Photo by Chris Casella

Life After Death

She hid in the cellar, waiting for the terror to pass. Peggy Kriha Dye listened to the wail of ambulances and the mechanical chop of helicopters buzzing overhead. Her friend Stephen was nearby, within the group of 20 or so strangers huddled beneath the unfamiliar store. Together they waited in the darkness while the minutes ticked away, until they were given the all-clear to venture back into the chaotic streets of Paris. This was not the city she had come to know.

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The Paris that Kriha Dye found upon her arrival on November 14 was wrecked and grieving. Her plane landed about 10 hours after terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State killed 130 people in coordinated attacks across the city. They attacked spectators at a soccer stadium; they opened fire on bars and restaurants in a popular nightlife district; and they shot into the crowd and detonated suicide belts at a sold out concert by the California rock band Eagles of Death Metal.

Kriha Dye knew this, at least the broad strokes of it, before she arrived the next morning. The artistic director of Opera Columbus was en route to Versailles, where she was set to perform the lead role in a production of Armide at the famed palace there. Her plane was held on the tarmac in New Jersey on Friday afternoon while tragedy unfolded six hours east across the Atlantic. Passengers received updates on their phones, tense and unsure if they would take off. When they arrived around 7 the next morning, the airport was clogged with people, mass transit was halted, and the military was everywhere. The museums were closed and the Eiffel Tower was empty. The city appeared deserted. Everything was quiet, an unnerving silence that pressed down and forced the air from the city’s lungs.

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Kriha Dye is a renowned opera singer who performs internationally, in addition to her role leading Opera Columbus. She has built a successful career and views her work as important, said in an interview in December, but she has always kept it in perspective, even downplaying it at times. She sings songs. She doesn’t work in a hospital; she’s not a healer. Like everyone else in Paris, she was left stunned by the attacks and disoriented by the city that greeted her.

She’s no stranger to the French capital—the City of Light is her favorite of any in the world, and she has stopped there several times on her way to perform at the Palace of Versailles with the same company, Opera Atelier from Toronto. The company’s performance of Armide was set to kick off the chateau’s season a week after the attacks. Before leaving Paris on Sunday evening, she and her cast mate Stephen Hegedus planned to meet some colleagues at a restaurant in Le Marais district.

The streets in Le Marais were populated that night, but less than usual. As they stood by an outdoor café not far from where terrorists shot up a Cambodian restaurant two nights earlier, she observed a bizarre scene—a car, moving in reverse, speeding quickly away from something unseen. “It was very strange and very dangerous,” Kriha Dye said. She and Hegedus glanced over to see what was happening. “That’s when the mob—we saw them running toward us: people screaming, glass flying, people flying. Just panic, panic.”

They wound up hiding in the cellar of a shop, alongside 20 others seeking shelter from whatever new threat roiled outside. Shortly after leaving the cellar and returning to the streets, another throng of people clamored toward them, forcing them to take refuge in a jewelry store. Officials later determined the panicked mobs were incited by fireworks, not more attacks. The city was on edge. It was like electricity, Kriha Dye said—the high-voltage tension of not knowing what would happen next.

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The anxiety permeated Versailles, a small community half an hour west of Paris. Opera Atelier arrived at the chateau’s Royal Opera house later Sunday night to prepare for three shows the following weekend. They were met by military vehicles and machine guns. Security officers made sweeps through their dressing rooms. The palace was evacuated after an unattended backpack was suspected to be a bomb.

Against that backdrop of apprehension and uncertainty, the opera company—along with an orchestra and a ballet company—began rehearsals for Armide, the story of a Muslim warrior princess who falls in love with the French Crusader against whom she has sworn revenge. Kriha Dye, who portrayed Armide, said the subject matter added a layer of poignancy and strangeness to an already surreal situation.

They rehearsed the opera, but they were also forced to prepare for emergency situations. They had to sign their initials to documents that affirmed they would perform despite the danger. The bloodiest of the massacre had taken place during a concert, a fact lost on no one. People were canceling trips and staying home. The production company was unsure if the audience would even come, or what would happen if they did.

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It began in silence. Kriha Dye had never heard a theatre so quiet.

The audience arrived in force for opening night, resilient and ready, and they packed in for the sold out performance. But there was a moment of silence when the president of the chateau, the general director of the opera house, and the director of Armide dedicated the show to the victims of the attacks. For a minute, everything stopped.

Then the orchestra played the opening notes of the French national anthem, and the chorus stood up to sing, and the audience rose to join them. To Kriha Dye, there seemed to be an equal amount of singing and tears.

A feeling of renewed solidarity coursed through all three weekend shows. The audience clapped in rhythm and stomped their feet in unison throughout the final performance on Sunday. It was like being on stage for a rock concert rather than a 17th century opera, Kriha Dye said. When the curtain fell, the audience applauded for what felt like 10 minutes.

The general director came forward to give a speech. He talked about how terrorism was affecting people everywhere, Kriha Dye said. He talked about how grateful he was that everyone in attendance had participated under the circumstances, and about how grateful they were to be a part of some kind of communal healing. Then he called Kriha Dye forward to accept a bouquet of flowers and take a bow on behalf of the company in front of an emotional, rejuvenated audience. It was the defining moment of her career.

“I probably won’t ever be the same, and for the better, because I was a part of that,” she said. She saw firsthand what the performance meant to everyone—audience, cast, and crew alike—that it allowed them a break from sadness to feel like they were doing something substantial. The performance didn’t undo the death, and it didn’t make the pain disappear, but it provided a chance to forget for a couple hours. Perhaps most important of all, it was an opportunity for people to feel like they were part of something bigger than themselves.

It was a lesson for her in the value of her own passion and talent, but more so, it was a reminder of the necessity of art—that even after the physical wounds have been stitched, oftentimes the healing doesn’t begin until the music resumes.


For more about Dye and Opera Columbus, visit operacolumbus.org

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