In 1993, when I was 18 and pretending to be an adult, I figured it was about time I consumed some culture with a capital C — and that meant going to the opera. The Barber of Seville by Rossini was playing at the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids, and I scored two tickets for my boyfriend Jon and me.
I donned a little black dress, slathered on Clinique bonus makeup from Younkers and carried a beaded red purse from Armstrong’s Department Store. Strutting under the Paramount’s blinking marquee, through the hall of mirrors and down the theater’s red-carpeted center aisle in my prom heels, I felt like a Crapidian it-girl if there ever was one.
The curtains were down, the stage waiting to be revealed. I remember settling into the red velvet seats with the pre-show excitement of a kid. And in comparison to the rest of the audience, we really were kids: I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn many of my fellow opera-goers had attended the Paramount’s first show in 1929.
Jon and I took our seats on the floor, stage right, in the middle of a septuagenarian sea. The orchestra began playing.
Two minutes into the overture, I was struck with the mental image of Bugs Bunny in the “Rabbit of Seville” cartoon, rubbing oil onto Elmer Fudd’s bald head to this very tune. A wave of giggles hit me; the harder I worked to suppress it, the more I felt I was going to burst. Surely one is not supposed to laugh at the opera, but there was no escaping my seat without pushing past many knobby knees and a cloud of Shalimar. I had to squeeze Jon’s hand and bury my head in his shoulder.
As the players proceeded into the first act, taking us back to the 18th century, it became clear that we were in for a long night. I had prepared for the opera to test my attention span about as much as a movie with subtitles, but it was worse, like watching a really slow musical with so many flourishing ups and downs it was hard to comprehend the action of the players, much less what they were singing. I remember lolling back and gazing at the gold opulence of the ceiling. Playing adult at the opera now seemed like a lot of boring work.
It is difficult to describe the moment you first realized a naked butt had run past you. It happened so fast I suddenly understood why they called it “streaking.”
The backend making its way up the center aisle was evocative of a classic Greek statue. Even 25 years later, I can see those white cheeks bouncing through the forest of red velvet and beaded Von Maur dresses — can still hear the scattered chorus of “Oh!”s and “Ah!”s rising from the theater of bluehairs, parted by said perfect butt. News reports will later be conflicting, but I swear the guy had pantyhose over his head with a sock covering the jewels.
The orchestra played on in their pit, unwittingly providing a score for the impromptu performance. There was a brief moment when I thought this may have been part of the opera, however nonsensical it seemed. But as the streaker approached the stage, there was a flash of surprise on the faces of the players, momentarily gobsmacked by the near-naked man poised to steal their spotlight.
The moment broke when the backside took a hard right at the orchestra pit, sprinted past the front row into the wings and up the short flight of stairs and disappeared through the side curtain. The opera continued without a hitch. The audience was left agape. The streaker got away.
How do you return your attention to a performance you barely understood to begin with after that?
I joined the rest of the audience in taking a deep, refocusing breath. The soprano ascended a staircase on stage and prepared to sing her tune from a balcony. Her wig was tall and fantastic. As she began her part, a streak of black appeared, and stayed.
Was this part of the show? The question was answered yet again by gauging the reactions onstage: As soon as the singer spotted the unidentified flying object, her eyes became so big we could see the whites from our seats.
It was a bat. The bat had emerged from somewhere backstage, and appeared to want to nest in that magnificent wig. The soprano started ducking, her giant wig swaying back and forth. She sang on, and the bat circled on. Her voice was strong, but there was a warble of fear behind it. The audience held their collective breath, releasing little gasps that coincided with the bat’s swooping.
Just as the players did not stop for a butt, they persevered through the flight of a bat. It was impressive. The show must go on. The aria ended, the soprano descended the staircase and the bat flew out of sight.
The whole spectacle lasted more than two and a half hours. When the final notes ceased ringing and the house lights glowed bright, the audience rose to a standing ovation that warmed the entire 1,690-seat theater. It was an outpouring of appreciation not only for the players, but for the shared sense that we had all witnessed — and survived — something truly singular. It was a bonafide opera buffa.
Erin E. McCuskey lives in Iowa City with her family. While she has many more stories from the Paramount, she begs you to find your own stories by seeing shows at your local venues every year. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 268.