Recently, I presided over a little contest, asking, “What is the worst piece of music ever written by a great composer?” Readers sent in various responses, some of which—almost all of which—I published in a post.
Among the responses was a letter that should really be published in its own right. It is not exactly responsive to the contest’s question. Rather, it tells a tale. Can’t you picture it all? I can—and it sounds like great fun, frankly.
In the winter of 1975–76, my girlfriend (now wife) and I were traveling across Europe. My wallet had been stolen on the very first day and about 30 percent of our cash was gone. It was going to be a frugal affair even before that loss. We had train passes, so transportation was covered, but we had only $240 to last for six weeks. Even in 1975 that was not a lot of money for two people to travel. Entertainment, admissions, and other such frivolities were out of the question.
At the Rome youth hostel, we met a guy who was attending school in Munich. He told us we had to attend an opera there. Student tickets were cheap on the day of performance.
We slept on trains many nights, so we would arrive in, say, Geneva in the morning, put our packs in a locker, identify a place where an overnight train would take us, spend the day (often freezing) in the city, go to the train station that night, board our train, and then wake up in our new city—where we would spend the next day.
One day we found an overnight train to Munich and decided to splurge and see an opera. Now, I knew nearly nothing about concert music, having only the most rudimentary knowledge of Peter and the Wolf and Beethoven’s symphonies, and had certainly never attended an opera. I’m not sure we even knew what they were. But we went.
We plopped down, probably somewhat smelly and dirty in our jeans and ragged winter coats, in great seats maybe ten rows from the stage. The tuxedoed and begowned Germans around us were not hospitable. The curtain rose and the opera began.
And it was not a good way to lose our opera virginity. Rather than Mozart or Verdi, we had, unfortunately, chosen Leos Janacek’s From the House of the Dead. A lugubrious and bleak evening of gray men trudging around moaning and sighing on a gray set. Not a tune to be had. Not a female to be seen. A good percentage of the audience left at intermission (though they may just have been avoiding us), but, as it was cold outside and warm inside, we stayed.
I cannot say whether Janacek is a great composer. I know he has his champions. But that night was beyond boring or silly. It was painful. A dreadful experience that I would never wish on anyone.
Well, I’m glad they had it, just so this tale could be told, and so well, forty years later.