About five times each year I look forward to the culturally alien experience of hobnobbing with the bourgeoisie at the San Francisco Opera. Last week it was a production of Rigoletto.

Am I alone in having a love-hate relationship with the opera? I have loved perhaps a dozen performances in ten years of pretentious opera going. I enjoy many of them while tolerating others. And don’t tell anyone but I’ve been known to commit the shocking cultural faux pas of leaving an empty seat behind for the 2nd Act.

The journey last week began as usual in the first car of the BART rapid transit train. Since September 11th, 2001, I’ve always ridden the front car as my civic duty to protect the driver. I’ve rehearsed the heroic scene countless times in my imagination, sacrificing limbs in order to save the San Francisco Civic Center high above the tracks.

The BART trains are perhaps the cleanest in America, which often works against me. I was annoyed that I couldn’t find a newspaper, an extravagance that I normally refuse to buy. As we sped toward our $95.00 opera seats I thought who in the world would pay the exorbitant price of $2.00 for a Sunday newspaper?

Off the train we managed to squeeze by the bum playing Norwegian Wood on the ukulele, and bounded over to our favorite lunch place. The sausage sandwich was out of place before the highbrow cultural activity that would follow, so I carefully hid its view from the overdressed elitists around me, but I have to say it went perfectly well with a typical full-bodied red from Lombardi.

As usual, we entered the War Memorial Opera House at the last minute. Once again I reflected upon how that name was strangely out of place for an opera building in San Francisco, the Mecca of anti-war liberalism.

There was the elevator man in his customary position stoically operating the buttons. For years I’ve wanted to say “thank you, my very good man,” but so far have resisted joining the elitists in such an overt fashion. I flashed back to the pretentious restaurants in Vienna, converted from palaces when the Hapsburg’s knew how to live. But other than Vienna, where else in the world can you get your buttons pushed for the low price of a $95 dollar ticket?

I rummaged for the summary page hidden too far inside the opera program. My objective as always was to know the length, and was relieved to see “the performance will last two hours, thirty minutes” in the footnote. Memo to opera staff: please print this vital information in bold on the cover of the opera program. I’m sure the entire audience was appreciative that the new director, what’s his name, cut out that hated 2nd intermission.

The Hummer’s absence, the wine, the darkness, and Verdi’s music all conspired together to put me to sleep during the first act. I had the sensation that I nodded off several times, brought back to life each time by my head jerking unmistakably back in the seat. Judging by the stillness around me, I satisfied myself that I hadn’t disturbed everyone by snoring. Still, how could I be 100 percent positive that I wasn’t discretely nudged back into consciousness?

At the break I headed straight to the bar. The ears were appreciating the opera, but that created a dilemma. I didn’t want the soothing effect of the wine to wear off too quickly, and yet I wanted to be mentally ready to absorb the 2nd act. The answer was Irish coffee, providing the proper schizophrenic combination of both an upper and a downer in one cup. Irish coffee is perhaps the one drink that awakens the mind while also warming the heart, and all for the low price of $10 at the San Francisco Opera after twelve minutes in line.

The spyglasses came in particularly handy at this opera, although they misfired on the naked blonde who came and went off the stage all too quickly. I’ve brought spyglasses to the opera ever since the production of Mephistopheles, in which half the cast was nude.

Mary Dunleavy as Gilda brought the house down, and deservedly so. Her impeccable voice combined with dramatic acting (that opera rarity) to provide a seductive experience for the audience. And the spyglasses confirmed that she is a hottie, a welcomed change from the usual soprano bowling pins who waddle around stage at the opera.

Soprano Mary Dunleavy
sings Addio del passato
from Verdi’s La Traviata

Even hotter on the man-scale was Katherine Rohrer, who mesmerized the binoculars as the sultry Maddalena. When she passionately wrapped her barefooted legs around Sparafucile in the 3rd act, I lamented the fact that I never took vocal lessons. Why are the eyepieces so maddeningly small on opera glasses?

As usually, the applause was disproportionate for performers in the low ranges. It is a curious fact that women are mesmerized by the lower vocal scale of basses and baritones more than tenors, something that Michael Jackson should have been told before his operations. Perhaps there is an undiscovered sexual pheremone present in the female auditory tract. Whatever the reason, I’m certain that scientists would say that men with low voices get more noogie, if only they would study the question.

So the applause for baritone Paolo Gavanelli was predictably wild. He was quite good, but it bothered me that he failed to properly finish off an important solo. The tenor Giuseppe Gipali was excellent as the Duke of Mantua, although his voice perhaps didn’t project well throughout the oversized opera house in San Francisco. In my view, Gipali delivered perfect arias throughout the performance, including a nice rendition of La Donna E Mobile, perhaps the most famous aria in all of opera. The applause was appreciative but subdued for his damned high voice. Memo to ladies: he can’t help it.

Paolo Gavanelli and Angeles Blancas
Duet in Act II of La Traviata

The spyglasses waited impatiently for the naked blonde to bow, but she never came out. I’ll forgive the new director for this oversight. He has a lot of things to think about when staging an opera. Finally out of her dramatic role, Mary Dunleavy flashed a warm smile.

Five over-adulating curtain calls later, we were finally able to leave while trying not to tip over the ancient people on the way to the lobby. I marveled at the spectacle of women waiting in line for the ladies restroom. While I waited for Her to emerge, I valued the unfairness of having precisely equal numbers of men and women’s restrooms at the San Francisco Opera. Political correctness at the opera is to be appreciated by men.

And that was that. Back to the windy, cluttered streets of San Francisco, past the bum, and through the turnstile to the station platform. And as I queued up for the front car, I thanked God for the finer things in life, which in a mostly classless culture can be accessible to an average man, and tolerated occasionally.