I learned early on in my career as a reporter at The Wall Street Journal that I wasn’t my job – if I were, I’d have given more importance to bureaucratic shuffling and managing up than each deserved – and so when I left the newspaper, I didn’t feel unmoored as much as freed from the workings of a machine whose gears no longer aligned with my cogs. Still, a certain reportorial behavior – or perhaps journalistic entitlement – followed me to Paris.
I had been a cultural reporter at the Journal, and wrote on theater, opera, books and music, among others. I continued to contribute to print and online magazines, but I was mistaken in thinking that I would have as easy access to tickets in Paris as I’d had as a Journal reporter in New York. And mistaken to think that where I’d been actually counted for something elsewhere.
During the autumn of my first year in Paris, Puccini’s Il Trittico was getting its first production there in a generation (it’s called Le Triptyque in French, the French favoring their own translations of most opera titles). I wanted to write about it, but couldn’t really afford to pay 180 euros for a good ticket, so I called the press office at Opera Bastille.
A friend from the Metropolitan Opera had given me the name of the press representative there. The woman with whom I spoke had the rather wonderful name of Pierrette Chastel, and after exchanging greetings – she suspicious, me conciliatory – I explained to her that I used to work for the Wall Street Journal. Madame Chastel, before I could go further, interrupted me. “We already have a Wall Street Journal correspondent in Paris.”
I repeated to her that I worked, passé composé, for the Journal, that I was no longer there, that I was living for a while in Paris, and that now I wrote for other publications. I didn’t want to give the wrong impression of what I was doing, though I perhaps wanted to impress her with where I used to be employed, though I came to realize that journalistic prestige doesn’t really translate. Anyway, she understood what I was looking for – they always do at press offices when a reporter calls out of the blue: They know he wants something for which he doesn’t have to pay.
We resorted to English at the end of our conversation, when Pierrette asked for my email address to send me a press kit, since with my faulty pronunciation at the time it was virtually impossible to spell my name in French, especially since my name and my email address both have a j and a g, and the way you pronounce them in French is exactly the opposite of how they’re pronounced in English. G is “jzhay” and J is “gzhee.” I said at one point that I’d be willing to pay for a ticket but after a suspenseful moment Madame Chastel told me, “Alors, je peux,” meaning she could find a ticket for me.
Part of me realized that I’d rather have paid, at least if I’d been able to afford the price. Scrambling for a free seat was more trouble than I wanted to take at that point. I no longer wanted to explain who I used to be, as if that mattered – it certainly didn’t back home and it was even less an impressive résumé item abroad. I was nobody in New York, and I was certainly personne in Paris, and the expectation was fading of being given a freebie just because of where I had once worked.
I didn’t want to be that guy anymore. Life is transitory, or at least my impression of it is, all comings and goings and firings and hirings and jockeying to be noticed, and the impression of what I might have called my career had amounted to nothing more than living in disguises, of pretending to be more than I probably was capable of being. Still, I’d done my job honestly, but that phase of my life was over, and a new one was beginning, and I believed that looking for a free ticket brought me back to a world I no longer wished to participate in. I had spent a good part of my adult life living by deadlines when nothing was actually real but everything was looming (so many stories editors consider important turn out to be unmemorable). Begging for a ticket recalled a life I had chosen to move beyond. Still, I took the ticket, and I went to the opera. I might have told myself I was moving in a new direction thanks to a newly revealed moral compass, but I nevertheless didn’t turn down an opportunity to see an expensive opera for free. I favored expediency over the high ground that I was certain I was beginning to take.
The opera was excellent, especially the first one-act, Il Tabarro (or La Houppelande in French) which was powerful, moving and dramatically vibrant. The second, Sœur Angelica is a bit too intimate a piece for the enormous space that is Opera Bastille. The third piece, Gianni Schicchi, was a comic bonbon (albeit one modeled in part after Dante’s Inferno), an amusing cap to an evening filled with melodrama and tragedy. I was lucky to have been given a terrific seat: premier balcony, first row, center. Much better than if I’d paid for it myself. And I did write about the opera, so I paid for my ticket in kind, though an audience in New York was unlikely to travel to Paris to see Puccini.
I learned, however, that a French audience – at least on this particular evening – acted differently than those I knew best, New York audiences. Here there wasn’t a grand march to the exits at the final note, but a generous appreciation of the performers and the performance. Perhaps there was less of a need to make the 11:46 train to the suburbs or to ensure that the babysitter was home by midnight. Or perhaps there’s more respect in Paris for the people who put on a show (though not so much for those foreigners who write about them).
In any event, it was memorable. I heard many different languages being spoken around me that evening. In addition to French, there was English, German, Russian and, of course, Italian. Just as at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Only in New York, opera-goers wouldn’t have to wend their way through a teeming demonstration of Socialist Party members outside the theater protesting the raising of the retirement age to 62, as they did that night several years ago. I was glad to be among them, these protesters, since they gave voice to their unhappiness, if not in operatic excess at least with dramatic conviction. I slipped through the group unnoticed, as I do through life, as most of us do, even those among us who think we’re deserving of more than we have.