Monday, December 29, 2008

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)



Chapter Two, Part I
Rosina’s Quiz Show

Despite certain traumatic memories, baseball maintains a solid second place among my passions, and during my recent travels I have even become something of a ball magnet. At Wrigley Field, Brian McRae nearly took my head off with a foul drive to the lower box seats. At Camden Yards, Geronimo Berroa lifted a pop-up to the upper deck railing, where an unprepared patron had the courtesy to fumble it neatly into my hands twenty feet below (and visited us the next inning to retrieve his sunglasses, which also took the plunge). Finally, in Kansas City, I played a Terry Steinbach ricochet with the forward thinking of an all-star shortstop, watching patiently as the mob two rows behind me fumbled the ball forward then crab-stepping along the row to pluck it out as it rolled under the seats.

The day after Rosina, I walked out of the Elliott Bay Bookstore and wandered south through the fine old brick buildings of Pioneer Square. I rounded a corner and was pleasantly surprised by the ugly concrete carcass of the Seattle Kingdome, a pre-game fan congregation around the ticket lines, and those beer company Clydesdales trotting around the back of the stadium. Looked like an invitation to me.

My seat was five rows back in the right field bleachers, so I felt fairly safe, but I should have known better, and it sure would have been nice to have had a glove. I was squeezed next to a tunnel leading into the concessions area, and when the Orioles’ Brady Anderson came up in the top of the eleventh inning he hit a screaming drive right at me. I hung onto the railing with my right hand and leaned out across the mouth of that tunnel, but found that my left hand, unadorned by leather, was about as useful as a big, wet tuna. The ball struck my palm and continued barely abated into the tunnel, followed by a wild, echoing scramble of prepubescent footsteps.

Still, glorious failure was glorious nonetheless (as Custer might have said), and I had to hide my odd, excited glow as I picked my way through a mob of pissed-off hometown fans. I stopped briefly under a streetlight to study the red half moon across my homer-blessed palm, searching in vain for signs of baseball stigmata – stitchmarks, perhaps even the signature of the American League president. It was a nice little wound, but believe me, it could have been worse.

I hurried back toward the downtown area, hoping to pick out some sports bar where I could watch a television replay (I would surely be highly visible, stretched out across the tunnel for my unsuccessful grope). The only spot I could find, however, was a dive bar called Maisey’s, smelling of well-earned, multi-ethnic B.O. A sign over the taps listed a dozen house rules, beginning with “No drugs allowed on premises” and “Absolutely NO weapons!” I bolted the first one-dollar beer I’d possibly ever purchased, trying hard not to look too white or too educated, then continued back to the Sheraton.

The game had run pretty late, and by the time I got back to my room all the news shows were done, so it appeared I’d miss the media commemoration of my public flogging. Worse, however, was waking up the next morning to find my left hand completely flesh-colored, bearing not a single trace of the previous evening’s trauma.

There was only one appropriate response to this larceny of memory, and that was caffeine. I showered and headed east for Cafe Trademark. Along the way I spotted a hair salon, reminding me of other recent profound events, and found myself whistling bits of the “Barber” overture as I entered the cafe. A tall girl at the counter gave me the side of her eyes, then faced front with a full customer-service smile.

“Bongiorno, signore. What’ll ya have?”

“Un espresso con panna,” I half-sang, raising a handful of backward fingers to get just the right inflection.

“Little cioccolata on top?”

“Mille grazie.” I clinked my change into the tip jar and retired to a far corner, then realized immediately that the heat produced by the coffee machines had settled there like an inversion layer. I moved to a spot near the front windows instead and opened a copy of The Stranger to the personals, amusing myself with the many exotic variations and acronyms, feeling all the while like I was forgetting something. Or something was forgetting me. Or that the strips of pockmarked hardwood at my feet were sending me coded signals and I had left my decryption device in the car.

A couple of gloriously gay Broadway Avenue boys came in just then, attacking the girl at the counter with a ballet of high-toned repartee and loose-limbed gestures. She laughed, shaking the ring of shoulder-length red hair that framed her face.

I realized I was staring and shook myself out of it, checking out the astrology page under Capricorn. “I don’t know about you, Cap….”

V-shaped chin, slightly upturned nose…

“You’ve been getting signals as big as the Goodyear….”

Large, expressive mouth, high cheekbones…

“Blimp and yet you keep cruising down the interstate like a….”

Wide, ripe, lips, a slight crease in the top…

“trucker on intravenous No-Doz. You’d better.…”

Cat-like face... and...

“Pull into the next station for some nachos before you….”

I checked the whipped cream on my espresso and found a sprinkling of chocolate like... freckles! Then looked to the counter and found my final confirmation. The tall girl glanced at something in my direction with eyes the color of walnut shells, then one of the Broadway boys told her a joke and she rolled them upward in the universal expression of teenage girldom.

With my eyes I played a little game of dress-up, taking away her shock of red and replacing it with a mane of long, thick umber, and there she was, my diva. The mere sight of her brought back entire passages of music.

The grasp of her identity made me suddenly wary of looking her way at all. I forced my eyes out the window and found myself staring at a zaftig woman in a blue plaid shirt reading an Isaac Asimov novel. When she, in turn, found me looking at her and smiled back, I locked my gaze instead on the paper I was no longer reading. My innocent instruments of sight had suddenly become politically charged projectiles, and after two minutes and a few fully comprehended words, I decided that this was getting really ridiculous. Clearly, I would have to face the idea that keeping my sweet little Italian ward a non-speaking, ever-singing fantasy stage figure was something no longer in the realm of possibilities. I gave myself a mental slap on the cheek and headed toward the counter, where she stood fully prepared to continue our previous conversation.

“Bongiorno, signore! You’ve come back.”

“Si, signorina. I wish to...”

“You want seconds?”

“Er, no, I...”

“You want a muffin, perhaps. Or a peanut butter cookie.”

“Please, no, really, I...”

I found myself completely abandoned by the English language, and as my stammering silence drew itself out I could see a fringe of suspicion working its way over Gabriella’s shoulder like a shadow. I picked up a napkin from the counter, folded it in half and said, “Una voce poco fa, qui nel cor mi risuonò.”

Gabriella looked at me with all the glowing affection of an IRS auditor. “Uh-huh,” she said.

“You are... Rosina?”

“Sometimes.”

“Of course,” I said. “Gabriella. I’m Bill, Bill Harness.” I extended a hand over the counter; she shook it insincerely.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I saw you perform the other night, and you have an incredible voice.”

“Mille grazie,” she said, then squinted her eyes as if she were developing a headache. “Look. Bill. I’m sorry if I seem less than delighted at the recognition, but I have sort of a Clark Kent complex around here. Otherwise I tend to attract middle-aged men with diva fantasies.”

“Could I talk to you later? I want to talk about your voice.”

Her squint got narrower. “You didn’t hear me, did you, Bill?”

“Hmm?”

“What I said before. Just now.”

We were interrupted by a young Indian couple who ordered a couple of iced cappuccinos. I slipped a dollar in the express refill bucket and poured myself a house decaf as I decided whether to be offended by Gabriella’s last comment. I came to the conclusion that Gabriella Compton could be the meanest, evilest she-bitch in the Northern Hemisphere and I wouldn’t care less. As long as she was the gatekeeper to that glorious instrument of hers, I would tear my way through any abuse she could dish out.

She handed the Indian couple their drinks and turned to the back sink, pretending to wash something as she avoided my gaze. Finally she turned back around and looked me over with folded arms and pursed lips.

“Still here, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Need anything? Carrot juice? Double mocha? Almond biscotti?”

I saluted her with my decaf and smiled. “Nope. I’m fine.”

She leaned over the counter and clicked her nails across the surface like horse’s hooves. “So. You want to talk. What about?”

“Your voice, as I said. Your acting. And opera. About the second ‘ma’ you threw into ‘Io sono docile.’ About those bell-like staccatos you throw around like ping-pong balls, and the way your mezzo voce reminds me of Montserrat Caballe with its clean, easy grace, and that three-pulse trill you stole from Tebaldi.”

Gabriella was working hard to maintain her untrusting squint, but I could tell I had at least caught her attention. She waved a dismissing hand in front of her face.

“I’m sure you could have picked all that up from books, or album sleeves, or maybe one of the regulars at the opera.”

“Maybe.”

Her eyes went to the door. “Oh. Hold on a minute.” She walked to the end of the counter and motioned the dairy delivery guy to the swinging doors of the kitchen. He pulled in a crateful of Half ‘n’ Half and set it down next to the cooler. Then she came back to me. Her eyes were a little more open now, but she was still running up the numbers in her head. She took a sourdough bagel from a pile on the counter and loaded it into a small steel cylinder. Then she took a smaller cylinder, this one armed at one end with a sharp triangular blade, and positioned it inside the larger cylinder. And then she looked at me.

