Beethoven in Colombia

Beethoven in Colombia

A few years ago, I found myself in Colombia, where I was the mezzo-soprano soloist for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Among the notes I took while there:

The orchestra management, mercifully, placed the soloists in the 5-star Hotel Intercontinental, whose atmosphere falls somewhere between a luxury hotel and a federal maximum-security prison. Armed guards everywhere. Doubtless, they are looking for rooms to rob, but nevertheless, they create some semblance of security. The reason we were placed at this hotel is that the entire orchestra was mass-mugged at the “other” hotel. Am trying to envision thieves making off with tympani, harps, and double basses….

The performances are held at the outdoor Velodrome, aka the Bellowdrome, as it seats 7,000. I have, of course, sung in outdoor theaters. The chief difference here is that bats are continuously flying to and fro. And here, too, heavily armed guards stalk about—several outside my prison cell of a dressing room, more backstage, even onstage. The personal guard assigned to my dressing room is a burly dude named Achilles—with the accent on “kill.” I glimpsed a whole armory under his jacket.

All this makes me feel Real Important. Which is something, since the mezzo soloist in the Beethoven Ninth is Not Real Important (a “sandwich” voice, she sings only when the other three voices are blaring). Traditionally, she wears a red gown—or you won’t hear her. But for this particular performance, color was not as important as style: I needed something baggy around my middle in order to conceal my special undergarment that houses money/valuables (I am paid in US bills in a brown paper bag).

Lots of things are the opposite of home. In New York, cabbies often fear getting mugged and/or murdered by passengers. Here in Colombia, it’s the passengers who are mugged regularly by cabdrivers. This from the official U.S. government travel warnings website: “Robbery of people hailing taxis on the street is a particularly serious problem in Colombia. Typically, the driver—who is one of the conspirators—will pick up the passenger, and then stop to pick up two or more armed cohorts, who enter the cab, overpower the passenger, and take his/her belongings. If the passenger has an ATM card, the perpetrators will often force the passenger to withdraw money from various ATM locations. Such ordeals can last for hours.”

Hours? I know they tend to move slower here in mañana-land, but, seriously, how long can it take to rob someone blind? I asked a local, who supplied me with a credible answer: In the U.S., burglars focus on lifting your electronic equipment, cash, jewelry. “In Colombia, oh man, we take ev’rythin’, man! The drapes, the furniture, the foo’ from the fridge!” People steal mail from public mailboxes by attaching a wad of pre-chewed chewing gum onto a long stick; they then insert the stick into the mailbox and bring up the mail. I am simply dazzled by this low-tech ingenuity.

So, eating. The national dish is the arepa, a white cornmeal affair, which tastes like…nothing. But loading one up with dulce de leche makes it infinitely palatable.

The buses: not a good mode of transport. Yesterday a clarinetist in the orchestra, standing in a crowded bus, was smothered from behind by someone toting an ether-soaked hankie, who then fled with her clarinet and handbag. Seems to me that she would have been safer had she been seated. But the few seats that exist are claimed by people squatting over them for a few minutes before actually sinking their butts down. When I asked a local why they didn’t just sit down, he patiently informed me—in a way that you would address a slow-witted child—that you can catch VD if you don’t wait till the seat cools down from the previous sitter’s body warmth; and the women claim that you can get pregnant if the previous sitter was male and you don’t wait seven (count ‘em!) minutes.

Was puzzled as to why six rehearsals were scheduled for soloists and orchestra (normally, this work requires only one or two). The reason became all too apparent by the second bar of the first rehearsal. And though I’ve performed the Beethoven Ninth many times, the first performance here featured new and disturbing sounds. The audiences, however, love us here, even if we sing like a toilet bowl—and we, of course, love them.

This is no importa, tranquila land—a big party, all the time. It is December and 85 degrees every day, just as it is 365 days a year. There is no sense of time passing because there are no seasons. Everything is always the same, so no plans are made, e.g., “in the autumn, I will take a course” or “in the summer, I will take a holiday” or “I will do a spring cleaning.” Everything is the same, every day. Nothing will ever change. No importa, tranquila.