The tableau theme was something like "The Hanging Gardens of Babylon." I was an attendant to the queen, along with Kathleen Weldon and another girl I didn't know. Our job was to walk across the stage, scattering sequined rose petals in preparation for the entry of the queen.
It was my first Mardi Gras ball. Ever. And I was in it. I was eight years old.
The night before, we'd had the one and only rehearsal. The dukes and maids stood around in jeans, drinking beer and laughing. My uncle pretended to be the king when it was time for the king to come out. Of course, no one knew who the king was, or the queen. No one would know until they were revealed at the ball the following night.
I didn't quite know what to think of all this. My performing experience before then had pretty much consisted of a couple of piano recitals and a dance recital in which I'd stood bowlegged in my leotard and bawled all the way through my dances. I was older now, but it was still a new experience.
The next night, I was barefoot, dressed in a shimmery green-and-ivory sequined toga that my Aunt Joyce had made. My brother, also be-toga'd, was acting as a cup-bearer to the king. And those giggling, beer-smelling dukes and maids were ... transformed. Gone were the jeans and sweatshirts. Now, these same folks, particularly the women, were dressed to the hilt. The ladies wore hoop skirts of lamé, chiffon, and sequins, and elaborate headpieces. The men's costumes were gorgeous and sequined as well. And the Civic Center stage had been transformed into a shimmery, sequined Babylon. Long tables circled the room. The men at the tables wore tuxedoes, and the women evening gowns. I knew because I'd peeked out from behind the door to the dressing room. We were all in the dressing room, nervously waiting for everything to start.
It finally did. I could hear music as I stood backstage. Louder still was some sort of a ruckus outside. A man went outside and I glimpsed the shadowy outlines of a huge truck in the darkness. People were murmuring. Someone else stood guard at the door and refused to let anyone go outside, other than the man who'd walked out a minute before. Something was happening out there. As the man came back inside, I ventured forward to see if I could see anything ... but it was my time to go onstage.
I walked, pigeon-toed, in front of the magical cardboard palace of Babylon and scattered my rose petals without incident. Once we kids finished our part, we seated ourselves on side of the stage.
Next thing I knew, there was an elephant in the room. No, not a proverbial elephant. A REAL elephant. A DANCING elephant. And on the elephant rode the queen of Le Krewe du Roi. Everyone gasped. Everyone cheered. The elephant shuffled a dance, delighted at the response of the audience. Still hiding behind a mask, the queen waved.
What I remember most, though, was the wonderful music that accompanied her (and the elephant, which had been borrowed from the circus that was in town that very weekend): the "Grand March" from Verdi's Aida. I loved it. At the end of the "show," we all stood up and marched in a procession before the cheering adults. The Grand March played over and over again as we walked, and I couldn't stop smiling as I looked from elephant and queen to my parents in the audience, to the fantastically costumed maids and dukes. I hummed the Grand March tune all the way home. I played it on the piano that night. I found the music to it a few days later and taught it to myself.
To this day, the Grand March from Aida brings back memories of a sequined, shimmery cardboard palace, masked kings and queens, and dancing elephants.
Why this shimmery memory? Because Aida is being performed in Asheville this weekend. Every morning I pass the Asheville Civic Center and see "AIDA" on their calendar. And the Grand March gets stuck in my head and I find myself thinking of kings, queens, elephants, and the unforgettable experiences of Mardi Gras in Plaquemine.
I have to miss the opera because I'll be hanging out with hikers. But that's OK. I think I'd be a little disappointed to hear the Grand March performed, but with nary a live dancing elephant.
Guess what, y'all. Mardi Gras is coming up!
Listen to a sampling of the Grand March here.