As the concertmaster warmed up the strings onstage, the overhead lights in the distance dimmed to tiny flecks, like stardust in the Judea Desert. Bass singers discreetly loosened their bow ties while altos fidgeted with beaded earrings from Tel Aviv markets. I plucked a page from the Rossini score and fanned myself, hoping not to tip over in three-inch heels onto the trumpet section—a minor concern compared to our overriding fear: a suicide bomber lurking in the Opera House.
I gazed out over the audience and prayed for another appreciative crowd. Ours was the only foreign chorus brave enough to travel to Israel at a time of increasing turmoil. So far, we’d been warmly welcomed on the three-week tour. Festival organizers had reassured us of less violence at Christmastime, but it was difficult to ignore all the heavily armed soldiers patrolling the streets and metal detectors looming at every tourist site that December in 2002.
In anticipation of Maestro José Serebrier’s entrance, the stage fell silent and turned momentarily pitch-black, plunging my thoughts into even darker terrain. I reached back into the soprano section for Zsuzsa’s hand. “You don’t hear any loud ticking sounds, do you?” I whispered to my friend.
“No, Linduska, only your heartbeat,” she said. “Breathe deeply and relax. Think of Mary.”
Yes, Mother Mary. She’ll protect us. Earlier that day, Zsuzsa and I had lit candles in front of icons at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and asked for Mary’s protection. Recalling the serenity of that moment, my pulse simmered down. After all, a group of eighty Hungarians singing another Stabat Mater was a most unlikely terrorist target. Well, eighty Hungarians, one Brit, and this American. I slinked closer to the tenors and pulled a few strands of chestnut hair across my forehead.
Finally, Maestro Serebrier entered onstage with the soloists to rousing rounds of applause. With a flourish of his frizzy reddish mane, the Uruguayan conductor raised a baton-less arm toward the skies and summoned the cellos, which crept in with a sigh. The ascending arpeggios were topped off by the twinkling of flutes, followed by strident staccatos from the string basses, foreshadowing the pain of Christ’s mother standing at the foot of the Cross. The conductor made a cradling movement with his arms; the opening wailed like a desperate lullaby.
As the male vocals joined in, I cleared my throat and internally searched for the right starting note—was it G or B-flat? It was too late to check the score without rustling the pages and creating a commotion. I opened my trembling mouth and let out an amorphous sound that magically blended with the angelic ones. As the top of my head started tingling, I closed my eyes and imagined floating up with the music toward the heavens.
Over two years ago, I had stood onstage under very different circumstances, cloaked in familiar academic surroundings amid family and friends. Never had I imagined singing at an opera house so far from home. Then again, much of what Angelica had predicted, like this musical immersion, had already come true.
I thought back to how my Odyssey began…