Ръченица at the Proms
The location of the Hamlet premiere, the city of Ruse in Bulgaria, developed organically. PARMA didn’t approach me with a rationale that since my duel music in Act III is in 7/4, the optimum venue for the debut would be an opera house in Northern Bulgaria, (because 7/4, divided 2 + 2 + 3, is a typical Bulgarian dance form) but I was delighted when, during full rehearsals for the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes, the chorus, composed of local vocalists, danced in place with abundant and evident pleasure. “You wrote a rachenitsa,” the chorus mistress, Stella, told me. I do have a Bulgarian aunt, and extensive familiarity with Bulgarian music since I was a boy. Whether my frequent use of 7/4 is due to that background or simply to my predilection for asymmetric meters, I don’t know.
To Stella, I responded, “Yes, I know,” but I knew it was a rachenitsa not because of my Bulgarian aunt explaining the rhythmical underpinning back when I was a boy, nor from my musical studies, nor from any of the one hundred Bulgarian musicians participating in the Hamlet premiere. I learned it was a rachenitsa when the night manager at the hotel said to me, “But you looked like you were enjoying the rachenitsa earlier in the evening.”
Our residence in Bulgaria coincided with graduation for the local high schools and for four straight days our hotel, located on the central square in Ruse: Svoboda, rocked with young Bulgarian graduating seniors frolicking in their proms. Four different high schools in four nights. Each party began at around 8 p.m. and was supposed to end before 11 p.m.; but it wasn’t to be, until I interceded.
The first night I got to see the remarkably sweet seniors dancing to traditional Bulgarian music. First the boys alone, and then the girls. It was the most wholesome prom party I’d ever seen. My wife and I were enchanted, and I filmed some of the charming children, before we went out to eat. Upon our return I spoke to the night manager. I explained to him that as I had booked ten rooms for our singers and crew, and they all needed their rest, I had concerns about the noise level. The night manager smirked and said “You looked like you were enjoying the rachenitsa earlier in the evening.” I said that I thought the dancing was wonderful, “earlier,” but that it needed to end before 11:30; as the day manager had promised. The night manager said he thought it might end later. I retreated to my room with Lisa, but at 11, as the music was still playing, I descended to the lobby.
The girls were gone. The dining room, in which the prom had been taking place, was occupied solely by senior boys, sitting forlornly with one another, mute, as the music roared around them.
I told the manager I wanted the music off. He said he couldn’t make that happen. I insisted that he call the day manager. He said he couldn’t do that, as she was asleep. This response made my blood boil. I began ranting. “She can’t sleep so long as my singers can’t sleep. Wake her up, and the owner!”
He resisted my demands, and I came around the counter (with its plexiglass Corona Virus guard) and buttonholed him. I said, “do you go to restaurants?” He confirmed that he did so. I asked him what he received at those establishments, and he – begrudgingly – answered that he received food. “They don’t give you poison, do they?” I roared. He assured me that that would not be the right thing for a restaurant to provide its patrons. “And what do you offer at a hotel?” He didn’t say. “Beds. You offer beds, because your patrons sleep here. We don’t come to hotels to do anything more important than sleep.” He agreed. But he said he was helpless to assist me. I pushed past him to an inner office, with a window to the street. The night manager was distressed, and frightened. I picked up a phone in the office and just started pushing buttons at random, based on some three digit numbers listed on a piece of paper taped to the desk on which the phone rested. The manager was horrified. Outside, watching with mild interest, was a Bulgarian policeman. The night manager, perhaps hoping I could be reasoned with – and keep in mind that this description of my words and actions does not catch by half the amplitude and belligerence of my ridiculous protest – said that if I didn’t leave the office he’d call the police. I said, “Good. Call them. Call him right there!” And the night manager did so.
The officer saw that he was being beckoned and he entered the hotel. There was only glass between us, so everything was visible and remained so. The manager exited the inner sanctum and approached the keeper of the peace. He explained, now in Bulgarian, of which I’m mostly ignorant, whatever he wanted to explain. I’ve no idea what was said as he and the policeman chatted. I had slowly exited the office myself during their convivial confabulation. I assumed at this point I would be placed in handcuffs, arrested, and taken to some Bulgarian prison. In for a dime, in for a dollar. In English I spoke with unveiled ire. “I need these hooligans removed. It’s nearly 11:30 and my singers need to be asleep.” The policeman, saying nothing, turned on his heels, and walked into the party room. Less than ten seconds later the music ended abruptly, and all of the very sweet young men came out together, followed by the officer. “Tomorrow night,” I said to the night manager, my voice still teeming with animus, “this may not happen again.”
I’ve no idea why the officer dispatched the boys. I don’t know whether he understood a word of my brief screed. There was no more noise past 11:30 on the next three nights. However, on one later evening the day manager had a party for her own friends that went too long for my comfort, and I demanded and received a free night for all of the resident professionals, signed, as I considered her party too invasive to my rest.
On the second performance of Hamlet, my wife and I watched from the balcony. Joining us in the balcony was a cohort of eighty to one hundred high school students. Not music students. General students. They had received tickets to my three and a half hour opera, in English (with Bulgarian subtitles), four hours including the two brief intermissions. School was out. O U T out. They had come, nevertheless, and they were enthralled by the opera. Teenagers enjoying an evening of opera, cheering loudly at the right moments. During the second intermission I was mobbed by about twenty of them who wanted my autograph. This was the audience I cared about, young people responding to the drama and music, with no secondary agenda. This wasn’t an assignment. This was just fun. I have never before felt such elation, such satisfaction. My opera had been enjoyed by a youthful throng, Bulgarian teenage boys and girls. Their enjoyment was the most important reaction to my work I’ve ever received. Glorious. Still, we needed our sleep, so no apologies for kicking them out of their proms.