Going to the opera with my aunt Maya is a full blown affair. We meet up two and a half hours before the show at Stolle, a local chain of German bakeries that makes the best pirogi (the Russian variety, not dumplings but large pies) in town. My aunt orders: two cups of coffee, two pieces of savory pies, two pieces of sweet pies. At the end of the hour, we chase this down with a pot of tea and two more pieces of pie. Refusing under the pretense that I'm not hungry is not an option. "You're starving yourself!" she yells loud enough for everyone in the shop to look me over--and then orders for me anyway. When we sit down again with our pie and tea, she pulls out a bar of chocolate from her purse--this, I can't resist.
We leave Stolle an hour before the show and proceed to a flower shop, where Maya picks out a bouquet for Akimov, the tenor who's singing Sir Edgar in tonight's Lucia di Lammermoor and who over the years has become a family friend. Seven roses, several branches of green shrubbery, tall white bell-shaped flowers, everything wrapped in the sheets of painted straw, and an envelope with Maya's letter stapled at the front. Maya writes these letters ahead of time, based on previous performances. To receive such a letter: the highlight of any singer's-actor's-writer's career.
We hand off the bouquet to one of the ticket takers inside the theatre, they place them in the buckets of water until the end of the show and then distribute between the singers at the end of the show, between the bouts of applause. Everyone knows Maya: the women who work at the flower shop ("We hope you come back soon!" -- "I'll be back here on the 20th, he's singing Pierre in War and Peace!"); the ticket takers at the theatre; the women who take our coats and dispense opera glasses ("What happened to the older lady, the one who used to work here?" -- "She retired! Here's the new girl, she's very nice.")
"Mouse!" Maya commands me. "Follow me, we need to get programs!"
A young man overhears this, asks me: "Did she just call you mouse?"
Soon, my parents show up. At the last minute, they decided they wanted to join us. My aunt Anya and her school friend tag along. When all of us yell "Bravo" at the end of every tenor part, the theatre trembles. When the singers come out to take the final bow, Akimov has three times more bouquets than the soprano, Olga Trifonova, who was excellent tonight, her voice the color of amber and the texture of honey. Akimov, of course, never dissappoints.