“Name a French opera that takes place in Seville.”

“Carmen,” I said. Gabriella slammed down on the cylinder, and out the other end popped the bagel, neatly sliced in two. She loaded up another.

“Name the tenor smuggler from that opera.”

“Le Remendado.”

Again she slammed the cylinder. Again the bagel came out the other end, neatly bisected. She loaded in another.

“A singer’s primary range is known as a...”

“Tessitura.”

Slam! This time, a poppyseed.

“The original name of Rigoletto was...”

“Triboletto.”

Slam! Oat bran.

“Cast me in a major role.”

“Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“Or?”

“Susanna in ‘Figaro.’ Maybe Gilda.”

“How about Cio-cio-san?”

“You’re not ready.”

Slam! French onion.

“The trouser role in ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’“

“Octavian.”

Slam!

“You’re writing a new opera. Where do you take it?”

“Houston.”

Slam!

“Pronounce ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Russian.”

“Yev-GHEN-nee Oh-NYAY-ghin.”

Slam!

Gabriella paused, a bit winded, to study her remaining bagels. “God, you’re tough,” she mumbled, then loaded in a cinnamon raisin. “Okay, how about this. ‘Die Zauberflöte’ and ‘Fidelio’ are both examples of...”

“Singspiels.”

“Which are?”

“Austro-German operas in which musical scenes are divided by passages of spoken dialogue.”

Slam!

“Okay. You’re casting for a studio recording of ‘Tosca.’ Callas or Tebaldi?”

“Tebaldi.”

Slam!

By now it was clear that I had already passed Gabriella’s test. Down to one last blueberry bagel, however, she was determined to stump me at least once. She flipped her final victim ring-toss-style onto her index finger, slid it into the cylinder, leveled her eyes at me like she had me for sure and said, “The name... of Tebaldi’s... poodle!”

I took the last sip from my decaf and set it on the counter. “New First,” I answered.

Gabriella meant to welcome her blueberry bagel to the guillotine with a frustrated sotto voce gasp of “Shit!” but instead the word took on concert wings and flew from her larynx on a bright A-sharp, fluttering around the room and alarming the customers before it escaped out the front door. Its owner flashed me an embarrassed grin.

“Whuh-oops! Don’t you hate it when that happens?”

“Never happens to me.”

“Didn’t think so. Look. I’m convinced. You are really into this shit. Tell you what. I’ve got a meeting with the music director this afternoon on Bainbridge. There’s a coffeehouse called Pegasus, on the waterfront, two blocks down from the theater. Meet me there at six, and we’ll talk about my voice.” She aimed a finger at my nose. “Just don’t turn into a creep, okay?”

“Wouldn’t think of it.”

“Good. Now get outta here, wouldja? I’m liable to let out another note and scare all these fine folks away.”

I was already on my heels, turning for the door. “Addio, Gabriella,” I said, and made my way to Broadway for a sandwich.



Photo by MJV.

Next: Divas on Ferries






Find Gabriella's Voice at: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Gabriellas-Voice/Michael-j-Vaughn/e/9781929429950/?itm=1

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gabriella's Voice



Chapter One, Part III


The State Ferry Opera Company




At the end of my quest for the Puget Sound, I crossed the floating bridge over Lake Washington at sunset, driving square into an orange sun, found the ramp for Interstate Five and rolled uphill then down into the star-map windows of downtown Seattle.


I took the first likely-looking skyscraper exit and wound up on Pike, where I stumbled onto the Seattle Sheraton and decided to look no further. After check-in and a nice shower, I found myself strangely restless, and decided to make things worse by seeking out some good espresso. The kid at the registration desk suggested I follow Pike back over the freeway to the very hip Capitol Hill district . When I got to Broadway, though, I was distracted by a cool old-fashioned neon sign for a place called Cafe Trademark and decided that this called for inspection.


Slipping past the Parisian windows and in through the glass door, I found the interior dangerously clean, but equipped with just enough concert posters, gritty urban artworks and mismatched garage sale dining tables to seem at least marginally sleazy (in cafe terms, this is a good combination). A brass plaque next to the cash register explained the name: the place used to be called Cafe Paradiso, but some big firm back east wanted to use the name for a retail chain. The big boys threatened to sue, so naturally the little guys had to back off, but not without at least poking a little ironical fun with their new moniker.


While awaiting my caffe brève, I sorted through the stacks of weeklies next to the window (Seattle statutes apparently require one alternative publication per ten-block area). In the listings of something called The Stranger I found a production of The Barber, “Il barbiere di Siviglia,” just across the sound on Bainbridge Island. The State Ferry Opera Company – just the kind of obscure little group that makes up my current mission in life.


On the way out the door I paused to study two metal-faced boys at the counter – some of these Capitol Hill boohoos sustain enough piercings as to seem almost android – when my eye drifted to a canary-yellow flyer taped to the window. “The Barber of Seville,” State Ferry Opera Company. “Just three blocks from the Winslow Ferry!” The State Ferry publicist was certainly earning his or her keep.

* * *

The following evening I paid a visit to the Pontiac in its clean garage spot, offered reassurances that I would be giving it a few days off, and opened up the trunk to slip the red leather checkbook from its bank-box niche. It occurred to me that I should give a name to this car – Escamillo, perhaps, after the toreador in “Carmen,” or maybe Mistress Quickly from “Falstaff.” I put the idea in my pocket next to three Susan B. Anthony dollars and headed for the street.

Seattle hardly seemed like the Seattle of myth without rain and cold, but it was August, after all. Under eighty degrees of humid sunshine I sought out the shady side of the street and tried to breathe slowly, feeling the sweat gathering in my shirt sleeves and looking forward to the breezes over the waterfront. The natives all around me seemed to have the exact opposite idea, burbling and rattling their skyscraper canyons with a fierce, joyous energy, agendaless and sun-charged, knowing it could rain tomorrow, and the day after that, and so on ad naseum.


I am a born mariner, though never an actualized one, and once on board the ferry I was drawn inexorably to one of the twin prows overlooking the car deck. I started out aft so I could watch the tangerine flame of the sun as it charmed each spire of the gray and brown skyline, the waterfront shrinking to postcard size as the Walla Walla’s big engines churned the waters of Elliott Bay to an evergreen milkshake.


I gradually turned my eyes to the Duwamish Head of West Seattle, feeling the pulse of envy as I sighted its clifftop dwellings, imagining the view from each window. Circling the deck to the bow, I found the Olympics throwing jagged outlines over the unassuming green loaf of Bainbridge. The ferry turned to port and slowed, sliding past the mainsail forest of Eagle Harbor and into the dock, where the captain churned the reverse engines until the bow settled into its cushioned pilings.


One of the crew asked me to stand back as she lowered the passageway and locked it to the prow. Once set loose, my fellow footmen and I paced up the long, cattle-chute corridors, passing a gaggle of weary Seattle-bounders before we broke out into the parking lot and chose our separate electron paths up the broad sidewalks into Winslow.


I ventured from the throughway of the ferry road and jogged left into town, where I found a sleepy strip of restaurants, antique shops and bookstores, refreshingly patchwork in style (no civic master plans at work here). I stuck the Streamliner Diner into my mental Rolodex – if only for the silly rhyme and the laminated menus Scotch-taped to the front window – then took another left, downhill toward the waterfront. On Bjune, a block away from the harbor, I spotted the Bainbridge Theater, a vaguely suburban assemblage of organic curves and archways all lit up for the big night, and split the wide front doors, handing over my cash to two smiling elderly ladies at the ticket window and settling into my seat a mere two minutes ahead of the overture.

I have become a student of tiny regional opera companies, and have learned to revel in their often predictable faults. The State Ferry Company afforded several.

The orchestra, a cut-down assemblage of fourteen, attacked the famed overture as though they were regulars at La Scala, but would fail to be half as good or aggressive for the rest of the evening. The reasons were simple enough: that overture had rung through their heads since the age of three, pounded into place by college recitals and symphony pops concerts, whereas the rest of the score was a strange, dark neighborhood haunted by the unruly presence of singers.

Another unruly presence was their conductor, a thin, stately septuagenarian sporting an antique white tuxedo and an extraordinarily stilted manner. He began with his baton pointed skyward some three feet over his head, as though he were pointing out Corona Borealis at the meridian, then delivered his downbeat with all the subtlety of a spiked football. He followed with thrashing sweeps to the left and right, broad calisthenic strokes worthy of Jack LaLanne, then geared back skyward for another go-round, passing out silent reprimands all the while over tempo differentials – none of which, apparently, were his fault.


