31 October 2006

A Night At The Opera

I have walked past the Opera House at least once a week since I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, but had never been inside. On one hand, I am suitably impressed by French colonial architecture, on the other; it is a blatant reminder of colonialism. Hence, I had never had the desire to explore the inside. There are always performances going on but I never seem to know about them until after they occur. But when I heard about “A one act opera in which Italian music meets Vietnamese Romance”, I made sure I got the dates right.

My friend and I arrived at the Opera House at 4:30 for the 5pm performance. We climbed up the grand front entrance stairs, went to the ticket booth and asked for two seats. The woman picked up about seven tickets, thumbed through them and said they were sold out. I asked about the tickets in her hand. “No more”, she said. I pointed to the ones in her hand and asked again. I think the problem was that there were not two seats together and she assumed that is what I wanted. Eventually, I got to aisle seats on the main floor.

I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, other than colonial grandeur. Right away I could see that it was a bit shabby, but not bad for a hundred year old building. I don’t know the exact date of construction, but had heard that it was a replica of some opera house somewhere in France. Before looking for my seat, I went in search of the restrooms, which were located downstairs.

Since the main entrance is actually second floor level, ‘downstairs’ takes you to street level. And there, at the bottom, right next to the restrooms, is where all the motorbikes were parked. Not much fazes me when it comes to gasoline powered transport inside houses anymore, and I didn’t even think it odd until later that evening.

Back up at the main level, we walked into the theater to find our seats. I was surprised, yet pleased at how small it seemed. From the outside, I had envisioned a massive venue and had thought that my seat in row ‘L’ would be in the nether regions. I was remarkably close. I looked at my watch; ten minutes until curtain, and the theater was not even half filled.

As the minutes ticked down, I kept my eyes on all the empty seats and told my friend, in row ‘D’, that we could probably move in a few minutes. Five minutes to go, some orchestra members were tuning up, while others causally walked down the aisles having just arrived. As the curtain time warning lights flashed, more musicians and patrons arrived. The two seats beside me remained empty. Five o’clock arrived, the house lights dimmed and I was just about to go get my friend when two women walked in sat next to me, yapping away.

About this time the orchestra started playing, and one of the ladies kept telling her friend that she couldn’t see. Then she started leaning half way into my territory to try and see down into the orchestra pit, all the time complaining. In addition, new people kept coming in. it seemed obvious that they were not going to shut the doors to latecomers, who continued to arrive for the next thirty minutes.

When the curtain went up, the lady next to me finally shut up. The stage itself was high enough to easily see the singers and the set was constructed of tiers that rose to a scary height, considering there were no safety handrails on any of them, and the performers stood right at their edge. The chorus consisted of something like thirty men and women, mostly Vietnamese, but with a few western folks thrown in, towering over their choir mates.

I was just settling into it, trying to ignore the stragglers arriving, when the woman next to me picked up her cell phone and started to text message someone. I leaned over and said, excuse me?, in a low, commanding voice. She huffed and put the phone away. I was later to learn that she had it on vibrate, and when it buzzed her, she picked it up and walked out of the theater to chat. From then on, the only distraction was some large man who kept pacing up and down the center aisle throughout the entire performance.

“Chao Bella”, incorporated the music of Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, and others, into a tale of love on the Mekong Delta. Your basic love story: boy meets girl - girl’s father disapproves – boy wins approval of father – all live happily ever after. And it was wonderful! They sang in Vietnamese and Italian, and I think I understood about two words in Italian, but it didn’t matter. At one point in the story, a group performed for the main characters. They juggled, did flips, balanced and rolled around on giant balls, walked on stilts. I was later to learn that they were from the Ho Chi Minh City Circus. I hadn’t even known there was such a thing. There was another section with a beautiful pas de deux with wonderful ballet dancers.

After the performance, we walked across the street to the Continental Hotel, famous as the spot where the writer Graham Greene wrote “The Quiet American”. I had always wanted to go, but had thought the veranda had been glassed in and I hate sidewalk cafes that are enclosed. It turned out that one section is still open-air in the evenings. The place has quite a pretentious feel to it, and was almost empty. Surprisingly, the prices were quite reasonable and it was a lovely place to sit and watch the people go by.

In the future I hope to go to more performances. I believe there is a city symphony orchestra, ballet, and opera, as well as visiting performers. Now I just have to find out where to get a season schedule.