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  • Mark Shupe


Or how I learned Carmen was not about a Nascar Pit Crew

Travel Humor, Italy, Verona

The night begins.

I am not an opera guy. I'm barely a suit and tie guy though I played at that the better part of 33 years. (If I could once get the length of my dress shirt sleeves to match the length of my arms, I'd feel like a fashion model. Not an extremely successful fashion model, mind you.)

Yet there I found myself lying prone on a 1700 year-old slab of Roman building stone one hundred feet above the ground, my head lying on a four dollar cushion I'd purchased in front of the almost fully intact roman arena, at the start of the fifth hour of the performance of Carmen, wondering if this was ever gong to end.

Not just that run on sentence, but the performance.

Not that it wasn't a great performance. It surely was. Never-mind, I didn't understand much. Never-mind, that my eyesight was just bad enough that I was wondering is that the same guy Carmen keeps breaking up with or eight different guys? The music, the spectacle, the band for the money! It was a deal! The performance finally clocked in at 4 hours 46 minutes and 22 seconds. (And I don't include the preliminary gong banging and introductions to the crowd, nor the extra 30 minutes I spent in the arena finding my seat.) No my concern was, would it be safe to walk back to a hotel near the train station in Verona at 1:45 am. (Every tour book I have ever read warns you about going near train stations at the dead of night. If tour books can’t make you paranoid, what can?)

Late Night Sprinting

Outside the arena, where I was allowed to take my phone off airplane mode and be severely overcharged for the privilege by that Canadian monolithic, and impenetrable phone oligopoly, I received a series of urgent text messages, phone calls, emails, facebook messengers, satellite calls, and morse code transmissions from my wife who was worried about my sudden disappearance and long absence. Was she worried, I’d been kidnapped by rogue opera singers? That I’d hit my head when I laid out on that Roman bench, or collapsed from eating too much pizza? No, apparently, she was in a panic because she had just discovered the mortgage payment hadn't been made.

I called immediately. After I stopped into the late night pizza place. C’mon I was in Verona, Italy, hungry after five hours of opera captivity without food. Wouldn’t you do the same? The conversation took some time. If I moved from outside the pizza place, I lost signal, so i stood talking to her as my feeble protection ebbed. That protection being the other tourists who were frantically trying to get to their hotel before the feud between the Montagues and Capulets engulfed them in violence. Have I mention that I was in the city of Verona, which because of the Shakespeare play featuring Romeo seemed a medieval place in my vision, but was decidedly a modern and amazing city that also exhibited its fine heritage.

Why are you worried, I said, if you were sophisticated like me you would know an opera like Carmen takes five hours. (This didn't go oversell since seven hours earlier, I had asked and received from her a test describing. what the opera Carmen was about, and to my relief not about pit crews. After a long discussion (polite phrase for heated argument) over who had last changed the password for the mortgage payment application I was allowed to continue my walking where I hustled (sprinted at full speed) so I could catch up with the last group of tourists and newly minted opera veterans walking toward the hotels near the train station.

They must have been feeling the same sense of danger as I for the looks of discomfort as this bearded slightly overweight retiree sprinted toward them became suddenly the looks of pure terror. It's an odd thing that even in my post heart attack, slightly overweight phrase that I can still sprint like I did when I was 12. (for about four seconds). That sprinting speed is certainly incompatible with my current size and must have made me look like a overweight missile hurtling toward them. (and this I might add was after I had walked/jogged/sprinted 23.89 kilometres the previous day in heat that had ranged from 24 to 33 degree Celsius and sweated as they say buckets.)

The show must go on, and on and on....

I wasn't the only one that hadn't been expecting a four hour show. At the start they had announced a performance in four acts, so had expected two acts before and after a single intermission. Instead there were three separate intermissions, though the last one you were encouraged to stay in your seats. It was at that one that there was a mass migration of tourists who knew as much about opera as I. You could see the exchanged glances, the silent discussion, the finger signals as they realized there was still another act. You don’t want to seem like a rube tourist just showing up for this event to say you did a touristy like thing. Shocking that someone would do such a thing. (I believe this is the fourth time I've done such a touristy thing, just to say, hey, I did this touristy thing. )

When I do a lot of walking in the heat and do a lot of sweating, I do get touristy. (Sorry about that one, but I’m kind of punchy writing this in the middle of the night after a seven-hour opera.)

Aren’t I classy, even if I can't get my dress shirt sleeves to align with my suit jacket arms?

So subtly, one then another, then several couples left the premises, leaving me with plenty of space to lie prone upon the very top level of the bleachers. I wasn’t going anywhere. I needed to find out which of the eight guys Carmen would end up with.