The set designer, meanwhile, had assembled a quite reasonable plywood-and-stucco facsimile of Dr. Bartolo’s Spanish villa, but had perhaps gone a step too far by installing a small, fully operational three-pronged fountain in the courtyard. He had failed to anticipate the theater’s fluctuating water pressure, which caused the trident spray to grow or shrink depending on how many of the crew were flushing the johns backstage.


The theater itself turned out to be a converted film house, and though its vaulted ceiling afforded some amazingly crisp acoustics, the low concrete walls at left and right were a mite too enthusiastic. I discovered this when the company’s Figaro, a slim, stern-looking baritone who seemed to be singing through his chin, turned stage left at the climactic point of “Largo factotum” (the passage that I remember singing to my little brother as “ci-ga-rette, cigarette, cigarette!”) and suddenly appeared to be singing three inches from my right ear. At first I suspected body mikes – unheard of in legitimate opera – but figured it out a few minutes later when Count Almaviva pulled the exact same trick stage right to ear left.


Fifteen or twenty minutes into the first act, Count Almaviva and Figaro hover at Bartolo’s front door, waiting to discover the effect of Almaviva’s serenades on Bartolo’s beautiful young ward, Rosina. (The Count has assumed the identity of a poor student, Lindoro, as operatic noblemen are wont to do.) A womanly silhouette appears at the balcony, parts the gauze white curtains with slim, red-nailed fingers, and muses to herself in a voice I cannot quite believe. So, in truth, I met Gabriella’s voice before I met Gabriella.


“Non è venuto, an cora?” (“Has he not come yet?”) Then, interrupted by someone inside the house, she offers a plaintive aside: “Oh, che ver gogna! vorrei dargli il biglietto.” (“Oh, how provoking! I wished to give him this note.”)


This was no more than a recitative, and, after a few more lines, an exclamation of surprise - “Ah, che vita da crepare!” (“Oh, what a scolding life I lead!”) - and she was gone, never having ventured past the white drapes. I could not quite take in what I’d just heard, so I set it down to another acoustical trick, perhaps a steel beam set into the ceiling above Rosina’s apartment. No Bainbridge Island soprano could possibly be this good.


Rosina turned out to be Gabriella Compton, a tall, almost willowy young woman somewhere between twenty-five and thirty years of age, possessed of a thick stream of burnt umber hair descending halfway down her back. Her face was sharp, almost cat-like, with a slightly upturned nose, a smattering of freckles across high cheeks, and marquis-cut eyes the color of walnut shells. She rolled them upward in the universal expression of teenage girldom as her guardian (who had designs on being her husband) scolded her for her scandalous behavior.


Though certainly pleasing, the exterior paled in comparison to the instrument, a living object for which I already lacked superlatives. I rummaged the world of nature for similes. Lighter than a slice of beeswax. Sharp as any number of spices: nutmeg, cinnamon, oregano, bay leaves and cayenne pepper. Tangy as molasses, or lemon drops. (On a cold day. In New York City.) It was getting ridiculous, so I dropped the process entirely and made myself dumb, a hollow vessel, recording device, acoustic tile, as Gabriella punctured Bartolo with snappy Italian phrases.

And, of course, I knew what was coming. My grandmother’s schooling had included innumerable interpretations of “Una voce poco fà,” Rosina’s cavatina (or introductory aria) – even a scratchy old 78 of Lily Pons with the Paris Opera. I knew each phrase, every nuance, and several of its traditional cadenzas. I could likely sing it myself, but to apply my sickly baritone to notes such as these would smack of sacrilege.


And this is how the scene is set. Bartolo leaves Rosina to consider her several sins, locking the door on his way out to make sure she doesn’t commit any more. At the very turn of the key the girl rushes to Bartolo’s desk and writes her new beloved a secret letter, musing out loud as she composes. “I heard a little voice just now; it has marked my heart!” All during the long, stately introduction, and even these first perfunctory phrases, I am here in my seat making simple calculations. I take this concrete object, Rossini’s elegant, immortal aria, and this smooth sheet of terra cotta paper, which is all that I know of Gabriella Compton’s gorgeous, barely describable voice, and I wrap the one in the other. I balance the package in my hands, measure its weight, roll my finger under the yellow ribbon, read the calligraphed card, and am about to take one Scotch-taped seam and tear when I open my ears to find I am wrong. Utterly wrong. Rosina rises from Bartolo’s desk, hits upon the name of her beloved student (“Si Lindoro mio sarra,” “And it was Lindoro who hurled the dart”) and takes flight, climbing the scales of her initial cadenza like turbine escalators to the top of a department store, then turns like an overcharged child and leaps the steps three at a time back down, each brief landing a bell-like staccato chime that would not normally be attributed to a human voice.


A dozen measures later she lands on a rare Rossini sustain and pulls a trick I have only heard from Tebaldi, on a recording of “L’altra notte” from Boito’s “Mefistofele.” She sets herself into a slow trill, then speeds it up like a racing motor, simultaneously gearing back on the dynamic, mezzo forte to piano, three times, then drops it down to nothing and directly into the following phrase, more rapid Rossini patter - and all of this without a breath, not till the end of the phrase! Any other singer would have passed out.


And it goes on like that, cadenzas raining down like a pyrotechnic display in a wealthy city, sprouting from phrases where I’ve never heard them before, each as individual and inspired as a snowflake. This Gabriella Compton is singing out of her century, reading from the great tapestry of 18th and 19th century virtuosi sopranos who took the score into their heads and etched signature embellishments all over its margins, each of them striving to create ornaments that no other could duplicate. (Adelina Patti once gave an inordinately florid reading of “Una voce poco fa” at one of Rossini’s salons, and was afterward met with the composer’s polite inquiry, “Very nice, my dear, and who wrote the piece you have just performed?”)


The treble meter of “Una voce” gives way to the rolling four-four of “Io sono docile” (“With a mild and docile air”), but not before the inexperienced audience breaks matters up with a burst of applause. Gabriella smiles and calmly sings them back down, pulling her distracted conductor along with her, and soon commences to further vocal displays.


The phrase “mi fo guidar” (“If none provoke or chide”) traditionally rides an exaggerated rolled “r” to the conjunction “ma” (“But...”), serving to introduce the business side of Rosina’s sweet personality (the lioness inside the angel). Gabriella turns this transition into a showpiece, riding that “r” like a frisky Palomino and piercing her “ma” with a bright staccato no heavier than a paper clip.


The device draws unexpected laughter - but perhaps not unexpected by Gabriella, who repeats the phrase a minute later in a spot where it has not previously existed, and throws in a practiced pout of her fluid red lips for extra measure.


I cannot tell you any more. It would bankrupt all that I know of singing and opera, and I would have no bread to live on tomorrow. Let me just say this: the remainder of this Barber was mere transport, a ferryboat cruise along watermarks of plot and music, that brought whoops of “Brava!” at the closing of the final curtain. I followed the murmuring crowd into the lobby, simultaneously exhausted and reborn, the panels of my skin worn smooth as beachward glass by the tides of glorious sound.


My glory turned quickly to anxiety, however, as I realized that a few more minutes might bring Gabriella Compton in the flesh, and words not sung but spoken from those lips. I was not prepared, this soon, to pierce the sacred separation provided by the proscenium arch. Besides, I felt like a high school freshman at his first dance, a mental state that could not possibly make a worthy impression.


Thus fixed on my plan, I drifted to the edge of the waiting mass, a tossed salad of perfumes and musty suits, and discovered a fishbowl holding entries for a raffle. I took the red leather checkbook from my shirt pocket, scrawled out a check to the State Ferry Opera Company, and folded it into the slot.


Satisfied, I escaped out a side exit into the water-crossed night, slipping through the pockets of a tree-shadowed park to the lights of the ferry station and the dark, noiseless water of Puget Sound.


Next: The reappearance of Rosina


Photo: Scott Bearden and Kirk Eichelberger in Opera San Jose's 2006 production of The Barber of Seville. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Gabriella's Voice

(The Serial Novel)


Chapter One, Part II



A Child of the Soprano Voice



When I was six, my mother and I moved north and east to a new state. My father would join us later that month. After the movers had finished loading the furniture into our new house, my mother found me playing inside an empty packing box and said, “Billy! Bundle up. You’re going to meet your grandmother.”

We drove to a tall church near the center of town where they were holding a talent show. My mother and I sat in a pew near the back while the pastor, Ralph Tompkins, read a poem about his Irish setter, Mister Bones, and four men from the choir sang “The Old Mill Stream.”

