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Italy is a silly place.

For readers with whom I have kept in close contact during these five weeks of travel — and the preceding five months of study in Paris — the description of a place as “silly” is not new. I use “silly” to mean a variety of things, be it dysfunctional, surprising, aggravating, foreign.

But I’ll say it again: Italy is a silly place, for all the above reasons and then some.

I explained it to a friend the other day during a Skype call: it almost feels like Italy only recently decided that it wanted to be a developed nation. Granted, Italy IS a developed nation, with a very high and lovely standard of living. Their food, culture and absolutely delicious and inexpensive coffee products treated me very well during my recent week here.

And yet, somehow it still has this very casual, off-kilter approach to daily life in this Western world — any one reading any foreign coverage of the Italian political system and my main man Silvio Berlusconi knows as much.

I think my visit to Italy, the only part of my trip where I am truly traveling and lodging completely alone, came at the wrong end of my trip. I’ve been on the road for more than a month now, battling missed trains and crazy connections and changing food prices and sometimes bad operas and the like, and I’m mostly just ready to go home.

Instead of that, I got a week alone. In a country where I don’t speak the language and have really nothing to do. Which was kind of a bother.

But I still had a mostly lovely week in Milano, the second-biggest and wealthiest city in Italy, home to culture, fashion and money markets. And, of course, the world-famous Teatro alla Scala, arguably the best known opera house in the world.

After my crazy train trip here from Bavaria — see the earlier blog post for the unfortunate but still true details — I was not really into the idea of city exploration. What I wanted to and actually did do was sleep.

Upon waking, I discovered that Milano is an elegant and leafy city, with tree lined streets and (mostly) beautiful people. It should be said that, even though Milan is a major fashion capital, this isn’t always evident when walking amongst its people. For every expertly coifed young lady in a gorgeous floral print or a suave older businessman in a perfectly picked and colorful suit, there are seven less-than classy others walking by.

The architecture and layout and parks are all delicately northern Italian — an Italian friend in Paris adamantly informed me that ‘Milan is NOT Italy’ — and the coffee, as mentioned above, is TO DIE FOR. Cheap and plentiful and elevated to an art form of the quotidian and the ordinary, coffee in Italy is probably of my new most favorite things and would have made this portion of my trip worth it even if the opera wasn’t wonderful ( which it was.)

No matter where you order it — and you order and pay for it first, and then wait at the bar for your beverage — coffee of any kind is rich and exact and basically perfect; I’ve been told its because the Italians know how to roast their beans just so. And it so good. More than once, I ordered  multiple cups at a single café, mostly because it was so cheap, but also because I got the impression that Italian cafés aren’t as casual about the whole “sit here until forever” thing as their Parisian counterparts. It also made me remember how BAD the coffee is in most places in Paris.

I arrived in Milan on a Tuesday for a Thursday opera, meaning I had a few days to kill. I spent most of my time in cafés and the small but perfectly adequate central park (Parco Sempione), sitting, sunning, reading and just being generally lazy. I managed to finish Camus’ “Le Mythe de Sisysphe” in French and worked my way through some fascinating French journalism in a recent issue of my favorite French daily, Le Libération.

I also wandered around the city, seeing the beautiful Central Train station, an elegant iron-glass-and-stone shopping galleria that is considered one of the world’s first shopping malls, the famous shopping streets and many quirky and absolutely delightful miscellaneous buildings and avenues.  It was cool to see the street cars, too, a copy of which I just happened to ride last summer in San Francisco along Market Street.

I spent a few hours in the shop at La Scala, where I bought a cheap and mostly acceptable version of “Macbeth” at the New York Met from 1959, went on a run one hot and ill-advised afternoon, and got ready for my last big opera night of the summer.

First off, La Scala is probably the most beautiful theatre I have ever been inside of in my entire life. For all the ugliness and functionality of the Bastille Opera in Paris, La Scala is subtle, elegant and absolutely gorgeous. Lush, red curtains, intricately detailed wall-decor and a gigantic chandelier share a perfectly preserved opera hall as a home. It never gets old seeing the composers memorialized in European opera houses — it’s a mix of the famous and obvious with the nationalist heroes that today are not known at all.

Furthermore, La Scala recognizes its status as a tourist destination but doesn’t let that cheapen the experience for anyone. It is still one of the most serious opera houses in the world, and it seems to keep that vision at the forefront of its mission.

(Side note: La Scala has seen a series of strikes and union protests in recent months, as the Berlusconi government explores ways of trimming back the house’s admittedly generous cultural subsidy. As such, many performances this summer have been cancelled or delayed, and the director of “The Barber of Seville” unexpectedly walked out of the production in early July during the first week of the staging, calling for a sudden substitution.)

I had first level box seats to the left of the stage, and I had what was probably the best view a stage as I’ve had this whole summer. I shared my box with a Milanese couple and a couple visiting from Singapore, and I think this is the kind of audience that comes to La Scala, making it a perfect house for my project. With an audience built on popular legacy, the theatre both encourages and excites this audience by expertly staging classic works.

