Pauline - Unloved Countries
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Ode to unsung places
The time I went to My very first opera IN Liège
A 3 HOUR SHOW
Well, this is definitely an experience I didn’t expect to enjoy during my travels through Belgium: a night at the opera! We were fortunate enough to discover “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini which was playing in Wallonia’s Royal Opera House, in Liège. Like many operas, this beautiful opera house of international renown encourages young audiences to visit the opera; it also strives to shake off the stuffy and elitist image of the opera world, a world that is often virtually unfamiliar to the general public.
Time to shake off the usual cliches
When we take our seats opposite the stage, we really don’t know what to expect. Spectators of all ages mingle in the packed opera hall. And there I was thinking that nowadays operas only attracted a handful of die-hard nostalgics pining for days gone by…In fact, I discovered a totally different and unexpected world. The lights go out and now it is time for a 3 hour show!
As first-time operagoers we are immediately struck by the unique combination between song and theatre. The way opera singers make their voices vibrate has always struck me as rather strange. Nevertheless, the result is really impressive, as their expanding rib cage is the only speaker they need. And at times they literally manage to drown out the orchestra!
5 Euro opera tickets
Quite rapidly, another cliché bites the dust: we won’t be able to understand a thing. Suddenly, I'm reminded of that famous scene from the movie “The Upside” when Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston burst out laughing because the artists are singing in German. Well yes, Madama Butterfly is in Italian, the author’s mother tongue. But we can easily follow the story’s unfolding thanks to the supertitles projected on a narrow screen above the scene. So if you didn’t learn Italian in college or during your gap year abroad, you will still be able to enjoy the opera. This is one of the many tactics used to make opera more accessible as (obviously) not everyone speaks the language of Dante.
Love stories always end tragically in operas. Well, this one is rather hard to deny as the story of Madama Butterfly (alias Cio-Cio San) and M. Pinkerton is a very tragic one indeed! The actress playing the lead is dressed in a hand-made kimono in the first act (all of the costumes and decors are tailor-made by the opera staff) and sings the love story of a Japanese woman and an American soldier. In the original opera, the tale takes place in the 1900’s but the opera director has transported the story to the end of World War II. She is head over heels in love, and he – nonchalant and aloof – is stringing her along. They marry nonetheless, shortly before M. Pinkerton heads back to America, unaware of the fact that Madame Butterfly is pregnant with his child. For years and years, she pines for him, hoping that he will return to her. Her wish will eventually come true but not quite in the way Madama Butterfly was hoping for. M. Pinkerton eventually returns to Japan, but he is accompanied by his brand new wife Kate! Cio-Cio San decides to commit suicide, and it is on this tragic note that the opera ends.
The curtains fall. For minutes on end, the hall resonates with the sound of loud applause; the show is a total success!
Opera love stories always have tragic endings
The Liège Opera: focusing on young audiences
As I explained in my first paragraph, there were a quite a few young people attending the opera. This surprised me, as I had never even considered going to the opera, and the same can be said of my friends and family. I must in all honesty admit to harbouring preconceived ideas and misconceptions about this art form that I perceived as totally outdated but especially extremely elitist.
The Royal Opera of Wallonia strives to modernize its old-fashioned and stuffy image. For several years now, the opera has implemented an affordable ticket rate policy to encourage the younger generation to discover the world of opera; you can even score tickets for the modest sum of 5 Euros! Children under 14 even get free seats. The opera has turned to productions that appeal to young audiences, like Little Red Riding Hood or the enchanted story of Lakmé, scheduled for 2020.
And it works! Every year, according to official visitor figures, 30% of all opera spectators are young!
30% of all opera spectators are young!
Dining in the sumptuous setting of the opera restaurant
To round off our lovely evening, we dine at the opera restaurant, called Foyer Gretry. The restaurant, decorated in a gorgeous Empire style, is located on the first floor, just opposite the doors accessing the opera’s first balconies. The setting is so sumptuous that we feel slightly at odds with our surroundings, but also extremely privileged to be there, even more so as the restaurant only has a couple of tables.
Line-caught sea bass accompanied by a celeriac mousseline, braised leek and doused with saffron jus…for dessert an apple tartlet with a delicious cinnamon and pistachio ice cream… the meal turns out to be a veritable cornucopia of tastes and flavours, which I didn’t expect to enjoy in Belgium, also known as beer and chips heaven (which I really love too, don’t get me wrong!).