I was beginning to fall asleep when my mother nudged me in the ribs. I opened my eyes to find my grandmother standing at the altar in a flowing silk kimono the color of the jade elephant my father had brought me from San Francisco. She wore a jet-black wig pulled into a bun, and her face was powdered white like a clown’s, with cat-like rays of mascara slanting out over her eyes.

The organist settled her hands on the keys and rang down a storm of chords, falling by stairsteps into a conversation of two small birds. My grandmother was the sun slanting through the clouds, and when she held her wide sleeves to the wooden ceilings and opened her mouth, the sound filled the hollow of my ears, made my nose itch, ran through my mouth, my head, down the length of my spine and into my legs.

That this extraordinary voice could be contained by the single human frame of my grandmother did not occur to me. I considered it a magician’s trick, and waited for doves to fly from the jade-green sleeves. When she was done, everybody applauded, and my mother whispered to me that my grandmother was a butterfly. That seemed a very strange thing to say.

Later that year, my mother got a job as a waitress, and during the times when my father was out of town, I would spend my evenings with my grandmother, listening to records of women who sang with the butterfly’s voice, of men who shouted like barking dogs, and other men who rumbled like the legs of the kitchen table when you scooted it across the floor.

After my grandmother went to the kitchen to prepare dinner, I would sit on the sofa and look at the album covers, the big-chested women in gowns that fell like curtains to the floor, and chunky gold necklaces like the one’s in pirate treasures, and powdered wigs piled up on their heads like loaves of bread, their hands held out to the air, their mouths forced apart like they were trying to make funny faces. And I wondered why my grandmother was not there, too, with her white face and cat’s eyes and butterfly voice.

But that is why I am here, desert wind whistling the broken seal of my driver’s side door as my borrowed Pontiac pours its rusty-mufflered baritone over the Western landscape. And though I know these canyons and mesas are supposed to elicit sweeps of Aaron Copland brass, or rustling copper flamenco, or Irish fiddle music, all I hear are sopranos.

The poker-deck riffles of grass north of the Big Horn Canyon in Montana bring me the spun honey of Kiri Te Kanawa, “La Rondine,” Doretta’s Song. The gray stegosaur scales of the Tetons call up Licia Albanese, the turtle dove deathbed sighs of “Addio del passato” from “Traviata.” In Logan, Utah, under the longbox tent of Wellsville Mountain, I hear the cake-frosting mezzo voce of Montserrat Caballé from “Turandot,” “Signore, ascolta!” And all across the dry shepherd hills of Eastern Washington, a fold of the map from the hunter green/frost white promise of the Cascades, I hear Renata Tebaldi’s heart-inflating triple sixteenths from “La Wally,” “là, fra la neve bianca” (“There, amid the white snow ... “).

I am a child of the soprano voice.



Next: The State Ferry Opera Company



Find Gabriella's Voice at http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Gabriellas-Voice/Michael-j-Vaughn/e/9781929429950/?itm=1



Photo: Christopher Bengochea and Deborah Berioli in Opera San Jose's 2007 Madama Butterfly. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Gabriella's Voice

(The Serial Novel)


Thanks to the kind permission of John Rutledge and Dead End Street, LLC, I will be printing the entirety of my opera novel, Gabriella’s Voice, on this blog over the next few months, with photo-illustrations culled from the archives of Opera San Jose. You will find a more detailed account of the novel’s process in the archives of this blog (the “Confessions of an Opera Addict” series), but for now let me say that Gabriella was a natural outgrowth of my ever-increasing passion for opera, and that, within its pages, I attempted to capture the real-life existence of a young opera singer, not the stereotypical (and often obnoxious) world-famous divas frequently used in fiction. In doing so, I spent two years camped backstage at the Bay Shore Lyric Opera in Capitola, CA, soaking in the quirks and wonders of a small opera company, and frequently picked the brain and voice of Jennifer Der Torossian, a remarkably talented and eloquent soprano. That leads me to my dedication, as follows. Enjoy!


To my father, Harold J. Vaughn, for his quiet faith
and to Jennifer Der Torossian, for the voice that rises to heaven





Chapter One, Part I


Screaming Lessons


“Una voce poco fa: Qui nel cor mi risuonò”
(“I heard a little voice just now; it has marked my heart!”)
–Rosina, “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” Rossini


One day she woke up screaming.

She could not be sure why she screamed, but the screaming gave her pleasure, small vibrations gathering force in her tiny frame and throttling out into the far-too-large world, seizing territories of the air by their very resonance. Soon her mother came to comfort her, and she quickly made the connection. When her mother left the room, she began to scream again, and this time her father came. She’d found her occupation.

For years, the screaming continued. At the slightest irritation, the little girl would lift up her large walnut-colored eyes, suck in the air with a great sobbing breath and set the beast free, ringing the room in ever more blood-curdling tones.

From the psychologist they received the fashionable comforts – dramatic tendencies, an elevated need for self-expression – and so they were forced to ignore it. They sent the screaming girl upstairs and trained themselves not to hear the spearing glissandos shaking the sheetrock. They also learned to negotiate the questions put to them by friends and relatives, the most common of which was, “What is that child doing?” which always seemed to carry the converse accusation, “What are you doing to that child?”

“Oh, don’t worry about her,” they would say. “She is our screaming child. Screaming is her hobby. She’s really quite good, don’t you think?”

One day the screaming child realized she was being ignored and opened her window to set the beast flying into the neighborhood, a gargoyle on the wing. She screamed for five hours. Her neighbors two doors to the south suspected child abuse, and called the police. When she saw the flashing lights pulling into the driveway, the little girl stopped screaming and smiled, proud of the growing reach of her voice.

The next day, her mother sat with her at the piano and opened up a tattered book of Italian art songs. She told the little girl that the dots on the page stood for notes and she could play them on the piano, or sing them with her voice. These notes stood for small divisions of time, she was told. And these divisions were called rhythms.

Blessed with a voice strengthened by screaming, an ear conditioned by the songs her mother played on the stereo or the piano, or sang over the kitchen sink, the little girl learned quickly. By the end of the morning she had memorized an entire song complete with bouncing foreign syllables, and that night she hummed it to herself as she faded off to sleep.

After the little girl had learned the songs in her mother’s tattered book, her mother brought home a music teacher, a woman who wore brightly colored scarves and spoke like a character in a movie. For her first lesson, the little girl learned a song by a man named Monteverdi. The teacher was impressed by the speed of the girl’s learning, by the power of her voice, and decided, much to her mother’s consternation, to teach her a more difficult piece, an aria by Puccini called “Vissi d’arte.” The title of the aria meant “I gave my life for art,” said the teacher, and came from something she called an “opera.”





Photo: Joseph Wright and Deborah Berioli in Opera San Jose's 2004 Tosca. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Find Gabriella’s Voice at: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Gabriellas-Voice/Michael-j-Vaughn/e/9781929429950/?itm=1





Next: A Child of the Soprano Voice

Copyright 2008 by Michael J. Vaughn

Monday, November 3, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XIII


Dramatis Personae

Here in the millennial years, I continue to expand my opera life, thank to a few years spent in the Pacific Northwest and my new assignment as West Coast stringer for Michael Sinclair's excellent New Zealand-based theoperacritic.com. I had quite a blast reviewing the Seattle Opera, where they let the critics hang out in the VIP lounge with the big donors, and where Speight Jenkins' company produces classic operas in radically updated settings. (A modernized Cosi fan tutti turned the traditional Albanian disguises of the men into Aerosmith-style rocker togs. "Where are these guys from?" went one supertitle. "Aberdeen?" Which was Kurt Cobain's hometown.) I also reviewed at Tacoma Opera, and at Portland, where they presented a Macbeth with an entire modern dance company.

Now back to my hometown of San Jose, I am once again enjoying the wondrous young singers at Opera San Jose, and am back at San Francisco Opera, also, where former Houston director David Gockley is up to his usual innovations. One of the most memorable was a live simulcast of Samson et Delilah on the high-def scoreboard at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. I sat in shallow left field as kids accompanied the performance with games of catch and fanciful re-creations of the dance scenes. I couldn't resist pocketing a handful of infield dirt (perhaps touched by my shortstop god, Omar Vizquel).

Perhaps the best way to summarize the past few years, however, would be to talk about some special people. So let's do that:

Kirsten C. Kunkle wandered into a bookstore in Columbus, Ohio one day and ran into my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. Since the book seemed to be about her - a young opera singer trying to make it big - she read it, fell in love, and wrote an astoundingly lovely review at amazon.com. Imagine her surprise when she got a thank-you email from the author himself. We've enjoyed a running correspondence ever since. Kirsten wrote an expanded version of her review for theoperacritic.com, and meanwhile graduated from Michigan University with a master's in voice. She's now teaching - but I do hope she continues to find opportunities to bring that great dramatic soprano voice to the stage.

