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I was looking for my little stash of those tiny bulbs you have on old fashioned strings of Christmas lights, you know what I mean – and instead I found, of all things, the ticket of my first Don Carlo.

My first live Don Carlo, I mean – because I’d watched and rewatched quite a few DVDs of Verdi’s opera by the time a production of it happened within reasonable distance… Well, it was in Rovigo, a small town a hundred kilometers away – and, frankly, the last place I’d have expected to have an opera season, much less one featuring Don Carlo… but there it was, and my mentor decreed it was high time I saw the thing on a stage – as opposed to a screen. And I entirely agree, in principle – but Rovigo…

Still, a Don Carlo is a Don Carlo, and back in 2001 Don Carlos were thin on the ground in Italy – so, on the tenth of November the Mentor and I left at an unreasonably early hour to drive to Rovigo. The Mentor was, of course, at the wheel… Now look, I loved the man dearly – but his driving style just didn’t agree with me. The shortest drive with him was enough to upset my stomach – and in spite of all the remedies for motion sickness I could think of, after a hundred kilometers, I was so sick I hardly knew where I was…

It was a huge relief to be parked in a square in Rovigo, at last, and step off the car… into a stiff, chilly breeze. The Mentor ran a skeptical eye on my little black dress under a lightish coat, and my high heels.

“Is that all you’re wearing?” he asked, .

Well, there also were a silk scarf and a pair of gloves – but stilll…

“Well, never mind – a brisk walk in the cold will settle your stomach,” the Mentor said.

And I have to say he wasn’t wrong: a brisk trot and much shuddering later, my queasy stomach was quite forgotten. So we rushed to the box office, and collected our tickets – and then found that it was quite early. One was always quite early with the Mentor, and, for once, I wasn’t sorry about it: certainly we would head for the nearest tearoom now, and have big, hot cups of tea…

“Do you like roasted chestnuts?” the Mentor asked, seemingly out of the blue.

So taken was I with my visions of hot tea in a cosy room, that I mistook the question for passing-the-time conversation., and said that yes, I quite loved them.

“Ah, splendid!” was the answer. “So do I. Wait right here.”

And I waited right there – at a street corner, in the iciest November draught, as the Mentor disappeared into a grocer’s across the street, to emerge again in a minute, carrying two paper cones, beaming like a very pleased child.

“Here,” he said, shoving one cone at me. “Happy Martinmas!* And never say you had an ordinary dinner for your first Don Carlo!”

How could I have said such a thing? Have you ever dined on roasted chestnuts while standing in evening garb at a draughty street corner, on a cold November night? Well, I have – and can vouch for the very Dickensian quality of the experience. Gloves make it a little tricky to shell the chestnuts, but I won’t be the one to deny that it was great fun. Still, by the time I’d emptied my paper cone, I could have given my kingdom for a cup of tea, and said so with a certain amount of feeling… The Mentor frowned a little, consulted his watch, and conceded that yes, we might spare a minute for something hot. Perhaps coffee, rather than tea?

Because, you see, coffee is a quicker affair than tea – but, since it was still quite early for the opera, and since I was frozen, I held my ground, and ordered tea. The Mentor inhaled his coffee at light speed, and then sat there, frowning alternately at his watch and at me, as I scalded my mouth and throat with my Earl Grey, and muttering that it was growing late… 

It wasn’t at all, and once we’d galloped all the (very short) way to the theatre, we were the very first to take our place in the empty stalls. Row I, Seats 9 and 10 – and we sat there for nearly an hour, as the Mentor commented on what we might and might not expect from the various singers, and I anticipated my first Don Carlo, enjoying the wait, the atmosphere of the house as it filled, the pacified** Mentor’s company…

And in the end, you know, the opera was nothing much. Well, the music itself was glorious – but the singers, the conductor, the whole production were… shall we say so-and-so? Still, it was my first Don Carlo, one of my first opera outings, a bit of an adventure… It is a lovely memory, and I’m so glad that the ticket turned up to bring it all back.

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* Roasted chestnuts are traditional Martinmas fare in my corner of Italy.

** The Mentor was a highly-regarded pediatrician, a university lecturer, a national authority on bio-ethics, a member of the Accademia Virgiliana and a connoisseur of opera, literature and music – and for all that, being less than a full hour early for curtain-up made him too fidgety for words. When I began accompanying him around on his opera jaunts in her stead, his wife was quite relieved…