How can I have attained 65 years upon this earthly coil, logged thousands of hours at live performances, and still have not witnessed Wagner? That this question was even on my mind says it all. The evening was going to be a chore. Unless I was pleasantly surprised. The good news being that at this age I still give things the college try. And what a try, a rather trying try, it was.
Truly on a Wagnerian scale, when one considers that this involved a hotel room. After all, even with a 7 PM curtain, Lohengrin would end not far short of midnight. What to do but repair to the Holiday Inn nearby? I met Jane there in the late afternoon. We were rolling under separate wheels, my preferred Swedish wheelchair not transportable in any vehicle either of us currently own. Although, of course, easily borne by Caltrain and BART metro. And so in the last stage of things, I ascended from the Civic Center station, rolled a block or two and found Jane in the lobby.
Wheelchair-accessible hotel rooms often have something odd about them, and ours was no exception. The bed was small by modern standards. Not a single safety rail in the bathroom, including the ever-perilous shower. The two of us eyeballed the place, shrugged and set off for the Opera House.
A somewhat disquieting 10 minute journey along Grove Street. I noted that one side was dark, the other brighter under the streetlights. Too bad about my urban night fears. Also hard to say when the latter are reality-based and when groundless. For the people along Grove Street on our darker side seem much more prey than predatory. Not even 6 PM, and already hunched in sleeping bags, huddling in doorways. Sleeping rough on a particularly cold night for San Francisco. And how would it be on the way back to the hotel, I was wondering, at a much darker hour? The darkness being of my own creation. Midnight was the time of my shooting…still inescapable after all these post-traumatic decades.
Hard to say if I was preparing for joy or anesthesia in drinking red wine pre-performance. Surely I needed something to fortify myself for a quick reading of the Lohengrin plot synopsis. By the way, some kind writer should volunteer to help the San Francisco Opera, Covent Garden and, yes, the Met, with these essential parts of their printed programs. Long sentences, leading from one clause of operatic action into another…. I have to shake my head several times just to parse the meaning. If the plots are often overloaded with absurdity and implausibility, their summaries should at least read simply. Oh, well. I get the idea. Lohengrin is disguised. Elsa can’t let him be. In the end it’s a mixed bag. She can’t leave him alone, he’s got higher job responsibilities, and it’s good, because the swan gets to be just, you know, a kid. Jane says it’s sad, how Lohengrin gives up his woman for a piece of crockery, a.k.a., the Grail. Curtain up.
Thing is, getting introduced to Wagner is better done with a more orthodox production. This one, set in revolutionary 1956 Budapest, makes a modicum of sense until the plot gets in the way. I mean it does look real cool, this big Stalin-esque sort of library where all the main action transpires. It’s just absolutely jarring to watch hero and villain do first-act battle with swords. Okay, there probably was a certain amount of classic dueling with rapiers going on in the 1950s. But this is stretching a point, overstretching it. At the first intermission Jane looks rather horrified, and she is not one to bridle at innovation. Why amid all these dour iron-curtain costumed women is the heroine attired in a white bridal gown? She has a point. I have a mission, the third-floor men’s toilet.
And strange to find myself back there after the second act…although not if one does the math, for a full 90 minutes have unfolded in the interim. Good that I return to catch the famous third act prelude. Wagner knew what he was doing here. The action having dragged on to such a soporific degree, you need a rousing blast to get things going. As they do quite pleasantly, revealing to me – why am I always the last to know – that the tune of ‘Here Comes the Bride’ actually emanates from this very third act, the nuptials of Lohengrin and Elsa. With things winding down, one has to admit the following: the best moments are best moments. Those horns. The chorale sliding over itself. Yes, it can be a little onerous, but I don’t find it bombastic, for he can pull off this over-the-top stuff, Wagner can. An orchestra of 72, a cast of 111 being at or near any sensible operatic limit, if you ask me.
As for the trip back to the Holiday Inn, embarrassing to consider that I had asked an usher about the safety of our journey. Something in me cringed at my own suburbanite effeteness. And here we are, Jane and I, in the November chill, heading back down Grove Street. But hardly alone. A phalanx of other audience members heading for the BART subway in a protective flying wedge. At Market Street, waiting to cross, a woman pushes a shopping cart at us. She looks at Jane and me, asks for something, some money probably. Bewildered, already resigned that she will get no answer, the woman and her cart continue on. We continue to the warmth and safety of our hotel.
Morning. As Jane and I are finishing breakfast, preparing to make our separate ways to our day’s appointments, we talk about the room. The very odd, supposedly wheelchair-accessible room. We agree that it’s worth discussing with the management. Problem is, this is a Saturday. I doubt that anyone of authority is about. But we both see the worth of such efforts. Actually, Jane’s work must continuously challenge her sense of what is or isn’t worthwhile. To hell with it. She will go, and I will give someone from the hotel a short primer on disabled accommodation.
An assistant manager appears. We journey to the fourth floor, wander down a long corridor. Inside the room, I point out the obvious. No railings. Seriously, not even a toilet roll dispenser. At the latter, I can see a lightbulb go off. The room was never finished, he mutters. The last remodel, only a year or two old, got bungled here. A railingless shower for disabled guests, I say, is asking for trouble. He has been writing things down, taking notes. Who knows where this will lead? It doesn’t matter.
For the day leads me back to the same elevator as yesterday, the one descending into the municipal transit systems. I dawdle, uncharacteristically. Adding fare to my transit card, certain that I have all the time in the world. I am torn between getting on the tram for the railway station and heading south on the subway system to Millbrae, rail crossroads. At first I wait for the tram, but none seem to be heading for the station. Deciding in favor of Millbrae, I roll again to the lift. A black kid who has just gotten off the tram heads in the same direction. At the lift, my fears rise, my plans change. I reverse course, passing the kid in a narrow channel. He makes an elaborate show of letting me by. People this young don’t go out of their way to ride the elevator. He could bound up stairs with great ease…and the BART elevator is down a passage and out of sight. Perhaps I’m paranoid, or perhaps I made the wrong decision or the right one. In any case, I get to Caltrain just as the platform doors shut.
Giving me an opportunity to roll across the street for my second cappuccino, and third bran muffin, of the morning. Good thing about my Nook e-reader, it can easily sit on a high partition of a station window. Allowing me to stand, which I need to do much more often, such is the musculoskeletal imperative…and read at the same time.
Such a contrast back in Menlo Park. Affluent, benign, dull. Though I speak too quickly. Right in front of the Bank of America stands a man with a classic black and white writer’s notebook. He is talking to the air, talking to himself, holding forth to passersby who barely notice him. But I notice. He is an authentic street loony of the high-profile sort one rarely sees in this burg.
‘Do you really think you’re going to win?’ he asks, pointing his finger at a stop sign. ‘The game is rigged against you,’ he adds. Prescient and revelatory. I am disappointed that he is not asking for money.