Kathy Derby is a dentist friend who studied classical piano. At the age of 50, on a lark, she signed up for some voice lessons, and was told that she had an opera-level instrument. She now sings regularly at a local church, but I always thought how intriguing it would have been had she pursued a later-years career.

I met Cordell Shewell in a karaoke bar in Tacoma. Turned out he was an operatic voice coach. We spent entire evenings discussing all our favorite moments and singers (he once saw Irene Dalis in performance, and can hardly describe it, what with all the sighing). We talked so much, in fact, that Cordell's boyfriend (the one that was doing all the karaoke) got jealous - despite the fact that I "play for the other team." Serves him right, anyway - a gay man who doesn't like opera? Come on!

Rochelle Bard is the only Opera San Jose soprano to ever approach Barbara Divis in my personal pantheon. Her tone, in fact, carries that same mesmerizing "spinning" quality as Barbara's. She is also a master of coloration; as Juliette, she sang the famed "Ah, je veux vivre" in a lively and light lyric coloratura, then performed the poisoning-scene "Amour, ranime mon courage" in such a darkly foreboding tone that you could have sworn they switched sopranos at intermission. In performing the mad scene from Lucia, Rochelle produced a Sybil-like quantity of facial expressions as she drifted in and out of lunacy, and, at the final curtain, received the first instantaneous standing O that I have ever seen from our usually laid-back California audiences. Rochelle was a classical pianist who accompanied many opera singers. Once, on a lark, she tried out for a local production of The Sound of Music, and played the Mother Superior. After the show one night, a civilian angel came backstage and asked, "Why aren't you singing opera?" (Whoever you are, sir, we thank you.) Rochelle recently married an excellent OSJ baritone, Kenneth Mattice, so perhaps someday we will see some finely voiced progeny.

Sandra Rubalcava and Christopher Bengochea both went through some amazing transformations. Sandra's voice nearly trebled in size and strength during her residency at Opera San Jose. Christopher, owner of a tenor voice blessed with that Pavarottian quality of "squillo" ("ringing"), lost so much weight one summer that I had to check my program several times to make sure that really was him up there playing the Duke of Mantua. Sandra and Christopher recently had their first child, adding to the reputation of Opera San Jose as an operatic breeding ground.

Chris Spielberger is the PR director at Opera San Jose, and my personal angel. She gives me tickets to everything, whether I'm reviewing or not, and frequently does things like seating me just behind Robert Ward, composer of The Crucible (giving me the opportunity to ask him questions between acts) and inviting me to OSJ's lavish 25th anniversary gala, where I got to pretend I was a big shot.

Henry Mollicone is a world-known composer who lives right in my backyard. His Face on the Ballroom Floor is the most oft-performed modern one-act in the world, and he's currently at work at finding a larger audience for his full-length Gabriel's Daughter, set amongst slaves during the American Civil War. I interview Henry regularly, and our conversations never fail to wander into some fascinating digressions, such as his sense of jazz standards as "the American art song," or the psycho-musical underpinnings behind Puccini's manipulation of audience emotion. It's always fun to talk with Henry.


Photo: Rochelle Bard as Lucia.

Friday, October 31, 2008

San Francisco Opera's Elixir of Love


October 29, 2008


Toward the end of a season packed with ambition but also heavy with tragedy, SFO has landed on a welcome respite, a vivacious production of Donizett's L'Elisir, recast in 1914 Napa Valley and featuring the opera world's newest superstar, tenor Ramon Vargas.

Vargas announced his presence the moment he opened his mouth, revealing a strong, gorgeous lyric tone constructed of honey and an overriding tangerine warmth (forgive me if I wax poetic). He is Nemorino, of course, the sad pursuer of the popular girl, Adina, and this first introduction comes courtesy of his cavatina, "Quanto e bella!" in which he describes his sad plight.

Our Adina is Albanian soprano Inva Mula, who possesses the notable ability (and control) to take her lines to a crystalline lightness and grow them back out, fetchingly revealed in her first duet with Nemorino, "Chiedi, all'aura lusinghiera."

The supporting roles are no less stocked with talent. Italian baritone Giorgio Cauduro is all self-involvement and pomp as sergeant Belcore, determined to whisk away the charming Adina; in the second-act military duet with Nemorino, "Venti scudi," Cauduro demonstrates remarkable breath control and separation. Italian bass-baritone Allessandro Corbelli, meanwhile, flies through the rapid-fire patters of the potion-maker Dulcamara, and lends his character a finely tuned weasely presence. Korean soprano Ji Young Yang continues to make her bid as Next Adler Fellow to Make it Big, performing the town gossip, Giannetta, with beautifully direct lines and an assured stage presence.

Director James Robinson takes the Napa Valley setting and has loads of fun with it. The opening scene is a harvest festival, Adina wearing the witty title of "Crush Queen." The local youths enter as a hyped-up football squad, tossing balls around the stage, working on a statue-of-liberty play with Belcore and burying Nemorino under a dogpile tackle. The chorus is as lively as ever, painting little Norman Rockwell vignettes in the production's backgrounds, and the vehicular cast is just as colorful, Dulcamara rolling in on a motorcycle with sidecar, Nemorino entering in an ice cream truck.

Speaking of ice cream, what a pleasure to see SFO using genuine substances onstage. Nemorino doles out a dozen actual ice cream cones during the first act, Belcore smokes cigarettes that actually smoke, and they even have the thoroughness to switch the actual identity of the "elixir" from a cheap bordeaux to a cheap cabernet - much more suited to Napa.

But let's get back to Vargas, who doubles his value by adding a fine comic sense to that God-blessed throat. Vargas's face is immensely expressive, he has a lovely sense for slapstick, and mostly (as my companion put it), he just seems extremely comfortable in his own skin. At one point, he had Nemorino slicing up an apple and tossing the chunks into the air, attempting to catch them in his mouth, all during a rather involved aria - sometimes mid-note! Never mind that he missed every chunk, that only added to the gag.

When Vargas came out for the final scene, suitcase in hand, and the bassoon started into the melody of "Una furtive lagrima," I couldn't quite believe it. I had completely forgotten the context of this famed aria (hey, critics can't remember everything), and realized that Donizetti and Vargas were going to interrupt all this fine farce to offer up a gorgeous aria full of pathos. It just seemed ridiculously generous, and the results were almost predictable: one of the most stirring, rapturous moments of the season, the kind of moment that builds legends.

Through Nov. 26, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, $15-$290, 415/864-3330, http://www.sfopera.com/.


Photo: Ramon Vargas. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov

San Francisco Opera, October 22

One of the more popular debates in opera circles is that of music vs. theater, and I have always been unwilling to give up the latter for the former. Sadly, this is not a problem for the Russian composers, and my first-ever viewing of Boris Godunov was no exception.

Mussorgsky's score is majestic and innovative, but he manages to take a terribly exciting plot (culled from the historical tragedy by Pushkin) and turn it into mush, pushing all the action offstage while those onstage spend their time philosophizing and psychologizing. In short, the title character is involved in a plot to murder the heir to the Tsar's throne, Tsarevitch Dimitri. Dimitri's death eventually opens the way for Godunov to become Tsar, but rumors circulate that perhaps young Dimitri was not actually killed. A monk, Grigory, approximately the same age that Dimitri would be, escapes to Poland and pretends to be the Tsarevitch, raising an army for an attack on Godunov. You've got to go a pretty long way to make this kind of a plot boring, but Mussorgsky, acting as his own librettist, does the job only too well.

The highlight of the opera is Grigory, especially as sung by the forceful tenor Vsevolod Grivnov. He is aided by the comic relief of his traveling companions, two vagabond monks played by Matthew O'Neill and Vladimir Ognovenko, and by some exciting pistol-play at an inn near the Lithuanian border.

Then, halfway through, Grigory disappears, leaving it up to our Boris, the legendary bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, to fill in the details, notably in a long soliloquy at the beginning of the second act. At 66, Ramey admits that he is near the end of his singing career, but proves himself still capable (after a little warm-up) of delivering that lovely dark-lacquer tone, along with enough acting chops to instill his performance with the Hamlet-like torments that occupy the remainder of the opera. He is helped greatly by the town simpleton, played by SFO Adler Fellow Andrew Bidlack, who applies his lovely lyric tenor to the accusatory, haunting Simpleton Song, "Weep, Russian people, starving people." The Tsar's peril is also represented by the forbidding presence of his advisor Prince Shuisky (tenor John Uhlenhopp) and young Jack Gorlin, who gives an impressive performance as the Tsar's son, Fyodor.

