Au­di­ence of plants eases sur­real times

San Francisco Chronicle - - DATEBOOK - Tony Bravo’s col­umn ap­pears Mondays in Date­book. Email: tbravo@sfchron­i­ Twit­ter: @Tony­bravosf

Last night, I dreamed I was back in the War Memo­rial Opera House for the first time since March. But in­stead of find­ing my fa­vorite aisle seats on the left side of the or­ches­tra, there was a red­wood tree.

I could see more trees in the grand tier and bal­cony, branches canopied above me blot­ting out the chan­de­lier. The stage cur­tain was closed, but I could hear mu­sic com­ing from the pit mixed with the call of birds in the trees.

We live in in­creas­ingly sur­real times, so I wasn’t too sur­prised to see that the Opera House had turned into a for­est. It’s not like any­one else had been able to use the venue dur­ing the pan­demic. Why shouldn’t the red­wood trees have some­where nice to wait out the virus?

Then I woke up to a rat­tling ex­plo­sion of fire­works, the lat­est and the weird­est dis­rup­tion 2020 has wrought. I could still smell the damp moss of the red­wood for­est from my dream, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. So I checked my so­cial me­dia feed, where friends had shared the story about the au­di­ence filled with house­plants at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

We’re out of the dream now; you read that cor­rectly.

On Mon­day, June 22, the Uceli Quar­tet played Puc­cini’s “Crisan­temi” for an au­di­ence of plants from lo­cal nurs­eries oc­cu­py­ing the opera house’s 2,292 seats. The con­cert helped mark Spain’s com­ing out of its three­month pan­demic shel­ter pe­riod, as the­aters there can now start op­er­at­ing again with new ca­pac­ity and so­cial dis­tance re­stric­tions. The per­for­mance was live­streamed and there were no peo­ple in the au­di­ence, just 2,292 leafy green plants. (I won­dered how the quar­tet felt play­ing to the shrubs in the back bal­cony.)

Af­ter­ward, the plants were de­liv­ered to emer­gency care work­ers at the Hos­pi­tal Clinic of Barcelona, with let­ters of thanks.

I un­der­stood why this story ap­pealed to so many. It’s not just that we’ve been liv­ing in sur­real times th­ese past few months; we’ve been liv­ing on the bad side of sur­real times. (Please don’t make me re­hash 2020. Let’s just say that be­tween the pan­demic and the pol­i­tics this year, the state of the world makes the night­mar­ish films of Luis Buñuel and Sal­vador Dali look like the Dis­ney Plus cat­a­log.) See­ing the sump­tu­ous red and gold Gran Teatre filled with plants is a vi­sion that re­minds us that there can be a good side to sur­real times too.

The im­age of th­ese mu­si­cians play­ing to seats filled with green­ery brought to mind scenes from Lewis Car­roll’s mag­i­cal Won­der­land (Chap­ter 13: Alice and the March Hare give a con­cert for the plants) or the life of Mad King Lud­wig II of Bavaria, who loved the mu­sic of Wagner so much he built en­tire cas­tles themed around his op­eras and hosted din­ner par­ties for busts of his fa­vorite his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. The whimsy lifted my spir­its.

“After a strange, painful pe­riod, the creator, the Liceu’s artis­tic di­rec­tor and the cu­ra­tor Blanca de la Torre offer us a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive for our re­turn to ac­tiv­ity, a per­spec­tive that brings us closer to some­thing as es­sen­tial as our re­la­tion­ship with na­ture,” a state­ment read on the opera house’s web­site.

That per­spec­tive pre­sented in the vi­sion of the plant­filled opera house was also a per­fect metaphor for what many are feel­ing at the mo­ment. Usu­ally, the arts are some­thing we can get lost in that al­lows us to ask deeper ques­tions about the hu­man con­di­tion. Now, many of us feel lost in ev­ery­day life and are forced to con­stantly ques­tion the state of the world. Things seem so un­be­liev­able.

For­give the mixed metaphor, but many of us are si­mul­ta­ne­ously wan­der­ing in the woods and un­able to see the for­est for the trees at this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment.

I think that’s why the vi­sion of the Gran Teatre filled with plants has re­ceived so much at­ten­tion. In a year with so much dark­ness and such in­tense suf­fer­ing, an act of kind­hearted ab­sur­dity can lift us up. I be­gan to think about my dream again: Maybe red­wood trees in the Opera House were im­prac­ti­cal (not good for the sight lines), but might we ever see a con­cert for plants in the Bay Area? And once venues re­open with lim­ited seat­ing, per­haps some en­ter­pris­ing nurs­ery could fig­ure out a type of fern that would do well in the dark of a the­ater and we could use them to fill the empty seats be­tween so­cially dis­tanced peo­ple.

Given the lin­ger­ing hip­pie ethos of the re­gion, I was ac­tu­ally dis­ap­pointed we didn’t think of it first.

Many feel lost in ev­ery­day life and are forced to ques­tion the state of the world.

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