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May 30, 2019 Hobart at the Opera

The Diary of One Who Disappeared

Michael Mungiello

The Diary of One Who Disappeared photo

Like a punch. Like Margera. BAM.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music is smaller than the Met and cheaper than the Met ($28 versus $40). It forms a triangle between the Barclays Center and a huge Apple Store with Met-like windows, tall and wide rectangles. There’s white and green tile instead of red velvet carpet. There’s a movie theater across the lobby from the...well, it’s not an opera house as much as it is an opera room.

I was nervous. My friend Jerrod was running late.

The opera, The Diary of One Who Disappeared, was set to start at 7:30 so I paced the lobby until 7:30. BAM doesn’t play a xylophone to let you know your time is up. They pull what I think of as the cockroach trap: flick the lights on-off on-off, make them scurry. I handed Jerrod’s ticket to the leader of the ticket takers. I had to spell his name and worried in my rush I’d slipped up (“Jarrod?!”).

I shot to my seat. I wrote on my program what’d happened, just to have a record of my near-miss. I never missed an opera, except once. I had only missed part of the opera but the failure is still seared in my mind. I was taking my mom to a four-hour French opera (her first) and by “I was taking her” I mean “she was driving me” because at the time I was in high school and didn’t have a license. My mom underestimated Lincoln Tunnel traffic and we were forced to watch the end of Act One of Berlioz’s Les Troyens in a screening room where the Met streamed live from the stage for the delinquent latecomers. I swore I’d never be late again.

At BAM a high school couple sat behind me. He had a soul patch and a Yankees t-shirt. She had rimless glasses and blue hair. He said “Yeah it’s looking like 7:32 and they haven’t started yet...I think we got a 7:36er on our hands, maybe even a 7:38er.”

I couldn’t imagine taking a date to see this opera, mostly because when I first found out about it my date said she’d never see this opera. Last time I was at BAM with my girlfriend Sam (SAM), we were reading a program before the performance and I saw two pages about The Diary of One Who Disappeared. “Sam, check this out. This 63-year-old guy Leoš Janáček was married and met this 26-year-old woman, Kamila Stösslová, who was also married, and fell in love with her and wrote her 700 letters—”

“That’s disgusting” she said.

“—and she wrote him 49 letters back.”

“Lol” she said.

“He wrote 4 operas about her. And when he died he gave her the royalties hahahaha. Wanna see one of them, The Diary of One Who Disappeared?”

She said “No.”

She’s not wrong. This is not a date opera.

I texted her that the show was about to start and that I’d let her know when it got out, hopefully it wouldn’t go too late. I shut off my phone. One of my all-time nightmares is my phone suddenly going off in the middle of a performance. When I had a flip phone, I remember removing the battery before an opera started. I’d keep the battery in my left pocket and the remains of the phone in my right. I was still afraid that my phone would somehow turn on (static electricity?) and ring and humiliate me, reveal to the crowd I was a fraud. Everyone would spin around and look at me and point. Pitchforks. Makeshift torches made out of rolled-up programs.

Suddenly Jerrod was next to me.

We had time to catch up before the opera started. The high school Yankee fan behind me was wrong. The show was a 7:45er.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared is one of the more nauseously libidinal operas I’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. The way it’s staged, a stand-in for the composer watches his alter-ego live his ideal life: masochistic escapism. (The composer was named Janáček and the alter-ego is Janíček; the difference between Alan and Allen.) We’re made continually aware of fiction’s insufficiency, the fact that what we call for never comes to us. Janáček wrote opera after opera (and letter after letter) but these texts have nothing to do with the woman he supposedly “loved.” At a certain point we call out for what we want just so we can hear our own voice.

The Diary of One Who Disappeared is a pervy Czech version of Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”

There’s no orchestra in The Diary of One Who Disappeared: just an onstage piano (played by an unnamed older woman), plus voices. This was one of the quietest, most self-serious operas I’ve ever seen; in a feat of karmic justice, the audience was one of the unruliest of which I’ve ever been a member. The otherwise solemn silent opening was punctuated by Siri, somewhere, saying “I can’t make that connection.” Cartoonishly full-bodied sneezes and coughs. When the tenor turned a description of herding sheep into a bogglingly forced sexual innuendo I somehow fumbled my pen so it flew three rows in front of me.

After the opera Jerrod and I looked at each other and laughed. I was glad he’d made it. I said “Let’s go to this Cuban place I like.” We walked for ten minutes. It was closed. Not “the door is shut” closed; wire fence with a sign on it closed, no more outdoor furniture closed. Junkyard evisceration. “Wow” I said. Jerrod said “You wanna try that place?”

He pointed at a cafe where a guy was doing standup.

“Oh actually, let’s not go there. That guy doing stand-up would probably make some kind of joke about us when we walked in” I said.

Jerrod said “Yeah. It also gives me bad vibes that everybody in the audience is laughing.”

It was weird—they were all laughing.

I told him I knew a good taco place that was in the exact opposite direction, equidistant from BAM. We discovered that taco place is now a barbershop, the glass walls and blaring fluorescent lights of which announced “MICHAEL MUNGIELLO IS WRONG, THIS IS NOT A TACO PLACE ANYMORE.”

Jerrod said “Let’s just get tacos at this place directly across the street from BAM.”

Neither of us wanted to talk about the opera because its own self-obsession edged us out. What could we say about it that it hadn’t already said about itself? It’s like, what could Stösslová write back to Janáček’s 700 letters? The whole point is that she couldn’t contribute anything. His was the kind of love that makes you feel invisible. Stösslová wasn’t a person to Janáček but an instrument.

But to be good sports Jerrod and I tried to make at least one interpretation: what did the title mean? Who disappeared? Jerrod thought the One who disappeared was Janáček himself: half-there in his real life and loveless marriage, half-there in his fantasy of running away with Stösslová. But to me? It was us, the viewers; we were as much of an afterthought to the writer and director as was Stösslová to Janáček. The Audience was the One who disappeared. Which makes this essay the eponymous diary.

But I can’t complain. Sure, being ignored made me feel melancholy. But I like melancholy. Everyone does, that’s what it’s there for. As Janáček knew, melancholy is a way to get off on loss. And getting off on loss is one way to get over it.

Melancholy over Stösslová became the operas became money. Melancholy over my mom making us late to Les Troyens became a memory, recast in grateful hues as time goes by. (Imagine being an adult with a job and your kid asks you to drive into New York and buy tickets to a FOUR HOUR opera and then WATCH IT with him. Imagine saying “sure.”) And there’s my manufactured melancholy of missing the Met. Topping even that is the manufactured melancholy, the loneliness, of getting into opera in the first place, a dying artform most of the people I truly love tolerate at best.

 

image: Betsy Agosta


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