Goran Wassberg's set designs are grand and inventive, particularly an enormous wooden ramp full of trap doors that unfurl brilliant, humongous icon banners. Ian Robertson's chorus carries the many hoi polloi scenes with aplomb, and Vassily Sinaisky's orchestra reveals the full range of Mussorgsky's score, particularly in the foreboding voicings of brass

Through Nov. 15, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., $15-$290, http://www.sfopera.com/, 415/864-3330.
Photo: Samuel Ramey as Boris Godunov, John Uhlenhopp as Prince Shuisky. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Mozart's Idomeneo




San Francisco Opera, Oct. 15, 2008

One might consider Idomeneo a "connoisseur's opera." Giambattista Varesco's libretto is pretty much a slapped-together mess, and the dramatic pace crawls in comparison to Mozart's later works, but it's fascinating to see the progress the 25-year-old had made in reworking the conventions of opera seria (much influenced by the reforms of Gluck), and also how far he had come in developing his musical faculties.

The plot is an odd little amalgam. Take a Greek warrior mentioned briefly in the Iliad (Idomeneo), insert a command from Neptune to sacrifice a child (see Abraham and Isaac, Iphigenie), then sign a free agent, Electra, from the Sophocles United tragedy footballers club, just to add a little juice. Voila! A sort-of-Greek-tragic-opera.

Not that I'm complaining about that last addition. Spurned by the sacrificial son, Idamante, Electra goes on a rampage, and if her "storm aria," "Tutte nel cor vi sento," doesn't remind you of the Queen of the Night's "Der Holle Rache," you really should get out more often. The piece is delivered with all due fury by Georgian soprano Iano Tamar.

But the musical mix is also intriguing for the things we're not used to hearing from Mozart, especially the A-B-A aria form that brings the action to lengthy, albeit gorgeously musical, halts. You might even hear a few old-fashioned Handelian runs. But even within these confines, you can see the true Mozart developing, working on the concept that would centuries later be called "through-composing" - tying Electra's aria, for instance, into the following scene, a storm that wrecks Idomeneo's ship. (Afterwards, he vows to Neptune that he will kill the first person he sees on the beach as thanks for allowing him to survive - that's perfectly rational, right? - and who should be out beachcombing but his very own son, Idamante?)

San Francisco does a yeoman's job of providing the opera with every advantage enjoyed by more popular offerings - including some stellar voices. Tenor Kurt Streit lends power and presence to the title figure, endowing his passages with a superb sense of legato and portamento, particularly in the opera's best-known aria, "Fuor del mar." Performing the captive Trojan princess Ilia (another smuggled character, her name drawn from Troy's alternate designation, Ilium), Austrian soprano Genia Kuhmeier at first seems too understated, but the captivating sweetness of her tone draws the listener in, especially in her Act III aria, "Zeffiretti lusinghieri." (I keep mentally casting her as Figaro's Susanna, a role she has apparently not yet played.)

In the trouser role of Idamante, mezzo Alice Coote is pleasingly powerful, particularly in her opening aria, "Non ho colpa." Her strength compensates for her movements, which are not quite up to modern standards of manly verisimilitude (perhaps some chewing tobacco? Boxers?) SFO Adler Fellow Alek Shrader, meanwhile, exhibits a driving lyric tenor as the king's advisor, Arbace, notably in the Act II Allegro, "Se il tuo duol." The aria seems a bit much for an older supporting character, a quirk that derived from the tremendous ego of the role's originator, Domenico de Panzacchi. Shrader takes full advantage.

The production design of John Copley does a beautiful job of acknowleding the fragmented nature of the opera, beginning with the fragments of classical ruins that fly about John Conklin's sets. Costumer Michael Stennett joins the dialogue with classic Greek drapes and robes that feature foofy Enlightenment accessories, as if Mozart and the denizens of Crete were having a fashion war. Interesting to note that Ilia and Idamante, two characters much less given to Crete's religious superstitions, walk around in costumes completely contemporary to the composer. Idamante's golden waistcoat is particularly majestic.

As for Donald Runnicles and orchestra, I keep going back to the strings, which do a superb job of exhibiting the young composer's innovations, especially the soft rain of pizzicato in the final scene as Idomeneo invokes the presence of Neptune. Ian Robertson's chorus is also superb, especially in the sumblime Act II chorus "Placido e il mar, andiamo," a prayer for calm seas. The opera's ensemble pieces in general give a profound indication of things to come, notably the famed quartet "Andro, ramingo e solo," which travels in captivating sequences among Ilia, Idamante, Idomeneo and Electra.

Through Oct. 31, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, $15-$290, 415/864-3330, sfopera.com.


Photo: Soprano Genia Kuhmeier as Ilia. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XII




The School of Barbie, Part Two

As my friendship/fanship with Barbara Divis grew, I inevitably began to draw comparisons with my first soprano-pal, Jennifer der Torossian. The main thing is, Barbara is much more instinctual. Not that she's some kind of "natural" who doesn't have to work at it - she works tirelessly - but she doesn't analyze things as deeply as Jennifer. Both approaches have their pluses and minuses.

Comparisons came to an uncomfortable head as I approached the book release for my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. As a natural-born ham, I have never approved of the basic bookstore-reading format (author stands at podium, reads from book zzzzzzzz), and Gabriella cried out for some live performance. When I approached Jennifer about this, she was stumped as to how to go about this. The idea of pulling in a keyboard player was too cumbersome, and she was a little nervous about performing in such an odd space. I completely understood, but I realized that I had to think about my own career now, and so I went to Barbara. Barbara had just the thing. She had found some wonderful orchestra-only CDs of famous arias, and made plentiful use of them in the past. "All we need is a good stereo," she said. I set up a reading at Borders Books in Los Gatos (located in a lovely former theater), and did a few rehearsals with Barbara. (In addition to the arias, she proved to be excellent at the "half-acting" style of reading dialogues from the page.) The reading drew 200 people - a ridiculous number for a relatively unknown author. The evening was astounding; we performed scenes from the novel, and then Barbara sang arias - "Mi chiamano Mimi," "Un bel di" - that related to the scenes.

(I once tried out the karaoke-opera thing myself. A mezzo friend had a collection at her home, and I learned, of all things, "Stride la vampa" from Il Trovatore - an octave down, natch. When I tried it out at my local karaoke bar, my singer friends were astounded - largely by this vastly different choirboy voice I was using, a far cry from the one I use for Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra tunes.)

One would think that I had already gotten all I deserved from my friendship with Barbara, but a few years later she did something that pretty much saved my soul. In 2002, I went to New York to propose to my long-time girlfriend, Ginevra. Barbie had left Opera San Jose and moved to Long Island, mere miles from Ginevra's house, to pursue her career. Ginevra decided to arrange some readings for Gabriella's Voice, and Barbara agreed to perform them with me. The first two readings on Long Island were disastrous. The stores had done no publicity, and had recently changed their policy on in-store CD sales. Barbara had a collection - absolutely the most amazing self-published aria collection I've ever heard - and depended on their sales for both publicity and a little help with the rent money. She showed up, regardless, and one night sang her heart out for five people (three of them me, Ginevra and the store publicist). I have never seen such an act of "troupership" and generosity in my life, and this act of fulfilling one's promises, no matter what, will always color my thoughts when people ask about Barbara's character.

I managed to repay her a little bit a week later, when we appeared at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, a mere stone's throw from The Met. We had a decent gathering there, and I took some time, as Barbara filled up the joint with "Un bel di," to wander to the window and gaze down on New York. I imprinted the moment with this thought: "You are looking down on Broadway as Barbara sings Butterfly - remember this." It was quite an evening.

The proposal was a bit of a disaster, also (and later a novel, Rhyming Pittsburgh). As for the CD, you can get that at Barbaradivis.com.

Since that time, Barbara has assembled a fruitful career singing at regional companies - Austin, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Hawaii - but has never quite cracked that glass ceiling into the Houstons, Seattles and New Yorks. She does, however, get glowing reviews on a regular basis (last year, a lovely review of her Butterfly in Arizona), and regular calls from me reminding her that she is making a living singing opera, which is pretty darned impressive, and that she should never do anything to deprive the world of that fabulous voice.
Photo: Barbara Divis as Nedda in Opera Santa Barbara's 2008 Pagliacci. Photo by David Bazemore.

