In the words of Martin Bernheimer, “Los Angeles audiences give a standing ovation when the conductor wears matching socks.” Hitting the high Cs on the high seas seemed a clever way of getting opera fans together on a cruise through the Mediterranean. Los Angeles Opera was still in its infancy but the company had already delivered the most talked-about “Salome” ever when Maria Ewing brought the Dance of the Seven Veils to its natural conclusion with full frontal nudity. Amidst the usual “Madama Butterfly”, “La Boheme” and “Carmen” offerings we were gifted with a stark presentation of Prokofiev’s “The Fiery Angel” and an “Aida” which became the talk of the opera world when one of the humongous plastic elephants dropped one of its ears right into the orchestra pit. The clatter stopped the performance and the Dorothy Chandler auditorium was overcome with fits of violent laughter. A memorable experience – it took several minutes to continue with the music. Even Verdi would have enjoyed it, I think.
Peter Hemmings, an elegant, soft-spoken British impresario had finally given Los Angeles an opera company and for that we were grateful. Sailing on a behemoth ship in the Mediterranean is not the best way to cruise, whereas the yacht-like experience of docking or anchoring at smaller, more interesting ports allows you to disembark in a more civilized manner. Crystal Symphony is a big ship but the itinerary sounded inviting and the musical companions top tier. Aside from Hemmings and his delightful wife Jane, there would be special lectures by the incredibly gifted Pulitzer prize winning music critic, Martin Bernheimer and operatic recitals with Maria Ewing the multitalented actress and singer. We would be traveling from Athens to Rome with overnight stays in the ports of Venice and Cannes, also visiting Valletta, Malta and Taormina, Sicily. What a deal!
There were only about 16 of us listed as the Los Angeles Opera group and we met most every afternoon for informative lectures followed by discussions. Mr. Bernheimer played our professor with an irrepressible sense of humor and Maria Ewing proved herself to be most generous and accessible. When Crystal Symphony docked alongside the Grand Canal in Venice, we disembarked and walked to Harry’s Bar, a short stroll across the Piazza San Marco. We made a dinner reservation for that night at 7:30 and spent the afternoon walking the alleyways, revisiting old haunts: The Accademia with men rushing to catch the water bus carrying century old cello cases, the sounds of a soprano vocalizing, a piano playing scales, a young man standing near a cafe playing the flute. There were artisans creating pieces of jewelry, On the Rialto Bridge we stopped for gelato, scanned the Venetian glass beads and watched the fisherman laying out the catch of the day. The pigeons would fly around and dive bomb near a group of tourists in the piazza as workmen carrying works of art and massive sculptures into the doorway of a crumbling Palazzo. Locals and tourists ate pasta with seafood in overcrowded and overpriced restaurant patios. Glassblowers had set up a stand and a few novices were making colorful ashtrays while the population surrounding them tried to give up smoking. The Gondolas swanned by as gondoliers belted out, “O Sole Mio” to the embracing honeymooners. There is a peaceful serenity about the Queen of the Adriatic even when the action seems like bedlam. It is incredibly beautiful chaos.
When we arrived for dinner at Harry’s Bar we noticed that all the tables were taken except for a long table next to us which was set for 10. We ordered a cocktail and a appetizer of prosciutto with figs. As our divine homemade pasta arrived so did the party of ten. A tall, elegant man took his place at the head of the table and sat after his guests were seated. The man sitting at the foot of the table immediately perused the wine list, huddled with the sommelier pointed to a selection and nodded. Then a server approached the man with the menu. Again, he pointed, whispered to the server and nodded. Two bottles of red wine were opened and the man poured a small amount into a wine glass, tasted and nodded his approval, repeating the action with the second bottle. The wine was then poured for the other diners at the table. The gentleman at the head of the table, stood and made his toast in French. As I glanced up at him I suddenly realized who he was. I whispered to my husband, “Do you know who the host at the next table is?” He shook his head. “It’s Jacques Chirac, the former president of France.” As we ate our delectable pasta, a huge tureen of soup was brought to the man at the foot of the table. This time he took a silver spoon out of his jacket pocket dipped it into the soup and took one taste. Now I understood, this was President Chirac’s taster.
Several moments later four Italian waiters brought a birthday cake to one of the diners, singing Happy Birthday in a wonderful Italian accent. The entire dining room joined in singing. The Englishwoman was so overcome that she stood up to say thank you. A couple from Bombay, India stood up and toasted her. I chimed in with best wishes from the people of America. A few more people followed -- from Japan, Germany and New Zealand. When things calmed down, Mr. Chirac rose up to add the most special wishes from the people of France. Now everybody in the dining room was standing and applauding. It was a thrilling scene. The waiters poured glasses of Champagne for all the diners and we toasted the woman with a loud international version of Happy Birthday. It was a heart-warming and triumphal moment. A mini United Nations of people engaged with one another. Dazzling. We all stood for several beats and I thought back to Martin Bernheimer’s remark about how Los Angeles audiences give a standing ovation when the conductor wears matching socks. Well it's possible that the conductor was Jacques Chirac or perhaps it was the lovely Englishwoman who was celebrating her birthday. This was the most splendid standing ovation I've ever witnessed. It was a once in a lifetime occasion at Harry’s Bar in Venice.