In February, 1983, the Venetians threw a festival to celebrate the centenary of Richard Wagner’s death on the Grand Canal, in the splendid Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi. A well-appointed flat, to be sure, but it was not the piano nobile. Any low-ceilinged resentment the genius might then have felt would, after a mere century, be countered by the longest and most intense Wagnerama in history.
Like every serious Wagnerite in Europe, my companion and I were there. Did we qualify? Perhaps not, if you compared us to the cultists thronging San Marco in lamb chop berets, opera capes, and 16-foot cerise satin sashes. We might have looked ordinary, but we were under thirty and on our third Ring.
I began to ache, morally, after only a few hours of no costuming. Detouring to Baronceli in Frezzaria – the Doge’s hatter, long gone – I bought a gorgeous hat. I still have the label. Every girl should have such a hat. It endowed me with second sight enough to know there was no time to lose, if we meant to cop tickets to the gala performance of Parsifal at the Teatro La Fenice. We ran like hell to the box office, which had been open for less than an hour. The last and worst seats in the house were ours for 6000 Lire. This happens only to the young, I would learn.
In that era, there were steps to take before one could feel truly installed in Venice. Drinking a Campari at Harry’s Bar was convincing, especially when followed by lunch at La Madonna. We performed those rituals of deep entry, and hove into the Caffe Lavena, a poor third at San Marco but Wagner’s favorite. In sight of the Piazzetta and the wide Bacino, diamond-bright in the winter sun, we examined handbills of all the Wagnerian attractions, slitting our eyes at each other like mated hares in a satin box.