Sunday, September 13, 2009

SF: L' Opera a la Claudia

Forget the Bolshoi. For us the ultimate Russian experience is opera-– thanks to Claudia.

She’s eighty-ish, the picture of refinement. We met Claudia and her husband John during our first month in San Francisco. Ira was walking on 21st with Cleo and a Russian-accented voice shouted from across the street, “A whippet!"

Within minutes Ira and Cleo had been snagged and pulled up the stairs of the Markevich’s two-story stucco for a discussion of dog breeds, a viewing of John’s wood sculpture, and a taste of Claudia’s torte. So began our friendship and our introduction to L'Opera a la Claudia.

At $80 a ticket, the SF Opera is too pricey for us attend with any regularity. But free performances do come around and we’ve rapidly learned the truth: Claudia must go. In the four years we’ve known them we’ve shuttled her to opera in the park, chauffeured her to Daily City for opera at the cinema, and have spent whole afternoons at John and Claudia’s house with dog, a bottle of white wine, and--opera on the stereo.

The Markevich’s respective pasts could shape a fine libretto. Claudia‘s father was a scholar–-a German linguist--sent to a POW camp in Siberia after World War I. After his release (traveling through China) he met and married Claudia’s mother, a Russian living in China. So Claudia grew up in Asia and as a young adult met John Markevich, another Russian wending his way through China. Their cultural diversity is apparent in any gathering: Claudia understands Chinese, speaks fluent Russian with John, her immediate family and their Russian Orthodox friends, German with her cousins, and English with us. But her favorite language is music.

So today–-free opera in Golden Gate Park–-Claudia is on needles and pins. She has requested we pick her up a full hour before the performance so we can sit with other Russian friends. As she’d predicted, the park is packed. We find the group, claim seats in the white-chair section reserved for senior citizens, and wait for music director Nicola Luisotti to raise his baton. Picnickers crowd around us, and blankets stretch all the way to the hills.

The food is delicious and bountiful, very Russian and very red: cold cuts on crusty rolls, pickled herring with beets, and red potato salad. I contribute stuffed figs and deviled eggs. I miss having green stuff, but they don't.

We eat and share our wine under a white paper sky and silver disk sun. We hum Donizetti's arias, and smile as we recognize O mio bambino caro from Puccini. The notes are like the birds that float and dart overhead, soaring and then vanishing. Claudia is beaming and tapping time. Ira and I turn to each other and just mouthe, “Click” –- or, “wish we could photograph this.”

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