Still paranoid about covid (four out of five Shupes so far have covid) and I don't want to be the want to be the fifth), I had carefully chosen a seat at the very top of the arena with no one within miles.

Alas, people realizing I had chosen my seat well, gathered around me to bask in my wisdom. (the seat had an amazing angle, a raised wall behind me to lean my back against, the old outer wall, or at least a fragment of it still standing.) Yet, these folks coming to bask in my wisdom did not share my need to wear a mask. It was thus, that my body was rather tenser than it should be, although sitting on a block of stone that had survived 1700 years, squinting at the English translation of lyrics four hundred yards to the other side of the arena didn’t help. Offsetting this was relaxing libation, wine, going for ten euros, 15$ Cdn for 125 ml so I could only afford one. By the second act, what little wine buzz I had had long gone back to the hive with the other bees that had tried to eat my pizza earlier in the evening. ( Yes I had pizza twice that day. Have I mentioned ai was in Italy. Where they know a bit about pizza?)

Oh and I did have my seat cushion.

Thank God for seat cushions...

This was my fourth attempt to try and class myself up by going to the opera. I'm not sure I succeeded. But I did have fun.

The main reason for the length of the performance was the length of the intermissions. And for good reason. This was no local theatrical production. This was the big time. The sets were gi-normous, and I don't use that word lightly. It took some serious effort to get the scenery changed. You could hear sledge hammers, and welding torches, and cranes during the intermission as the sets were dismantled and rebuilt. And these sets from what I could tell were nothing compared to the sets for Aida which was the featured opera at the arena festival. They were stored outside the arena behind barricaded walls but as I walked around before Carmen started, they had taken up literally hectares of space. (would I exaggerate?)

The orchestra was magnificent, the acoustics spectacular. For months I would not be able to get the main arias and the overture out of my head. The production itself could only be held in such an arena. I tried to count the number of people on stage - with all the movement I could only safely count 134 individuals, not including orchestra, but I am sure at times there were over two hundred.

At times, there were minimum of eight horses on stage. That's more than I have in my one man touring show. (Your know my touring show, “One Man, Seven Horses”).

The finale

The first two acts were magnificent though a small draggy part in the second. (You see why I'm not an official opera critic. I'm probably better equipped to comment on the Marx brothers movie “The night at the opera”.) The third had some dour parts, or maybe I just thought there was possibly because of the hardness of concrete block to stiff butt muscle ratio in my sitting position. The fourth act brought it altogether.

But heck, she dies in the end ? I did not know that.

Whoops. I guess I should have said spoiler alert.

Despite the kidding, this was a remarkable experience. To see an opera performed at this scale was unlike any other performance I had seen. That it was performed it a fully intact roman arena 1700 years old on a warm summer night only made it more special. If you read my top ten highlights of my trip to north east Italy in a forthcoming post, you will know there was a lot of spectacular moments, and only one thing that could top this.

p.s. only 25% of this blog post is fictional. Especially the part about the phone call about mortgage payments. I’m obviously too cheap to pay for a transcontinental phone call.

See you next post! Tentatively titled. “Me and Juliette Down by the Courtyard". (In which I almost get arrested)

Verona: Practical Travel tips

The Verona arena is must see. The Colosseum in Rome may be my favourite tourist attraction, but seeing an arena in use is mind-blowing. I would highly recommend timing a visit to Verona to coincide with a performance in the arena whether a pop singer or opera. I felt no need for a tour of the arena after spending five hours in the bleachers.

The walk to the hotel near the train station felt safe and was certainly uneventful. I stayed at the hn hotel which was well priced, clean and spacious. The walk to the train with bags was like six minutes. You could stay closer to the main squares which are near the arenas if you don't like twenty minutes of walking to start your day. Although, being near the train station allows you to do thinks like take a spur of the moment train to spend an enjoyable afternoon on the shores of Lake Garda.

-Trains to Verona are plentiful. I arrived from Venice, but many other points are easy like Milan.

-Buy opera tickets on line. The in person line is long

-Buy two seat cushions to sit for a longer performance in the arena. They are cheap and make good souvenirs.

-I had pizza at a little place outside the arena that billed itself as the 2013 and 2014 world pizza champions. It was darn good. Not sure what kind of cheese they used but it was tasty. Sit inside if you can. As I found out, wasps are big fans of Verona pizza.

-There are several things to see around the Verona Arena. You could do Verona in a day, but I would say two is best.

Next Post: Me and Juliette down by the Courtyard

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1 comentario

22 mar 2023

Hey Mark... thanks for attending and reporting, so I could feel like I was in the seat beside you without actually having to be in the seat beside you. Your adventures are shupendous if nothing else... and give fodder for many years and listeners, or those pretending to listen or read. You are shuper! Your fan for life, Sarah Butland

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