cartoons.
While this is going on, two naked men and two naked women run across the back of the stage while trying to cover themselves in towels and the spa boss woman chases after them.
Back to the action in the pool. The two women wrestle a bit, fight, and goth chic seems like she’s about to axe Cruella, but they are interrupted. I can’t remember if it’s the chick in the wedding dress, or the two in business suits—I wasn’t taking notes in real time, and it was a lot of action and stimuli to process and remember.
Regardless, the interruption forces the goth chick the hide the axe, and Cruella escapes with her handlers. Then, the bride gets in the pool with the goth chick. They sing for a while. The mood goes back and forth. They seem to be friendly for a moment, then suddenly the goth chick is on top of the bride and wrestling her around the floor.
Next, a bunch of little things happen, and it’s hard to remember the exact sequence. At some point, a guy in a towel comes out on the stage above the pool and sings a couple of lines. A guy in a spa suit hands him another towel, and he sits down and dries his feet. Then, the spa guy hands another guy a pair of white pants. He puts them on, sings a couple more lines, and then runs offstage with the spa guy following.
The tension continues in the pool, and it feels like goth chick wants to axe the bride. There’s some other ruckus that takes place of the top of the stage. I can’t remember exactly what it was, therefore, I cannot describe the ruckus. All I can recall is a naked guy and a group of people in towels. Something happens for a few seconds, and then they are gone.
The women are in the pool, and I believe the bride finally leaves. The goth chick is playing with the axe and then two guys in suits appear above the pool. They look like Russian gangsters. One looks like a mix of Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, crossed with Duck Dunn the bass player (you might know him from The Blues Brothers).
He starts singing. The other guy walks around with a machine gun sticking out below his suit jacket. Axes and machine guns—why had no one told me opera was so badass?
Tommy Lee gets in the pool and sings with goth chick. Eventually, they seem to connect and hug a bit. He leaves. She stays in the pool. I think the bride appears again, but I’m not sure about that.
On the right side of the stage above the pool, a few people in towels come out, and a guy in a white robe appears. He looks like Maury the Slime from The Blues Brothers. There’s a little singing, and then they disappear.
Next, the giant box lowers and closes in the top of the stage. Goth chick climbs out of the pool and seems to be looking for a way out of the box. She sings, and then there is a scream. She sings some more, and then the box lifts again. People in towels are running around with flashlights.
For the next few minutes, people are running around in towels singing, and waving flashlights. Maury the Slime comes back out, and goth chick shines her light on him.
If I recall, everyone else disappears, and the box closes again. Goth chick puts down her flashlight on the stairs next to the axe that’s been lying there for a while.
This reminds me, as she walks down the stairs, she passes the sapling. At some point a while ago, she had dragged it part way up the stairs—I think the bride might have helped, but not sure about that.
Next, the mirrored panel in the box slides open. Maury the Slime is there and sings. Then Tommy Lee and a few more Russian mobsters in suits appear in this now open window in the box. They take Maury away—presumably that’s the end of him.
Then, a whole bunch of men and women in black suits appear in the window—some have what look like glasses of champagne in their hands. I should note that singing continues through all of this—I mean, it is opera.
The bride comes to the window, and then climbs through. She and goth chick sing for a bit.
Goth chick goes back down to the pool, and the bride shakes hands with all the people in suits standing in the window. Gradually, they disappear.
Next thing I remember is the box opens again. The bed is in the middle of the stage, and there are couches to either side with the people in suits silently lounging on them. There are (dead) people in blood-soaked towels lying about the stage in front of the people in the suits.
The bride gets in the bed and seems to be coaxing goth chick to join her.
Goth chick takes the sapling and slowly ascends the stairs while fondling the tree and singing. She slowly approaches the bed. Bride gets out of bed and moves to stage right.
Goth chick drags the sapling into the bed, and then stands on the bed, holding the sapling, and singing. The people in suits are non-nonplussed.
The women sing, and then Tommy Lee and a few Russian mobsters appear on stage. He slowly walks out and stands between the bed and the bride. He raises his arm and exposes a machine gun. He shoots the two women. The rest of the stage goes dark, and the spotlight shines on his face. The curtain falls.
The company comes out for about eight rounds of bows.
As they were taking bows, I sat befuddled trying to determine whether what I just saw was a brilliant Quentin Tarantino/Terry Gilliam-esque take on a classic tragedy, or whether it was the “Waiting for Guffman” of Opera. 12 years later I’m still not entirely sure.
Now, in all seriousness, I have to say that the singing was extraordinary. The goth woman in particular was riveting and so convincing that a couple of times I thought she was going to run into the crowd and hack someone to pieces.
The orchestra was fabulous, and it was probably the best sounding live performance I’ve heard. The acoustics in the hall were stunning, and it really felt like you were somehow inside the orchestra.
All in all, it was an amazing experience. I should mention that it was heightened by the fact that I had purchased a $7 ticket for the back of the upper balcony, but when I arrived, I was told that they weren’t opening the balcony and I would be given a different seat. I ended up in a $50 seat in the 13th row of the floor/orchestra section.
So, pretty cool experience all the way around, although I still can’t do justice to how odd it was to sit for two hours and not understand a word of a performance of a play that you barely know to begin with, let alone the fact that the production made you feel like you had been dosed prior to the performance.
If all opera is like that, count me in!
Now, one last bit of business for this week. This is Movember, and I am running a fundraiser to support the cause of men’s health. Please consider making a donation to support prostate cancer research and men’s mental health—two important and personal concerns.