A friend of a friend in Paris adores ballet, which it turns out has perks. Isabelle loves ballet so much, she volunteers as the emergency doctor at the Opéra National de Paris at least 12 times a year. The second most famous structure in Paris needs a doctor at every performance on the off chance that a ballerina will get injured, or an audience member will collapse under the weight of too much grace.
Every now and then, Isabelle can bring a friend along, for free. I know next to nothing about ballet. When I was six, my mum — working full-time and raising two kids on her own — made me choose between ballet or piano lessons. I wasn’t allowed to do both. As I recall, she took me to see The Nutcracker at the Orpheum in Vancouver to help me make my decision. I fell asleep halfway through and was signed up for piano.
This past Friday, Isabelle invited me to join her for L’Histoire de Manon. She told me to be at the Opera Garnier at 7pm and she’d see what she could do. I got there early to find the steps crowded with people, many milling around holding signs that read: “Cherche 1 billet”, “Cherche 2 billet.” Friday evening’s performance was actually the last rehearsal before opening night, Monday, so this is what Parisiens do, apparently. They show up in droves and hope someone like Isabelle, or maybe the ladies who sew the costumes, or the people who build the sets, or even the dancers not dancing that night — they all turn out for this last dress rehearsal — will have a spare ticket to share.
I sat on the steps and looked out at the Place de L’Opera, wave upon wave of people, bikes, buses, and cars heading in half a dozen different directions under the setting sun. A busker with a guitar, an amp, and speakers was belting out an eclectic playlist ranging from Adele to Simon and Garfunkle, berating his audience in French between numbers. He was giving it his everything. When he didn’t know the English words, he’d get by with just the sounds of the words, or he’d use French words instead. It was sort of funny, but also beautiful. Music does this to me, which is maybe why I ended up with piano all those years ago, and still go back to it now. I was getting choked up just at the thought of me being there, tapping my feet on the worn marble steps of this grand building, so far from home amongst all the earnest ticket-hopefuls of Paris. It was enthralling, every bit of it, and I hadn’t even gone inside.
And the inside was extraordinary. Chagall on the ceiling, a 7-tonne bronze and crystal chandelier, everything gold, gold, velvet, and gold. My retina started cramping as if they were overeating at Christmas dinner but were still hell-bent on having dessert.
During the second intermission, Isabelle told me she’d wanted desperately to be a ballerina when she was a child, but she was born in Casablanca where ballet wasn’t a real option. Plus her mother wanted her to do gymnastics instead. Decades later she landed the volunteer gig at the Opera Garnier and she calls it a dream come true. She will watch the same ballet at the Opera Garnier several times, just to see how alternate dancers interpret their roles. And she’ll take a train across Europe to see a particular ballet in a different city. She’s seen L’Histoire de Manon 40 times, she estimates. Her favourite was years ago when she watched the dancer playing Manon dance in her last public performance ever. Afterwards, the ballerina’s children came on stage and everyone in the audience cried.
Manon dies at the end, of course. Friday night’s Manon died beautifully, fluttering above a mist of dry ice, her lover prone beside her trying to hold her aloft. I cried, surprising myself. Isabelle cried too.
“This is why I love ballet,” she said, tunneling a knuckle into her eye socket before standing up and swiping at her mascara. “For this. Whenever it happens. For the three minutes when ballet makes you cry.” She shrugged and heaved her medical bag onto her shoulder. “A friend told me I should just take a lover instead. It would be cheaper.”
I could have told her, but didn’t, that the same thing had happened to me earlier that evening, when I was on the steps outside with the busker and the thrum of rush-hour Paris. That it’s someone giving something their everything that will do me in, every time, in almost any medium. I am moved by the way passionate people accomplish things, and how others love and hunger for that passion. Often, in my case, it’s more like a three second cry than a full three minutes, but still. Tears come fast and cheap for me: a curse and a gift. The way I see it, that doesn’t actually take away from their value.