In my late high school years we were a close group of friends, all music students, filled with the joy of life and music. With some huge Mozart festival celebrated in Durban, at a two hour road trip our nearest city, we convinced one of our parents to drive us there. The great attraction was The Playhouse, home of the Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, and some of the best classical productions in the country. To be a flautist in one of the big philharmonic orchestras in South Africa was one of my first serious career dreams as a teenager. I have always been crazy about playing classical music, and to be part of such a collection of the most intricate and beautiful instruments under the sun, was then the ultimate dream. Everything about live classical performance fascinated me, from the elegantly laid-out marketing posters (for sale in the foyer shop post-performance), to the sudden hush when the lights dim; desperately trying to catch a good look at the black-clad musicians and buffed instruments in the ill-lit pit below the stage, and especially, especially, the hair-raising dissonance when the individual instruments warm up, and then gradually tune together to a unifying A, reinforcing the anticipation of the imminent Overture. Absolutely entrancing! That year the principal flautist in the Natal Philharmonic was a young woman named Maria Swart. I dreamed of being her, did research about the requirements, salary and work hours of professional orchestra members, and fantasized about arriving night after night at a black backstage door with my beautiful instrument ready to contribute toward a soaring world-class classical performance, with an auditorium full of high-society patrons in curved rows and decorated stalls in ecstatic standing ovation.
On the afternoon of the opening of the Mozart festival, the four of us were at the home of local friends, preparing for our night at the theatre, which in those days were still regarded as a formal event, with patrons dressing in their finest brocades and silks. I, accordingly, was wearing a classical and very French black velvet beret, a favourite which also went along to the impressive performance of Aida in Cape Town's iconic Nico Malan, now the Artscape, a year or two later. We were excitedly and expectantly preparing to descend on the Playhouse, ready for a good dose of the finest culture. But unpacking our things, my good old friend Alexander realised that he had failed to pack his dress pants for the night. Since him being a rather abundant fellow, there was no chance of borrowing any from the house owners, and there was no help for it but for him to wear the only thing he had- a pair of surf shorts...with his dress shirt, shiny black shoes and eye-catching bow-tie. Needless to say it did not only encouraged the bunch of us to hysteria all night, we also formed a sort of protective circle around him against observant and judgmental eyes, and tried pretending nothing was amiss.
During interval there was, inexplicably, an open double bass case in the side foyer where we did our best to look, despite the hilariously mortifying situation, dignified with our refreshments, and it seemed the perfect size and shape to hide him in. Up to today I can still swear he climbed into that case until everyone thankfully returned to their seats, but with all the crazy ideas we had that night, induced by this unfortunate lack of suitable equipment, I cannot be quite sure what we crazily fantasized about doing and what we actually did. I have to commend the patrons and staff of the Durban Playhouse on their tolerance and ability to deal very courteously with unsuitably-dressed, generous-sized Mozart lovers and their nervous friends.
And so Cats concluded in another country far from that crazy night, and with a sentimental tinge, I can happily say that many of my dreams did come true, I was indeed also a flautist of a city orchestra, and even though times have changed and dress codes are much more open to interpretation, I make sure I pack everything, and still wear my velvet beret to the opera now and again.