More than a decade ago, I had an interesting encounter when I was on a business trip in Paris. Once arrived at hotel, I asked if the concierge could help me find an opera ticket, which they did by securing one at the Paris grand opera house “Opera Garnier”.
Upon entering the opera house, I was shocked to see that my formal business attire was completely out of place. I had never been in such a formal occasion before and AFTERWARDS, and I had only seen similar scenes in movies and operas. Luckily, my seat was very good, and I really enjoyed the performance without understanding anything that had been sung (no subtitles anywhere). The music was so beautiful, and so was the singing. Only after the curtain had fallen, an old lady next to me, an American, told me that it was Mozart’s “Clemency of Tito.” I learned that this was the last show for the season, which explained why it was so formal.
With excitement and confidence that I could enjoy an opera without subtitles, I immediately bought a ticket for another show for the following night, without knowing anything about the production. The ticket only said that it would be at Opera Bastille, the newly renovated project that converted the infamous prison into an opera house. To better align my dress code with this event, I purposely bought a dark-colored tie. This time my seat was even better. It was right at the center, just a few rows behind the orchestra pit. I was so excited. I arrived so early that I was probably the first one to enter the house. However, only 10 minutes later my heart started to sink. It occurred to me that I was the ONLY ONE in full business attire. The vast majority of the audience sported summer-outdoor outfit. It was in the middle of May, and the weather has already turned stifling in Paris. Yet, there were no air-conditioning in the theater. I was sweating!
Eventually, the music started with Myung-whun Chung (編者注：著名南韓指揮家）conducting, and so did the real horror! The music was so dissonant that I wished I could close my ears as I shut my eyes. When the singers joined the orchestra, the evening reached its lowest point, or the most painful point for me. Were the actors singing? No! They were merely gibberish-talking! So dissonant, so irritating, and so much sweating ... but I still had to force myself to sit tight fearing that any body movement might disturb my neighbors. At this point I came to realize that, despite its magnificent architecture and its new and beautiful interior decoration, this building was still a prison! I checked my watch every minute or so hoping for a break during the intermission. Alas, it never came! There was no intermission for this opera!
After nearly two hours of torture, I eventually got out of the prison. When I got into the hotel, I showed the program brochure, which cost 5 EURO, to a staff, and asked what this opera was about. It was Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead.” Its libretto was based on Dostoevsky’s novel of the same title, which I happened to have read when I was at Cornell University. The story was about the life experience of a political prisoner in a Siberia jail!!! Aha! Could any other operas have brought such fitting experience tonight?
Since then, I have been wondering if my experience with these two live opera performances in Paris could be good material for an opera theme, i.e., “Life goes from heaven to hell within 24 hours. "