Next: Barbara makes her debut in the world of fiction.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part XI


The School of Barbie


The late '90s was, for me, a cornucopia of opera: trips to SFO, Jennifer der Torossian and the Bay Shore Lyric, and the research and development of my opera novel, Gabriella's Voice. My perceptive and critical skills had come to an absolute peak - just in time for Barbara Divis to come in a and blow them all away.

Barbara began her four-year residency at Opera San Jose in 1996. It didn't take me long to realize that this was a special singer.

(This, by the way, is a little game we play at Opera San Jose. Since the company's specialty is developing young singers, the patrons spend a lot of intermission time guessing who will "make the bigs." One night, a baritone named Mel Ulrich was playing Don Giovanni, and I told my companion, "What the hell is he doing here?" Within three years, Mel was playing leads with the New York City Opera.)

My reviews for Barbara began to take on ridiculously poetic tones. Granted, I actually am a poet, but that flavor of writing rarely invades my journalism. Thanks to Barbara's website (barbaradivis.com), I will now quote myself:

"(The) cast was one of the strongest in recent Opera San Jose history. Divis returns with a stunning new shimmer in her vibrato, evident especially in the haunting Vilja."

"The all-important principals, Divis and tenor Robert McPherson, sing this stuff like they were born to it. If last season's Lucia weren't proof enough, this Juliet removes any doubt about Divis' remarkable range and agility. One minute she's tossing off poofy florist-shop cadenzas in the sprightly waltz, the next she's unfurling streams of triple­-F agony at the news of Romeo's poisoning. And her top notes are downright captivating."

"Divis was divine, endowing the opera's most empathetic character with an appealingly gentle strength. To picture her lush descending tones at the finish of 'Bei Mannern,' please visualize a silk burgundy scarf wafting down from a third-story window."

Note that last line: when does an opera critic go to such lengths to draw an analogy like that? But her great care in crafting her lines, her ability with dynamics, demanded such illustrations. And the sheer power of her voice! She is perhaps the only singer I have personally heard that I have dared to mention in the same sentence as Tebaldi, because she shares that quality of a huge yet supernaturally agile tone. And, as I watched, it began to improve, taking on a lyric shimmer, a sense of the tone spinning out through the air, that I have rarely seen duplicated.

I am generally pretty careful about hanging out with performers. There's always the chance that I may, someday, have to write something unpleasant about them. But then one night I saw Barbara in Eugene Onegin, and added tremendous acting ability to my already high regard for her talents. I had always considered Tchaikovsky's famed Letter Scene as problematic. Despite the remarkable beauty of its orchestral sweeps, dramatically the scene is basically an infatuated teenage girl saying, "Oh, I don't know - should I like send the letter? Should I like not? Am I being like totally a dweeb? Oh. My. Gawd. I am in like one of those die-lemma things!" Twenty freakin' minutes of this nonsense.

Barbara, however, managed to take these silly adolescent back-and-forths and give to each a distinct emotional character. She actually made it interesting. And of course, her singing - more relentless gushing from me. That was enough. I was never, ever going to write a bad word about Barbara Divis, so I introduced myself after the show. Naturally, she was delighted (and don't try to tell me that sopranos don't read reviews), but fairly quickly the subject turned to tennis.

Barbara and I share that lovely trait of low metabolism, and she is constantly concerned about "fitting into those gorgeous gowns that they give me." Thus, we began to meet for tennis, and it was my job to ruthlessly run her from one side of the court to the other. I was perfectly happy just to rally - she's a good player, so we can sometimes run it up to a couple dozen shots - but Barbara insisted on sets. She figured that the competition would make us play even harder, and she was right. The terribly comic part was that, even though I have a foot of height, a gender-based muscle advantage and a few more years of competitive play on her, she fully expects herself to beat me, and gets terribly upset when she doesn't. I can still hear her self-abasing cries of "Oh, Barbie!"
Next: Barbie and the Gabriella's Voice reading

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part X


The Opera Wars

When my soprano pal Jennifer der Torossian and her family founded Bay Shore Lyric Opera in Capitola, they were savvy enough to know that an essential element for building an opera audience in a region that previously had none was to encourage coverage and critique from the local press. But the local editors all told them, "We don't have someone who knows enough about opera to actually critique you." So, they got proactive. They introduced me to an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and, after a perusal of my clips, he took me on.

In the oft-discussed ethical problem known as conflict of interest, there are many, many shades of gray, especially in a community arts scene. Veteran arts writers tend to befriend local directors and performers - especially the good ones. There's really no avoiding it. That said, reviewing would seem to be rife with potential conflict.

Not so with me. I am absolutely incapable of writing a good review of a bad performance - even if the star were my grandmother, on her birthday. But I am well aware of impressions, so here's what I told my new editor: I was friends with Jenny, but the friendship originated with her exceptional talent and taste. However, if she had a bad night, I forewarned her that I would write it up exactly as I saw it. Jenny, in fact, often told me that I scared the hell out of her mother-producer Claire, because I was the one writer in town who really knew what good opera was.

Things went swimmingly for a couple of years. Not much need to criticize Jenny, who was superb as always, but I did find a few needed improvements in production quality and tenor vocals. Then another company sprouted up in town, led by a lyric soprano and her tenor husband. They were doing Carmen, and pestered my editor until he agreed to send a reviewer. It was a memorable performance. Basically because it was the most godawful thing I've ever seen on a stage, an unintentional farce in which the Carmen could neither sing (this being a mezzo role, after all), dance or approximate any level of onstage sexuality. The so-called seductive dancing scene between Carmen and Don Jose was downright painful, and the orchestra was more like a polka band, with the conductor trying to fill in missing parts on an organ. The chorus wore that deer-in-the-headlights look of first-graders playing pieces of fruit in a skit on nutrition.

In critical circles, in small communities, there's an unwritten policy about shows like this. We simply don't print the review. It would be too harsh on the performers, and anything less than an honest review would be too harsh on those who might purchase tickets for it. Given a choice between a vicious review and an inaccurate one, you print nothing. So I called up my editor, assuming that we would be taking this option.

"Are you kidding me?" he asked. "If I don't at least run a review, I'll never hear the end of it."

I wrote a review full of charitable euphemisms, attesting to the difficulties of putting on opera as a form, and suggesting that this group was not yet up for the job. The Sentinel printed it, and the following week I got a call from my editor.

He said he had to take me off the opera beat. Our lovely Carmen said that I was friends with the other opera company in town, and that this bias clearly showd in the horrible review I wrote about her company. I reminded my editor that he knew about this conflict ahead of time, that he knew I was right about the performance, and that a viewing of said production would remove all doubt. But he was having none of it. Clearly, he was going to be a wuss. Clearly, he just wanted to get this annoying woman out of his hair.

"I really like your writing, though. Would you be interested in covering theater for us?"

"I don't think so," I said. I hope that my tone carried the proper connotation of Fuck you.

A month later, that same editor saw a production at Jennifer's theater, fell in love, and wrote up a three-page feature on them to erase any misgivings from The Opera Wars. A lot of good it did me, but at least he was admitting, in a sideways fashion, that he was wrong.

Amazingly, a few years later, I got a gig reviewing Bay Shore Lyric Opera for another paper in town, the Santa Cruz branch of San Jose's Metro, for whom I'd written theater and opera stories for some 15 years. The moment my first review hit the stands, however, my editor got a call from the same Godawful Carmen, and I was once again summarily dismissed from the assignment. This time I didn't make too much complaint (desiring to keep my assignments in San Jose), but I certainly enjoyed myself a few years later when I got a better offer from a rival paper and told Editor Chickenshit Number Two that I was no longer writing for him.
Photo: A Much Preferable Alternative, Liliane Cromer, Jorge Gomez in Bay Shore's 2000 Carmen.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part IX


The Birth of Gabriella's Voice

The result of all my research and backstage spywork (along with two years of writing) was Gabriella's Voice, which takes place in one of my favorite places on Earth: Bainbridge Island, across the Sound from Seattle. I transplanted the entire Bay Shore Lyric Opera there, under the name of the State Ferry Opera Company. Interestingly, although Gabriella Compton has the voice, training and opinions of Jennifer der Torossian, my muse, she is very much not Jenny. I was after someone with a more blue-collar background, someone who works as a barista in Seattle just so she can take the ferry across the water and sing.

Into the State Ferry's Barber of Seville wanders Bill Harness, a mysterious middle-aged man who watches the show, astounded at Gabriella's talent, and then leaves a thousand-dollar check in the raffle jar. He intends to leave it at that, but he is in love with that voice, and eventually, breaking through much skepticism, wins the friendship of its owner. The pivotal theme of the novel is that, while Bill loves Gabriella's voice, Gabriella loves Bill's tragedy, the three dark stories of his musical family that have driven him to this strange cross-country quest.

