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Of Festivals and Blackouts

The Al Bustan Festival is a highbrow annual event in Lebanon, a five-week exhibition of some of the world's top musical, theatrical and operatic talent, with a focus on European classical music. 

Most of the festival’s performances take place at the Bustan Hotel, in the quiet mountain village of Beit Mery, overlooking Beirut.  The festival is the brainchild of Myrna Bustani, owner of the hotel and patron of Lebanon’s arts.  She founded the festival in 1994.

Lebanon’s political turmoil and security problems sometimes invade on civilized events like the symphony, the opera, or ... the Bustan Festival.  Last year, one performance of Lebanon’s National Symphony Orchestra was rattled by an eruption of celebratory automatic machine-gun fire. 

Lebanon's National Symphony Orchestra performs last year in Beirut, after a bout of celebtratory fire had subsided.

But Thursday night's performance before three hundred of Lebanon’s fancily dressed upper crust, including ambassadors and ladies wrapped in glowing silk scarves, was marred by a more mundane Lebanese problem: an electricity cut.

Hungarian tenor Szalbocs Brickner and the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra were three quarters of the way through Frencesco Cilea’s “E la solita storia” from “L’Arlesiana” when the theater went dark.  Very dark.  So dark I couldn’t see the person in front of me.

I held my breath.  Gasps came from the audience.  There were no emergency lights. 

Several audience members turned on flashlights (do they carry them in their purses or suit jackets, and, should I start doing this?) to try to give the orchestra, their conductor Italian Paolo Olmi and Brickner some light. 

It was an energizing and unnerving experience.  Like watching a tightrope walker, or rather listening to one, tiptoeing on a thin line. We all waited for the slip. The wrong note.  A missed cue.  The dark wrapped us in anticipation of impending doom, disaster and embarrassment at this high class event. 

For a seeming eternity, which in reality was probably less than 40 seconds, the show went on. 

The music continued until the aria’s natural end (at least it seemed that way to me).  It was perfect.  Not a missed note. 

Still shrouded in darkness and unable to see the stage, the audience broke into wild, enthusiastic and relieved applause.  Shouts of “Bravo” filled the auditorium. 

The flashlight beams finally found the face of the tenor, Brickner, who was smiling and, in contrast to his previously emotionless bows, pumped his arms in the air like an American football player after a touchdown.  Then, still grinning, he put his hand over his brow and bent forward over the stage’s edge, as if trying to find the audience that seemed so impressed by the ability of  the artists’ to continue their performance blindly.

Just as quickly as the lights went off, they came back on and the applause grew more intense, with some parts of the previously staid audience rising for a standing ovation.

The queen of the festival, Bustani herself, applauded, then stood up abruptly and walked deliberately toward the back door.  She appeared less than pleased with the electricity cut intruding on her festival. 

It’s just one event in Lebanon that demonstrates the terrible conditions of the country's electricity grid.  Beirut undergoes daily three hour power cuts.  Other parts of the country have 12 to 18 hour cuts.   Many people pay two electricity bills: one to the state, and another to their local electricity generator owner.

The Bustan festival will continue until March 22 ... hopefully with a fixed back-up power generator.

I’ll be packing my flashlight for the next performance.