A Night at the Opera House
In a trip that has already racked up numerous highlights, with many more to come, last night will certainly rank near the top.
Thanks to the generosity and kindness of a neighbor back home who harbors a glorious memory himself of a long-ago night spent at the Paris Opera House, I had the privilege last night of watching the extraordinary Martha Graham Dance Company from an orchestra seat at the Palais Garnier.
Before I gush over the performance, allow me first to attempt to describe the Palais Garnier itself. Originally named the Salle des Capucines, this opulent venue designed in the beaux-arts style (think gilt and ornate statues) opened in 1875 and may be best known as the inspiration for Phantom of the Opera. Nothing against the Phantom of the Opera, of course, but the beauty of the place is exceptional enough without that celebrity.
The Palais Garnier is the very essence of opulence. It's over-the-topness is almost too much for your eyes to take in, and the same can be said for my iPhone camera; it was quite impossible to get a good photograph of the place, outside or in, because everything is just so larger than life! Honestly, though, once I gave up on getting a halfway decent selfie on the grand staircase, I felt liberated. Now I had time to enjoy a leisurely glass of champagne (as if I didn't get enough on Tuesday!) and leaf through the program I'd purchased for 15 euros. And yes, I also thought that was a lot of money for a program, but this was a special occasion and I wanted to have something tangible as a keepsake. It turns out that the program is not what passes for a program back home, but rather it's more of a book that details the history of the dance company, complete with in-depth articles on the dances performed and beautiful photographs. As a bonus, it's in both French and English--mostly French--so I can use it as yet another learning tool.
But back to the tailgating...
My champagne was delicious, thank you for asking, and interestingly, it was Taittinger! Buoyed by the bubbly (as if I needed buoying), I followed an usher to my seat--not one of those folding cloth seats we're accustomed to in most theaters, but an honest-to-goodness red velvet chair. Old school! Okay, not the most comfortable theater seat, and the velvet kept sucking up the back of my sweater as if I were leaning back on an octopus, but oh how elegant it all was. And I was just four or five rows from the orchestra pit that would provide live music for the performance. Again, there was so much for the eyes to take in and for the mind to process. My beleaguered neck got a thorough workout, peering up at the balcony and the boxes, gleaming gold and crimson velvet as far as the eye could see--and then there was the domed ceiling. An original bronze and crystal chandelier of seven tons hanging from the center of a vivid Marc Chagall fresco painted during renovations in 1964. (I've since discovered that this fresco was quite controversial when it was unveiled, a controversy that persists more than 50 years later.)
At last, the lights dimmed and the theater went silent. The performance began not with the curtain rising on the dancers, but with the American director of the dance company and an interpreter up on the stage providing an introduction to what we were about to see. I won't say I've never seen this done before, but the level of detail we were provided was surprising to me--basically, the history of the dances we'd be seeing that night. I loved the context the prefacing remarks provided, although it did take quite a while considering everything had to be said in two languages.
At last, the dancing began. There were four pieces in total, one of them--Ekstasis--originally choreographed and performed by the illustrious Ms. Graham in 1933. That solo piece of less than six minutes was danced on this occasion by former Paris Opera Ballet etoile (star) Aurelie Dupont. Besides having the greatest name ever, Madame Dupont was breathtaking in this dance that is essentially an exploration of the relation of hip to shoulder. The costume and lighting and music all combined like a magic potion to raise this piece even beyond the hype of the introduction we'd been given--that it was like a modern art painting come to life.
It was during this piece that I first felt a slight buildup of emotion in my throat--and not because the dance itself was moving, which it absolutely was, but because I really couldn't believe I was there. It was one of those moments when I was simultaneously blown away by the sheer power of artistic expression and the incredible good fortune that had allowed me to be there. The Palais Garnier. Paris. How had I landed here? There must be some mistake, but I wasn't about to point it out to anyone.
The second time I got choked up--actually, this time tears did make it to my eyes--was during another short piece--one of the Lamentations Variations. As the name implies, these commissioned pieces (an ongoing commission) are about grief, and we were treated to an old, short film of Martha Graham performing the original 1930 Lamentation (not in 1930, but when she was already an old woman). There was no music and the theatre was completely silent, as if every one of the 1,900-plus people was holding his/her breath. Then four dancers came out--three men and a woman--and padded gracefully around the stage while we listened to an scratchy recording of Martha Graham talking about the dance. I don't know when the interview was recorded, but she sounded quite old already. Without going into a lot of detail, she related the story of an audience member who'd watched her dance Lamentation and came to thank her afterwards. Graham learned later that some time before, that woman had watched her nine-year-old son die before her eyes, yet she had never been able to cry over it. That night (I can't remember how much time had passed), watching Graham go through the motions of grief, pushing and pulling in a costume that was essentially a shroud, the mother finally felt moved to cry--she felt it was okay to do so--and for that she thanked Graham. In the interview, Graham shared that that encounter had a significant impact on her career because (more eloquently than I'm saying it here) she really understood then, more than ever, that everything she did, the art she created and did her utmost to express, was all about speaking to that one person in the audience who needs to hear it.
Gulp. Before the tears puddle on my laptop, let me share with you a quote of Graham's that I've always loved:
There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how valuable it is, nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU. Keep the channel open.
And to think she was a dancer, not a writer.
Okay, that's enough with the accolades of Graham for now. What I maybe haven't highlighted enough is that the spectacular dancers in her namesake company definitely did her justice last night. Accordingly, the crowd was quite enthusiastic in its long and loud applause, though I found it curious that not a single soul stood up. Back in the States, I have heard mutterings about standing ovation "inflation"--that these days, there are standing Os at just about everything, which only results in the cheapening of the gesture--but surely this performance deserved one? I wasn't about to stand by myself and I assume this is a matter of cultural differences, particularly since everyone was buzzing about what a stunning ballet it was as we all stepped out a bit dazed into the cool Parisian night.
Did you think the night was over? Au contraire! I hadn't yet eaten dinner and it was just 10:30 p.m., so I turned the corner onto one of the "grand boulevards," Boulevard des Capucines, and veered directly toward a quintessential French restaurant I'd researched beforehand--Le Grand Cafe des Capucines. Known for its lavish platters of shellfish on ice and for the amazing fact that it's open 24 hours a day, this late dinner was a real treat. The setting could not have been more classic and, in addition to the seafood, the menu offered up those French comfort food staples of onion soup au gratin and escargots and foie gras and steak frites (I could go on). I had actually been dreaming of onion soup and steak frites all evening, but my appetite had waned somewhat in the intervening hours. I opted instead for the raviole des langoustines, which sounds like simple lobster ravioli, but was actually a dish featuring a layer of delicate, homemade pasta stuffed with wild mushrooms, topped with lobster meat and served in a bubbling broth of what I'm guessing was lobster stock, wine and butter. Absolutely one of the best things I've eaten since arriving. (I realize I say that a lot, by the way!)
There was naturally a glass of wine to go along with my meal--a splurge on the Margaux--and then the night was too perfect to end quite yet, so there was also la soupe des fruits rouges (mixed berries with raspberry sorbet in a red fruit syrup and chantilly cream) and a cafe noisette.
Now it was almost midnight and it was time for me to make like Cinderella. I made my way down the block back to the metro and paused a moment before going down the stairs, breathing in a last glimpse of the Palais Garnier and minting another fabulous new memory.
Merci, David. Merci, Martha Graham. Here's to keeping the channel open.