The Two Elitsas
It appeared to be a perfect replica of 1970s middle America, reminiscent of my home town of Pittsburgh. Citizens strolled about, free of masks. Masks? They were absent, except inside one supermarket, where they were worn as chin protectors. Boys and girls glided by on scooters while their parents and grandparents sat heedless, happily smoking cigarettes in the sunny square. Where was I? No, I knew where I was, but: WHEN was I?
In the late morning, my wife and I would walk a few hundred yards to the fire ravaged Ruse Opera House, befuddled by the shift from the disease-focused United States to the obliviously serene Bulgaria. Hamlet was just beginning, with vocal rehearsals and then staging rehearsals. There was some controversy when we discovered that our Rosencrantz was also working on Lucia di Lammermoor, the first Ruse Opera production in a long while, as the company had been first beset by a conflagration in their house and then – as were we all – by the COVID-19 lockdown. But now, in mid May, here in Ruse, it was as if the pandemic had never happened, nor that time had passed since the early 1970s. Aside from our complaints about the double booking of Rosencrantz, our rehearsals in the charred smoky hall were going swimmingly, and it was immensely gratifying to perambulate twice a day, and be greeted by a giant Hamlet banner, adjacent to one for Lucia.
Hamlet banner outside the State Opera Ruse, Bulgaria
Donizetti’s magnum opus was being presented at the Dohodno Zdanie, the great hall across the square from the recently razed Ruse Opera House. Our imported singers and conductors were all invited by Ruse Opera’s director, Ivan Kyurkchiev, to attend Lucia, and did so enthusiastically. Ivan invited Lisa and me to a post-Lucia meal at a restaurant adjacent to Dohodno Zdanie (named, aptly, “Good Food Restaurant”) where we were joined by Ivan’s wife, and a Bulgarian member of parliament and his wife. I’d not really gotten to know Ruse Opera’s director Ivan before the Lucia performance. We’d crossed paths, but only briefly. When he invited Lisa and I to dine with him, I was afraid it might be uncomfortable for all of us. I sat down at the outdoor table with trepidation.
I’m going to invite Ivan’s lovely wife, Elitsa, to put in her two cents about this meal, but first, I need to refer you, gentle reader, to the previous blog published by PARMA — Studio Journal: Joseph Summer on his Hamlet Opera Part 1 — in which I described my strange interlude in Boston, in the summer of 1973, with a young Bulgarian student, named Elitsa (ostensibly the daughter of a major figure in the notorious Bulgarian espionage agency), and a Bulgarian field operative in a grey suit, with a bag of silver. I’ll wait for you here, in this sentence, as you read — or reread — the previous narrative.
Every time the tenor sings “O bell’alma innamorata,” at the end of Lucia, I break down; it never fails. “O bell’alma innamorta.” Tears. After the final curtain, wiping tears from my eyes, Lisa and I departed the hall to meet Ivan and company for dinner and drinks. I felt awkward, about to share time with the opera director and his friends, and unsure whether the language barrier would be a burden: whether we could find common ground for confabulation.
Left to right: the 2021 Elitsa, Joe Summer, Ivan Kyurtchiev
As I often do when feeling ill at ease in a social situation, I launched into a lengthy story from my past to avoid the discomfort of the initial conversational struggle. Half the table — Elitsa, the parliamentarian, and spouse — chatted in Bulgarian. In our half, I buttonholed Ivan and began the tale of Elitsa Bachvarova, my unintended intended. As you’ve read the prior blog, you’ll realize that I did not give Elitsa’s full name therein, but now must, as it is essential to do so now to make sense of the ensuing story.
Joe Summer sitting between the Bulgarian member of parliament and his spouse.
Though Ivan might have introduced me to his wife with her name during a brief meeting during intermission, I’d not marked it. Now, as I led Ivan through my misadventures with the 1973 Elitsa, I was not bashful when pronouncing her name aloud, “Elitsa Bachvarova.”