This dark and scary tale tells the story of a young woman’s journey into a hellish nightmare that still runs chills down my spine. Until that fateful evening in the Kirov Theatre in St Petersburg, Russia I had never really known true suffering. Monthly stomach cramps, a sprained ankle and listening to the Queen’s Speech every year on Christmas day could not have prepared me for this degree of affliction.
Picture it…It was Russia during Perestroika and the country was undergoing major political, social and economic reform, a group of political science students from an English University was given their opportunity to witness first-hand this historical transformation.
I was one of the 22 students who flew into Moscow on a cool early spring day in March of 1990. As I left the airport I was filled with excitement and anticipation as I tentatively took my first peek behind the iron curtain.
For the next two and half weeks, I would be able to see in my everyday encounters what my essays on Marxism, Socialist Reform and Communism vs. Capitalism were really about in practice. Had my arguments hit the mark or were I just another naive student about to get my cold burst of reality?
By all accounts everything was going well, we pounded Red Square day and night exploring all it had to offer; meeting everyday Russian people was easy to do as people always wanted to find out about the West and its blue jeans and rap music. I remember coming across an overly patriotic guy who introduced himself as Vladimir but for international and diplomatic reasons I can’t say any more than that. As the days passed we visited the churches in the Kremlin, paid our respects to Lenin’s very well preserved remains and saw long lost works of art by some of Europe’s great masters.
In true James Bond style, we paid a visit to Korky Park where we exchanged secrets and kept our heads straight not daring to take a peek when we passed the KGB headquarters. At the beginning of our trip, we had traded our pounds on the black market and were living like Russian millionaires although at that time there was no glamour involved. I tried the vodka…. but it was too strong, I tried their champagne… but that was too dry and then there was the caviar…well that was just too fishy. The truth is with all my new-found wealth I was still just a teenager at the time and would have happily ate all my meals at their newly opened McDonalds had there not been a 3-hour line up just to get into the restaurant.
In the evenings we enjoyed a good nightlife, I remember going to the Bolshori theatre in Moscow for my first ever ballet and being enraptured with an amazing performance of Swan Lake, when it ended there were no ‘Bravo’ louder than mine, so when I got the chance to go to my first Opera at the Kirov in St Petersburg, I leaped at the opportunity.
I remember getting all dressed up and being filled with anticipation – totally unaware that I was the poor lamb getting ready for the slaughter. Our tickets had been gifted to us by our new-found Russian friends who unbeknown to us had paid for our tickets but could not pay for their own so had spent the entire performance waiting for us in the lobby of the theatre.
By all accounts, my night at the opera begun well and met all my expectations. I remember walking into the main entrance of this beautiful old theatre. The lobby was covered in a thick red plush carpet that your feet sank into as you walked along with it. As I made my way to the grand staircase, for a moment I found myself being drawn back into time, in that second I was like Anna Karina in the arms of her young officer ignoring outraged stares with her head held high, shamelessly flaunting her impudent face.
The staircase, I should add, had been beautifully crafted with gilt and had more of the same deep red carpet. When we arrived at our box we were greeted with the sound of musicians tuning their instruments it felt so much like a dream I could not have imagined what lay ahead for me that evening. By the time the lights went down, I thought my heart would explode with eagerness. Here I was just 18 years old and living the Bourgeoisie dream. Then, it began my first opera, a young man dressed as a peasant entered the stage singing a song in Russian, I had no idea what he was singing about but enjoyed it all the same. After 10 or so minutes I was getting ready to applaud him when he was joined by another young man and then a young woman each getting their chance to sing their own very long drawn out song. Then there was a pause, I thought, “great”. I lifted my hands to clap and then groups of village people joined them on stage, unfortunately, they weren’t the ‘YMCA’ ones – instead it was more people singing a whole stream of painfully elongated songs.
My friend and I had begun sharing anguished stares as song after never-ending song was mercilessly belted out. After about 50 grueling minutes we had had enough, we grabbed our bags and with what little age of innocence we had left made our way down the staircase. This time we didn’t notice its beauty and didn’t care we just wanted to getaway. We frantically made our way across the lobby oblivious to its thick red plush carpet – again we didn’t care! Then just when we were a few short steps away from making our escape we heard someone with a Russian accent say; Jacqui – where are you going? Our tickets sponsors had seen our desperate flight and came over to enquire ‘”nowhere”, I replied, “we aren’t leaving”, my lie was so outrageous I half expected my nose to grow….”We just needed some fresh air”. I remember then opening the door standing in the doorway watching the cars go by and want to make a mad crazy dash for it but instead taking a very deep breath, and then another deep breath and then just one more. I wiped the stress sweat from my brow and begun my dreaded return to our box.
This time as I made my way up the staircase I could clearly hear the Death March playing in my head. Now, I finally understood what it meant to ‘face the music’. We slumped back in our seats and began to follow the opera one painful soul-destroying song after another. As I twisted and turned in my seat, I tried everything to blot out the shrill yells that came from the stage … I tried singing Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat it’ then Bille Jean but nothing could kill this torment and in any case, they just seem to sing louder and more determined in their torture. After another hour I began accepting the inevitable. If the opera would not end I would need to think about ending my life seeing that was my only way out. I searched through my bag hoping to find a sharp object. I found a pack of gum but couldn’t make it work. I then begun measuring the distance of the box opposite mine to see if jumping over would be enough to do the job but it wasn’t high enough, I would only hurt myself and it wouldn’t provide the final termination I needed. In the end, I spent nearly 2 hours imagining myself going to heaven, by the way, I was sure that I would be going to heaven because I was already in hell. Then something unexpected happens – you know those things that occur in a moment and just in the twinkling of an eye. The first young man who had come on the stage and who was easily my main torturer was suddenly and abruptly cut down by the unhappy brother of his lover. I sat up in my seat my eyes darting back and forth across the stage, now this Opera had really caught my attention. It hadn’t occurred to me that I didn’t need to die not if the cast did the dying instead. Leaning forward, I watched trying to contain my glee as he took his last breath – ‘YES’ my heart screamed he had finally shut his trap.
Within minutes there were swords flying in every direction and one by one all of my torturers were struck down. It was the happiest bloodbath I had seen since watching Sylvester Stallone’s ‘First Blood’. Just as quickly as it had begun my night at the opera was finally over. Now, if this story shocks you, I apologize, but I would ask you not to judge me, not until you’ve had your Night (mare) at a Russian Opera. -JH