A Night at the Opera

This is Part IV in a series on my time in East Germany. Click for Part I, Part II and Part III.

The flimsy jacket I had brought with me from Wales lay crumpled at the back of the wardrobe. My trainers were stuffed somewhere under the bed. I had been to the large department store on Alexanderplatz and replaced them with things that were more to my taste.

Instead of effete Western clothing, I now sported a thick grey East German overcoat reaching almost to my ankles, and sturdy black Bulgarian-made boots. They were heavy and real and seemed far more suitable for my new life. I revelled in how they made me feel.

I went to the barber’s — a stern old man at the end of my street. He mussed my unruly hair and rolled his eyes at me.

‘Oh dear. What would you like me to do with this?’

I hesitated, unsure of the right vocabulary.

‘You need taking in hand, don’t you?’ he laughed. ‘Let me give you something a bit more appropriate.’

I let myself be guided and watched mesmerised as I was transformed from scraggly-headed student into something approaching an exemplar of socialist youth.

Now the young man I glimpsed in the reflection of shop windows as I strode passed seemed very different from the boy who had stuttered his way through Checkpoint Charlie just a few weeks before. He looked as if he could have been born here. I smiled back at him with some satisfaction.

I took the U-Bahn to Pankow and rummaged in second-hand bookshops. I took the tram to Marzahn for a retrospective of socialist-realist cinema. I marvelled at the monuments to the Soviet war dead in Treptower Park. I sat in little cafés, a pencil behind my ear, sipping strong coffee and scouring obscure cultural journals for events to attend.

Inscrutable poetry readings, seminars on post-War history and NATO aggression, architectural tours of a city still pock-marked with bomb sites. I went everywhere, read everything. My colleagues began to marvel at the piles of newspapers and magazines I picked up on the way to work every morning, and at my diligence in devouring them all. Wry comments were made about my zeal for leaving no GDR stone unturned. I sensed the mild mockery, but I loved it all nonetheless.

I wandered the cobbled streets of Lichtenberg, and toured the museums of old Postdam. I saw concerts in the Palast der Republik, and drank in the traditional beer halls of the Nikolaiviertel. I got to know the city more and more and enjoyed its contours, its noises, its hush, and its life. Occasionally, I would glimpse the Wall down a side street, but the urge to cross it had quite gone. Saturdays and Sundays, once empty voids to be filled somehow, anyhow, now became saturated with experiences.

All my meanderings through East Berlin, all my discoveries, all these I did on my own. It didn’t occur to me to ask anyone to accompany me, or to look for a person that might want to. What would such an individual look like, be like? I had so little idea that I succeeded mostly in not thinking about it at all. And when such thoughts did break through, I turned away, and forced myself to think of something else.

What did it matter anyway? I was having the time of my life.

And then there was opera.

Half way up along the grand thoroughfare of Unter den Linden and within sight of the Brandenburg Gate and the Wall stood the Staatsoper, the country’s flagship opera house, and one of the greatest in the world.

One Saturday each month, at 9am sharp, the tickets for all the following month’s performances would go on sale. And on that Saturday, without fail, I would queue up with my fellow enthusiasts for the pick of the crop. Even on my modest wage, I could afford whichever seats I wanted. The repertoire was dazzling. The finest singers from East and West would gather for Mozart, Strauss, Verdi, Donizetti, and, of course, Wagner. I drank Wagner as if I had a thirst that could not be quenched. Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Parsifal, Die Meistersinger. I was intoxicated. Sometimes I would spend three or four nights a week inebriated on the harmonies and melodies. When a new production of Tristan und Isolde opened, I bought myself tickets for every performance of the run.

Alone in the audience as the lights dimmed on the first night, I sank myself into the prelude as if it had physical form. I smiled at the young Cornish sailor as he bemoaned the fickleness of his Irish sweetheart, and sat back transfixed as Isolde cursed what fate had wrought for her.

The second act saw the lovers united in the longest love duet in all opera. I watched as Tristan arrived to embrace Isolde and his voice melded with hers in ecstasy.