And the staging I saw of “The Barber of Seville” was really something. It was almost casually perfect, as if the brilliant main cast just happened to find themselves onstage together that night and decided that, since they really weren’t doing anything else, they might like to sing the hell out of an early 19th century Italian opera about barbers and young lovers and the like, especially considering the skill level of the there-assembled full size orchestra.

The entire cast was fantastic. The soprano lead was breathtaking, the bel canto tenor was excellent, the famed Barber was charming and roguish and every single cast member sang well and seemed to be having a great time. In true opera buffa fashion, the opera is short on plot — a disguised Spanish count woos a young girl held captive by her only slightly creepy guardian, and with the help of the cunning and lovable local barber, everything works to everyone’s best interests — but big on musical familiarity. This means that a lesser cast could have just let the work rest and sang the roles with a boring exactness.

Instead, they were positively delightful, making the whole evening fun, funny and musically superb. It wasn’t a controversial new staging like some of the other operas I’ve seen this summer, but it was pretty perfect in its classical, traditional way. It was a great ending to a madcap summer of opera, music, trains and adventure.

I’ll probably post at least one more time before my flight home from London on Tuesday morning, but know this, dear readers: it has been a pleasure to share my summer — and earlier Parisian spring — adventures with you, and I hope that you have enjoyed reading this half as much as I have enjoyed writing it.

Tomorrow, it’s Paris, with London on Monday and Detroit on Tuesday. Detroit might seem like the lesser of three cities in that travel narrative, but to me its the biggest and best of all: it’s home.

I can’t wait.

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Mention anything about Bayreuth to someone even vaguely familiar with the opera world, and they’ll tell you that it’s impossible to get tickets to the yearly festival. The Bayreuther Festspiele, an annual celebration of all things Richard Wagner in the sleepy Bavarian town he once called home, is the Wagner buffa’s Mecca.

Wagner himself thought up the festival of his work, and the specifically-built, carefully designed Festspielehaus — Wagner was not known to be all that humble of a guy — and as such, the mystique of the place and the event and the work is built up so much that, coupled with an insanely complicated formal ticket application process, you have to wait at least a decade to break into the ranks of the Festival-regulars.

But not this intrepid young opera scholar. Using a string of elaborate and distant acquaintances — a magazine editor who knows an opera critic who knows a chorus girl at Bayreuth — I managed to snag a pass to the festival grounds during my recent weekend jaunt in the Bavarian hamlet, wandering around the fantastic theatre, talking to chorus members and staff, and sitting in on an unusually crazy staging of Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg,” a work which I am not entirely familiar with. It should also be said that after having seen this rehearsal, I am still not really sure what was going on in the opera.

First, a little background on Wagner, the festival and the like. Richard Wagner, an absolute giant of a 19th century composer, is most known for his very specific and very elaborate ideas on opera creation as culturally expressive art form. He was kind of a political radical — pushing for a national German theatre at a time when there wasn’t a nation of Germany to have a theatre for, being really terribly anti-Semetic, running around Europe trying to get funding for his crazy operatic visions — and today most people not familiar with opera know him for being both anti-semetic and really into vikings. (You’ve read “Ride of the Valkyries,” so you know at least some of his work.)

In the music world, Wagner is also really known for his epic four-part, 15-hour monster of an operatic story arc “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” or simply, “The Ring Cycle.” The ring cycle is full of battles between Gods and mortals, dwarves and elves and vikings and everyone else, all for the sake of this one powerful ring that will control all of the Universe. Yes, J.R.R. Tolkien is often accused of stealing his major plot points from Wagner. Go figure.

But Wagner mostly just revolutionized the way people approached opera. His works were meaty and the content was heavy stuff, making the fluffier, lighter operas of some of his immediate and preceding contemporaries seem silly at best. He was very concerned with the audience’s absorption of his work, going so far as to build a whole theatre just for the specific staging of his works — the orchestra pit is hidden beneath this huge curved shell thing under the stage so you focus on the singers and not the musicians, and the brass is stuck under the stage, giving the orchestra a rich, echoing sound. Plus, the stage appears bigger than it actually is and the audience is arranged in an admittedly unusual way for an opera house; i.e. kind of outdoor stadium seating. He also was a big anti-establishment guy in the music world, shaking things up at a time when some felt music was getting kind of ho-hum.

My favorite story of Wagner being a musical bad-ass was his premiere of “Tanhäusser” in Paris in 1861. Like all good Germans, Wagner hated the French, and especially the elitist French who were opera patrons at the time. A big group of these faux-noble patrons, called the Jockey Club, were known for their late arrivals to operas, having long and luxurious dinners beforehand and then arriving just in time for a ballet in the beginning of the latter acts.

This wasn’t just a Paris thing — for a long time, opera patrons didn’t go to the opera to see the production, they went to be seen themselves (you could make this case today as well, I realize) and rather than sit through three hours of complicated plot and overwrought singing, many frequent patrons would just come for specific parts of an opera, or open their box curtain for the ballet. (For an excellent look at this and other intricacies of the opera world, as well as a great read, I strongly recommend John Berednt’s In the City of Falling Angels, a winning book about the reconstruction of Venice’s Fenice Opera House by the guy who brought you the equally excellent Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.)

