A Night at the Opera

Perhaps we should have heeded Henry David Thoreau's advice: ``Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.'' But the prospect of a night at the Lyric Opera of Chicago proved too temptingOur vacations script themselves. This one began in Nebraska, wound past canyons in Colorado, around mesas in Utah, and ended up in Chicago with two days to walk up and down city streets and no commitments - until we saw the notice for Moussorgsky's ``Boris Godounov.''

To hear a recording of an opera is one thing. But to hear a live performance, especially that one, is rare and precious.

``The performances are sold out,'' said the modulated voice at the end of the line at the Lyric Opera box office. ``All except tomorrow night. That's probably because it's opening night and the tickets are very expensive.''

The price of two seats in the corner, up against the back wall, left us enough to get home on. But there was a problem. ``We've been hiking in Utah and haven't packed for this,'' I said. ``How gala is `gala'?''

Long pause on the Lyric Opera's end of the line. ``Well, don't wear jeans. Do you know Dockers? Dockers and a nice sweater would be fine.''

Khaki pants to an opening night sounded like a stretch. We would try to do better.

For a woman, getting by at a formal occasion in a pinch is not much of a problem. Find something black, perch it on perilously high black heels, add black stockings and a fistful of hair mousse, and you're about there. The shoe store down the street was going out of business, featuring five-inch, (never to be worn again) stiletto black-velvet heels. These shoes would prove that an effort had been made for a special occasion.

My husband's problem reaching the gala threshold was more complex. It's hard to simulate a penguin suit. He settled for buying a new shirt and a tie.

The pleasure of a walk to the theater was out. In five-inch heels a walk to the elevator is a small triumph.

Our cab driver said he had been driving taxis in Chicago since 1953. He drove three weeks a month, cleared about $3,500, then spent 10 days with his wife at home in Alabama. A good life, he said. He seemed to like us. As we approached the opera house, he pulled over to the side of the street and said: ``Look, you're the third fare I've taken here this evening. I don't think they'll let you in. Let me give you my jacket.'' (It was black.)

A kind offer. We thanked him but set forth as clad. A young man with a backpack bought an extra ticket on the sidewalk. He was wearing jeans and anticipated no problem getting in. ``I'm from New York,'' he explained. ``I just dress to be comfortable.''

We tried to stay close, but lost him in the twinkling throng. Apparently, not many other people had gotten the word on Dockers. No one, in fact.

For those not dressed for the occasion, intermissions are the most vulnerable point of the evening. Tottering well behind my husband on my new shoes, I picked up remarks on his attire as he moved through the crowd. (People are rarely rude to a woman so clearly in distress.) I caught the end of one comment: ``... and he's carrying a book!'' (He was.)

``He's been hiking in Utah, and he loves this opera,'' I said, trusting this covered the part of the criticism I had not heard.

``I didn't mean just him,'' the gowned patron said gently, after gathering her thoughts. ``This whole crowd just isn't dressed. This is a celebration, after all.''

``I gave up a Rolling Stones ticket to come here tonight,'' my husband added, retracing his steps after noticing that a defense of his honor was in process. She liked the Rolling Stones, and she loved the opera. We parted with cordial words, but still opted to cut intermission short and return to seats in the obscure shadows of the back wall.

The opera preceded us. A child (the Czar Boris's son) and a simpleton were on stage, silently playing on, around, and under a cloth map of Russia that stretched from one end of the stage to another. The audience returned, and then the orchestra. By the end of the next act, that cloth moved from object of play to symbol of high politics, to first hint of a shroud, as the tortured czar gathered the map about himself and trudged slowly through a trap door. The last movement on stage was the border of that map slipping into darkness.

The performance on stage soon eclipsed the dramas in the lobby.

The New York Metropolitan Opera's ``Boris'' was sonorous and grand, with dramatic sets, robust choruses, and a lavish coronation scene. Lyric Opera of Chicago chose an earlier version of the opera - shorter, darker, almost stark. Issues of conscience seared this performance.

Samuel Ramey put his mark on the character of Boris with a single word at the end of Act II: ``Dovol'no!'' (Enough!). The phrase etched glass. And yet, the czar's exchanges with a dearly loved daughter, sung almost in a whisper, were as compelling.

In this theater, on this night, it was the quietest moments that roared. Clothes were forgotten in the glow of that performance.

A postlude: A young man was denied seating in an outdoor cafe because his request for a cup of tea fell short of the minimum required to eat at an outside table. We asked him to join us.

``You went to the opera dressed like that?'' he said. ``I drove my boss to the opera this evening and had to dress up in this suit just to drive the limo.''

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