I PROBABLY should have guessed what follows just because of our guide. She wasn't the short-sleeved student or uniformed driver who sometimes turns up when you arrive in a city on a tour. She seemed like a handsome society matron in one of her expensive everyday suits, someone like the gracious volunteers offering information at the Art Institute of Chicago or at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston or at an evening sponsored by the Friends of the Library in any American town. Only this was Stockholm, and even my bit of Swedish blood from generations past did not keep me from being surprised by what probably should not have surprised me.
To back up just a little, with only two nights in Stockholm I had begun to think we'd have to miss a performance at the exquisite 18th-century opera house called the Drottningholms Slottsteater (Drottningholm Court Theater), which is right near the Drottningholm residence of Sweden's royal family. This was last year, and a new 18th-century style production of Mozart's ``Idomeneo'' would be opening - just after we left. It was one of those I'd-give-anything-if-only situations. But there was no way we could stay over.
The guide listened to my lamentations about a tragic irony that King Idomeneo would have recognized as a fellow victim of operatic fate. She almost casually mentioned that a rehearsal was to be held at Drottningholm that very night.
How does a stranger in town - or anyone else - get into a rehearsal at a jewel box of a theater like Drottningholm? Before I could find out from the guide, she had to leave like one of those American volunteers who race from their docent tasks at the museum in time to serve at a reception for the Friends of the Library. I had no idea whether she was a volunteer. But the very fact that she knew about an opera rehearsal separated her from the pack of guides.
WELL I was on vacation, but I am a newspaperman, so I made some calls. In a mixture of Swedish and English, a pleasant voice at one office that was closed during certain hours referred me to one that was open during certain hours. I gathered there actually was to be a dress rehearsal before an invited audience. If I would wait outside the Drottningholm museum, close to the theater, a man would come out at a certain time with any tickets that were available.
Question: Should I take my wife away from who knew what other delights of Stockholm in order to travel outside the city on the bare hope of my having understood correctly and the Swedes' having understood correctly - and there actually being tickets left over?
Yes, we agreed, we'd take what promised to be a pleasant boat ride to Drottningholm - much pleasanter than Idomeneo's sail into the tempest that led to his entanglement with the Greek gods. If we didn't get the tickets we'd be no worse off than we were now.
It was indeed a pleasant boat ride through that bright Swedish twilight, which lasts all evening. The sky and clouds and water were an overture in gray, even if we should never get in to hear the music. But then a little actual and figurative rain began to fall on our expedition.
We found the museum, but none of the various men who came out of it was the man with tickets. A lovely old tree provided some shelter from the showers, and the wetness gave a kind of shine to the palace gardens. Umbrellas sprouted among the strollers, and clumps of talk and laughter along the paths needed no translation.
The museum eventually opened. A man inside was holding tickets for various students and other people who might not all show up. He suggested we come back closer to curtain time.
To make a long story a little shorter than an opera, we did come back - after a plate of cheeses at a packed caf'e - and we got tickets. After all the suspense, the opera was no less a climax.
Among the musicians were young players smiling and enjoying themselves and looking contemporary despite - or because of - hair tied back like 18th-century wigs. Up in one box were antique trumpets without valves. In another were small antique timpani. In the pit were the harpsichord and other instruments. On stage were the advertised reproductions of 18th-century sets and stage machinery that can make a marvelous tempest.
Somehow the painted waves breaking on painted shores were more impressive, in their way, than the multimillion-dollar gimmickry of Hollywood hurricanes that we take for granted.
The movement of the singers may have been rooted in the frozen poses of the past. The singing itself - by an Idomeneo from Cologne and members of Sweden's Royal Opera - was superb.
SO it evidently sounded to the audience, too, which was warmly enthusiastic as if among friends. And that's where my surprise came in. I don't mean the midnight sun - or the 9:30 p.m. sun - that was there when we emerged blinking at intermission time. I mean the discovery that we really were among friends, official friends, like the Friends of the Library back home.
Take a look at the elegant souvenir book for the season, full of advertisements. There on the program for ``Idomeneo'' are the words ``With the support of the Association of the Friends of the Drottningholm Theater.'' It must be one of the perks of being a Friend to come to the dress rehearsal. At least, that's the way it might have been back in America, where it's assumed that artistic organizations need more private support than in a socialized state like Sweden, where substantial government support of the arts is traditional. Drottningholm cites both the Friends and the Swedish state for its financial backing. And here it is, right in a little brochure: Members of the Friends of the Drottningholm Theater are ``afforded the opportunity of attending some of the dress rehearsals.''
Now who is that handsome woman in the intermission crowd, looking so familiar, standing there with her husband? It's our guide from the morning. No wonder she knew there was going to be a rehearsal tonight. I think of her as the voice of the gods that forestalls fate in ``Idomeneo.'' A friend indeed.
We leave feeling like Mozart on another occasion, when one of his symphonies was performed to great acclaim: ``I was so happy that as soon as it was over I went off to the Palais Royale, where I had a large ice.''