And then, suddenly, I felt — nothing. Apparently from nowhere, a coldness, a sadness had overcome me. The stage seemed to have receded further away, and I was aware only of the hardness of my seat, and the noise of my neighbour’s breathing. The magic eluded me. The music that only moments before had seemed to be mine and to be directed at me, was now speaking of a world I did not understand and of things that were quite alien. The interval came. I stayed seated for a while trying to work out what had happened. I could not quite fathom it, so I did something unheard of — I left. I would not see the third act.

I wandered to the cloakroom to collect my things. ‘Are you not coming back?’ the attendant asked. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Are you sure?’ she said, sceptically. ‘Yes, I’m quite sure.’ I put on my coat and trudged forlornly up Unter den Linden towards the U-Bahn.

I had not gone more than a hundred metres or so when I heard rapid footsteps behind me and a voice cried out: ‘Entschuldigung! Entschuldigung!

Whether the cries were directed at me I could not tell, but I turned instinctively and within a few seconds a figure had caught up with me.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said, a little out of breath from running. ‘I saw you sitting on your own in the theatre and then I saw you go, and I just had to ask. Why did you leave?’

He was young, no more than a year or two older than me. He was slim and about my height, and, having left the theatre without his coat, he shivered slightly in the cool autumn air. A diffident smile played on his lips as he waited for my response. His hair had fallen forwards while he ran, and now he pushed it back to reveal his eyes. His eyes…

His eyes were the colour of a summer sky. I felt a strange sensation in my chest, as if my ribcage had suddenly grown smaller.

‘I can’t really explain why I left,’ I said once I had collected my thoughts. ‘I suppose tonight the music didn’t work for me like it usually does.’

‘Oh, so it’s not because you don’t like opera, or Wagner?’ he asked as if such an eventuality genuinely troubled him.

‘Not at all!’ I replied. ‘I love it. I really do.’

‘I’m so glad,’ he said with relief. ‘Wagner is the best, isn’t he? The way he shows the passions that humans feel. It’s more than that even. It’s that he shows passions that humans want to feel. Don’t you think? I would love to feel passion, to feel love like that. Wouldn’t you? I’m sure you would too!’

He stopped and blushed at what he had said.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘That was a bit stupid. I got carried away.’

His hair had fallen back while he spoke, and I had to fight the urge to lift my hand and brush it away so I could see those eyes again.

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s not stupid at all. I know just what you mean. He makes you feel that there’s a way of being human that is more intense somehow.’

His expression had changed a little.

‘You have an accent,’ he said. ‘You’re not from here, are you?’

‘No,’ I admitted, and explained my situation.

‘You’re from the West? I’ve never been. I’d love to see it some day.’

I felt a twinge of embarrassment. I smiled to diffuse it. ‘Oh, it’s dreadful over there, believe me. Nowhere near as much opera as here!’

He pushed back his hair and opened his eyes wide in mock horror.

‘Not as much opera! What torture! You poor thing, how awful for you. How you must suffer!’

‘You can’t even begin to imagine, you really can’t.’

We both laughed and for a few seconds our eyes met and we stared at each other in what should have been awkward silence.

‘It’s nice, isn’t it,’ he continued at last, ‘to just talk and laugh about opera like this.’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘It really is.’

‘Maybe,’ he hesitated and blushed again before continuing. ‘Maybe we could meet up and do it again some time?’

My ribcage tightened some more, so much so I thought my lungs would burst through. I felt I was on the edge of something and that I only needed to take one step. My brain hurt. I was afraid.

‘Well,’ I heard a voice speak that I recognised as my own, ‘I’m often at the opera so I’m sure there’s a chance we’ll bump into each other again some day.’

His face fell.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I see. Yes. Of course. I’m sure there’s a chance we will.’

I felt an ache of regret. I wanted to say something different, retract my words, but my tongue refused to move.

‘I suppose,’ he continued, misinterpreting my silence, ‘I should get back. The third act will be starting soon.’

‘Yes,’ the voice that was mine said, ‘I suppose you should.’

We both stood silent. I felt frozen.

‘Well,’ he continued at last. ‘Auf Wiedersehen.’

Auf Wiedersehen.’

He walked back slowly. I stood stuck to the spot. It was like in a dream when something I really wanted was just in front of me, but I couldn’t reach out and touch it. He got to the door of the theatre, stopped and looked back at me. He gave a shy wave. I did the same. Then he was gone.

I stood for a few minutes staring at the empty pavement before turning and walking away.

I never saw him again.