Wagner really pushed the idea of opera as a complete work, so when he staged “Tanhäusser” in Paris, he put the ballet at the beginning, forcing the Jockey Club and their friends to sit through the whole opera, which they did not appreciate. There was a riot, and Wagner had to run away and cancel the production. Basically, Wagner was kind of a musically brilliant jerk.

Now, I’m not a real particular fan of Wagner — his politics kind of disturb me, to say the least, and I don’t like his music. I’m a fan of the Mozart / Verdi / Bizet school of opera, and I don’t speak German — but I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop in Bayreuth on my way from Berlin to Milan on my summer opera adventure. Even I couldn’t see an opera there, I could still see the place.

But, thanks to the above-mentioned connections, I did get to see part of a work, and the orchestra pit and the backstage and meet all sorts of interesting singers and stage workers. The Festspielehaus is absolutely beautiful and kind of the centerpiece of the entire town, and I have to admit I had exciting, nervous chills as I walked through the fragrant park up to the theatre.

Sharona, the perfectly lovely British chorus girl, had procured me a day pass, meaning I could wander around freely, talk to people, sit in on the rehearsal — which was very bizarre: as in, giant paper mâché heads of German leaders, modern costumes, rows of identically dressed choristers, a naked man lying in a pile of dirt on a table with wheels (who passed out during the rehearsal from heat stroke!) and other such lovely elements. Needless to say, I didn’t know the plot —  a singing contest in Nuremberg — but sitting through the 3 hour rehearsal didn’t teach me much about the plot, either.

Talking with the choristers, I was shocked and pleased to learn a lot about the crazy politics of the festival. The director of the production I happened to catch, Katharina Wagner, is the great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner and co-director of the festival, and apparently, her works are not well-received. Her premiere of “Meistersinger” in 2007 was loudly booed, and someone threw a seat cushion at her during curtain calls, meaning that particular patron would never return to the house again. There’s a real disconnect in the festival between old-line, traditional performers and the crazy, modern stylings of people like Katharina. One chorister told me that Bayrueuth audiences, while older and more conservative that normal opera audiences, are willing to take things up to a certain point, but it’s hard to figure out about disappointed patrons because they buy their tickets a decade in advance. He said he was worried about the future of the festival if things kept going they way of Katharina and her ilk.

But that was that. I was a very happy and very excited opera dork the entire day, and early Monday morning, I hoped on the Deutsche Bahn for my 11-hour train trip to Milano, Italy for the last leg of my opera adventure.

Today, after having traveled for more than 21 hours, I can say that I am not a big  fan of Deutsche Bahn anymore.

My train day was going fine: I caught my first train, and made my first quick connection easily, but around mid-afternoon, things started to go wrong.  We were running a little late between two of my connecting cities — Stuttgart and Augsburg — and suddenly the conductor came on to say that we were 15 minutes late. It didn’t seem like we were that far behind, but I believed the conductor, mostly because he said almost everything in German and his English and French announcements were limited to the simplest of informational pieces.

Then, pulling in Augsburg only 2 minutes later than my planned departure to Zurich, the conductor announced that “all passengers to Milano via Zurich should stay with us until Mannheim, and then connect there to Zurich and later to Milano.” Okay, I said, I believe you conductor. You have specifically signaled me out for mention, so I will follow your rules.

In Mannheim, I ran to the connecting platform, only to discover that the train to Zurich was 30 minutes behind schedule. Which became 40 minutes late. Which became 50. Which turned into more than an hour’s delay. Okay, I said, I’m already off-track. I’ll just keep going and be open to changes.

I had no real seat on the train to Zurich — thank you kind first class passengers for giving me a jump seat — and we pulled into the largest Swiss city a full hour behind schedule. (Note: It was then 9:00 pm. I was supposed to be in Milano on my original scheduled train by 10:50 pm. I ceased believing this far earlier in the day.) I wandered around the elegant central train station until I found some dinner, some internet and most importantly, some help for connections to Milano.

“Oh no,” the kind Swiss train official told me. “You’ve missed the last train to Milano today. You’ll just have to take this connecting train to the Italian border town of Chiasso, and then take a train to Milano in the morning.”

Which I did. Meaning that I took a train at 10:13 on a Monday night to Nowhere, Switzerland, where I arrived at 1:46 a.m. I then hung out around this sketchy, quiet and nearly empty train station until 5:17, when I hoped a suburban commuter train to Milano.

Time left Bayreuth: 11:11 a.m. Monday.

Time arrived in Milano: 6:23 a.m. Tuesday

Distance Between Cities: 427 miles

I could go on and on about the craziness of this epic day-long travel adventure, but I’m hungry, and I haven’t eaten anything in a long, long time. I did sleep in my hostel for a brief time, however, and it is a perfectly suitable — albeit very, very warm — place to sleep and stay during my now truncated week in Milano.

Thursday is “The Barber of Seville” at La Scala — and then I begin my westward trek homeward.

And trust me, I can’t wait.

Note: I am fortunate enough to have simple train connections from Milano to Paris and later to London. I hope.

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