December 1971. While studying abroad at Stanford in Salamanca, I met a beautiful woman and her family. They loved opera; I had never seen one. They were leaving for Vienna and I for Venice and Switzerland. But, I knew that I had to see this woman again. We agreed to meet on New Year’s Eve at 7:30pm outside the Vienna Opera House.
December 30, 1971. After traveling through the Swiss Alps, I took the night train scheduled to arrive in Vienna in the morning of the 31st. I hoped to spend time with her during the day, exploring Vienna, before seeing the opera. But it was not meant to be! I had a Guatemalan passport and did not know that I needed a visa to enter Austria. Around midnight on the 30th, near Lichtenstein, the Austrian police ordered me to get off the train. They told me I could get a visa in the nearby principality of Lichtenstein in the morning. Unfortunately, the Austrian police said that the next train would get me to Vienna only on the 31st in the evening. There was nothing there, but a small closed train station. It was the middle of winter in the Swiss Alps, freezing, and I had nowhere to go. I slept on a bench with my down sleeping bag zipped to my nose. All I could think of was this beautiful woman. I knew I had to get to Vienna to see her. In the morning I took the first bus to Lichtenstein and go a visa from the Austrian consulate. I told his secretary my story about caring for this beautiful woman. She gets excited and drives me to the station in her VW bug. I jump out of her car, grab my pack, jump on the train as it’s leaving, and hear her yelling behind me “Remember the people of Lichtenstein!”
New Year’s Eve, 1971. I arrive at the Vienna Opera House well past 7:30pm. I try to buy a ticket, but the person at the box office looks me up and down, calls her manager, who promptly tells me that I can’t go to the opera looking like that. I have hair down to my shoulders. I’m wearing jeans and a bush jacket. I’m carrying a backpack. I’ve been on a train all day and I spent the night on a bench outdoors at an abandoned train station in the dead of winter in the middle of the Swiss Alps. I understand his concern, but I’m not going to let the protocol of the Vienna Opera House stop me from meeting up with this woman. He lets me in and I see my first opera, Verdi’s La Traviata, and I reunite with the beautiful woman once more.
I say, “once more,” because she broke my heart in Madrid a few months later. Our love didn’t last, but my love of opera surely did. When my wife, Susan, and I moved to Los Angeles in 1987, we became subscribers of the new Los Angeles Opera company and have been dedicated attendees ever since. Susan and I took our sons the opera, as part of their arts education, and they have all found enjoyment and/or careers in the arts. We are fortunate that we had the opportunity to share our passion for opera – and the arts- with our three sons and happily support LA Opera’s robust education and community engagement programs. Their works to share opera with the greater Los Angeles community and students is nothing short of extraordinary and to their efforts, I say, “Bravo!”
Robert García is the Founding Director and Counsel of The City Project.