When I was a little girl, I wanted a sceptre and a crown. Not much has changed, save perhaps my understanding of probability. Whilst I retain a vague hope for throne and empire, I have come to accept that these are the dreams of another life.
As a general rule, glamour seldom descends upon graduates who hold their purses close until sale season. But birthdays, especially the significant ones, are sometimes Cinderella moments.
To me, the opera house has always implied the presence of women in rubies and sable, men with silk ties, and the kind of inimitable sophistication that emanates from those who wear Chanel. An opera house like the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is the sort of place where you know your drink will be served in a glass. Too classy for plastic, and God forbid you should think shoes with worn heels won’t make you feel inferior.
We are centuries down the line from corsets and lace ruffs, but the opera is still a classy affair, and I pity anyone who doesn’t know it the moment they step onto burgundy velvet.
Twenty-one is an age of hopes and fables. It is the age at which you have become, for the most part, the person you are going to be. My parents told me that from here my life will be what I make it, and I can well believe them. I am no longer young enough to blame others for who I am.
We arrived on the edge of rush hour in a depressed, Brexit-ravaged city. Waterloo was full of couples running for their trains, and rainbows – London Pride had been in full swing earlier that day.
Cramming a tall boy in a motorised wheelchair, together with his parents and sister, into the back of a London taxi, is no mean feat, but with a few squashed toes, grunts and curses, my family and I prevailed, and set off across the city. Fortunately, it is not such a great distance from Waterloo to Covent Garden.
Tumbling out onto the pavement in my highest (and least comfortable) pair of heels, I looked up at an overcast sky. Within minutes umbrellas had sprouted all across the pavement.
We walked three blocks past steps and apologetic waiters to find a restaurant with a disabled toilet. The air smelt like old smoke, and the wine made me laugh too much, but there is something about sitting with your family after a long, hard journey that makes everything less of a problem.
In the evening we saw Nabucco, an epic of religious war and love in a tremendous flurry of Italian voices. My parents chose it because it happened to be showing on my birthday.
The moment the blue curtain lifted, no one spoke, and I sat rooted in my seat, glancing between the subtitles that flashed across the top of the stage and the faces of the singers. Sometimes their expressions, contorted in a kind of joyous agony, seemed to be performing more for God than for the audience.
Aesthetically, the opera was not what I’d envisioned. The opera house, with its red silk lampshades and gold-embroidered seat numbers, seemed unchanged from its courtlier days, but the singers did not have painted faces, or long dresses, or lavish props.
Nabucco centres around the persecution of the Jews in Assyria, but this version had a wartime set. The lead singer’s red hair was the only thing that didn’t blend into the sand that had been strewn across the floor.
Lace and velvet had been traded for muted blues, greys and brown. Colours of sadness and suffering, and not at all what I’d expected, but somehow, better than I hoped.
After fearing to find the worst kind of artistic superiority, it was the tempered costumes that made the opera real for me. Nabucco was not glamourous, or rich, but it was pure, artistic, and enough to raise the hair on my arms.
After we had given the cast their due of rapturous applause, we prepared ourselves to face London, now dark and bustling. The audience melted into taxis, leaving their empty wine glasses on the lacquered white bar. As we left I pulled the lighter from my handbag and took a photo of the blue curtain, hanging still before the empty auditorium.