For me, it was easy to connect with the tragic, because my mother passed away from cancer in 1993. This always-present sense of grief propelled the book, and gave Gabriella and Bill's relationship a beautiful depth that I may never duplicate. Interestingly, the novel was rejected as "too plot-driven" by an academic press, and then as "too intellectual" by a commercial press, before finding its home with John Rutledge's Dead End Street Press, based in Hoquiam, Washington, a mere hour's drive from the novel's locale. The book was released in March 2001.

Following, an excerpt from the novel. See http://www.deadendstreet.com/v2.asp for more.

There was only one appropriate response to this larceny of memory, and that was caffeine. I showered and headed east for Cafe Trademark. Along the way I spotted a hair salon, reminding me of other recent profound events, and found myself whistling bits of the “Barber” overture as I entered the cafe. A tall girl at the counter gave me the side of her eyes, then faced front with a full customer-service smile.

“Buongiorno, signore. What’ll ya have?”

“Un espresso con panna,” I half-sang, raising a handful of backward fingers to get just the right inflection.

“Little cioccolata on top?”

“Mille grazie.” I clinked my change into the tip jar and retired to a far corner, then realized immediately that the heat produced by the coffee machines had settled there like an inversion layer. I moved to a spot near the front windows instead and opened a copy of The Stranger to the personals, amusing myself with the many exotic variations and acronyms, feeling all the while like I was forgetting something. Or something was forgetting me. Or that the strips of pockmarked hardwood at my feet were sending me coded signals and I had left my decryption device in the car. A couple of gloriously gay Broadway Avenue boys came in just then, attacking the girl at the counter with a ballet of hightoned repartee and loose-limbed gestures. She laughed, shaking the ring of shoulder-length red hair that framed her face. I realized I was staring and shook myself out of it, checking the astrology page under Capricorn. “I don’t know about you, Cap….”

V-shaped chin, slightly upturned nose…

“You’ve been getting signals as big as the Goodyear….”

Large, expressive mouth, high cheekbones…

“Blimp and yet you keep cruising down the interstate like
a….”

Wide, ripe lips, a slight crease in the top…

“trucker on intravenous No-Doz. You’d better.…”

Cat-like face... and...

“Pull into the next station for some nachos before you….”

I checked the whipped cream on my espresso and found a sprinkling of chocolate like... freckles! Then looked to the counter and found my final confirmation. The tall girl glanced at
something in my direction with eyes the color of walnut shells, then one of the Broadway boys told her a joke and she rolled them upward in the universal expression of teenage girldom. With my eyes I played a little game of dress-up, taking away her shock of red and replacing it with a mane of long, thick umber, and there she was, my diva. The mere sight of her brought back
entire passages of music.

The grasp of her identity made me suddenly wary of looking her way at all. I forced my eyes out the window and found myself staring at a zaftig woman in a blue plaid shirt reading an Isaac
Asimov novel. When she, in turn, found me looking at her and smiled back, I locked my gaze instead on the paper I was no longer reading. My innocent instruments of sight had suddenly become politically charged projectiles, and after two minutes and a few fully comprehended words, I decided that this was getting really ridiculous. Clearly, I would have to face the idea that keeping my sweet little Italian ward a non-speaking, ever-singing fantasy stage figure was something no longer in the realm of possibilities. I gave myself a mental slap on the cheek and headed toward the counter, where she stood fully prepared to continue our previous conversation.

“Buongiorno, signore! You’ve come back.”

“Si, signorina. I wish to...”

“You want seconds?”

“Er, no, I...”

“You want a muffin, perhaps. Or a peanut butter cookie.”

“Please, no, really, I...”

I found myself completely abandoned by the English language, and as my stammering silence drew itself out I could see a fringe of suspicion working its way over Gabriella’s shoulder like a shadow. I picked up a napkin from the counter, folded it in half and said, “Una voce poco fa, qui nel cor mi risuonò.”

Gabriella looked at me with all the glowing affection of an IRS auditor. “Uh-huh,” she said.

“You are... Rosina?”

“Sometimes.”

“Of course,” I said. “Gabriella. I’m Bill, Bill Harness.” I extended a hand over the counter; she shook it insincerely.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to bother you, but I saw you perform the other night, and you have an incredible voice.”

“Mille grazie,” she said, then squinted her eyes as if she were developing a headache. “Look. Bill. I’m sorry if I seem less than delighted at the recognition, but I have sort of a Clark Kent complex around here. Otherwise I tend to attract middle-aged men with diva fantasies.”

“Could I talk to you later? I want to talk about your voice.” Her squint got narrower. “You didn’t hear me, did you, Bill?”

“Hmm?”

“What I said before. Just now.”

We were interrupted by a young Indian couple who ordered a couple of iced cappuccinos. I slipped a dollar in the express refill bucket and poured myself a house decaf as I decided whether to be offended by Gabriella’s last comment. I came to the conclusion that Gabriella Compton could be the meanest, evilest she-bitch in the Northern Hemisphere and I couldn’t care less. As long as she was the gatekeeper to that glorious instrument of hers, I would tear my way through any abuse she could dish out. She handed the Indian couple their drinks and turned to the back sink, pretending to wash something as she avoided my gaze. Finally she turned back around and looked me over with folded arms and pursed lips.

“Still here, huh?”

“Yes.”

“Need anything? Carrot juice? Double mocha? Almond biscotti?”

I saluted her with my decaf and smiled. “Nope. I’m fine.”

She leaned over the counter and clicked her nails across the surface like horse’s hooves. “So. You want to talk. What about?”

“Your voice, as I said. Your acting. And opera. About the second ‘ma’ you threw into ‘Io sono docile.’ About those bell-like staccatos you throw around like ping-pong balls, and the way your
mezzo voce reminds me of Montserrat Caballe with its clean, easy grace, and that three-pulse trill you stole from Tebaldi.” Gabriella was working hard to maintain her untrusting squint, but I could tell I had at least caught her attention. She waved a dismissing hand in front of her face.

“I’m sure you could have picked all that up from books, or album sleeves, or maybe one of the regulars at the opera.”

“Maybe.”

Her eyes went to the door. “Oh. Hold on a minute.” She walked to the end of the counter and motioned the dairy delivery guy to the swinging doors of the kitchen. He pulled in a crateful of
Half ‘n’ Half and set it down next to the cooler. Then she came back to me. Her eyes were a little more open now, but she was still running up the numbers in her head. She took a sourdough
bagel from a pile on the counter and loaded it into a small steel cylinder. Then she took a smaller cylinder, this one armed at one end with a sharp triangular blade, and positioned it inside the larger cylinder. And then she looked at me.

“Name a French opera that takes place in Seville.”

“Carmen,” I said. Gabriella slammed down on the cylinder, and out the other end popped the bagel, neatly sliced in two. She loaded up another.

“Name the tenor smuggler from that opera.”

“Le Remendado.”

Again she slammed the cylinder. Again the bagel came out the other end, neatly bisected. She loaded in another.

“A singer’s primary range is known as a...”

“Tessitura.”

Slam! This time, a poppyseed.

“The original name of Rigoletto was...”

“Triboletto.”

Slam! Oat bran.

“Cast me in a major role.”

“Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“Or?”

“Susanna in ‘Figaro.’ Maybe Gilda.”

“How about Cio-cio-san?”

“You’re not ready.”

Slam! French onion.

“The trouser role in ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’”

“Octavian.”

Slam!

“You’re writing a new opera. Where do you take it?”

“Houston.”

Slam!

“Pronounce ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Russian.”

“Yev-GHEN-nee Oh-NYAY-ghin.”

Slam!

Gabriella paused, a bit winded, to study her remaining bagels.

“God, you’re tough,” she mumbled, then loaded in a cinnamon raisin. “Okay, how about this. ‘Die Zauberflöte’ and ‘Fidelio’ are both examples of...”

“Singspiels.”

“Which are?”

“Austro-German operas in which musical scenes are divided by passages of spoken dialogue.”

Slam!

“Okay. You’re casting for a studio recording of ‘Tosca.’ Callas or Tebaldi?”

“Tebaldi.”

Slam!

By now it was clear that I had already passed Gabriella’s test. Down to one last blueberry bagel, however, she was determined to stump me at least once. She flipped her final victim ring-toss-style onto her index finger, slid it into the cylinder, leveled her eyes at me like she had me for sure and said, “The name... of Tebaldi’s... poodle!”

I took the last sip from my decaf and set it on the counter.

“New First,” I answered.

Gabriella meant to welcome her blueberry bagel to the guillotine with a frustrated sotto voce gasp of “Shit!” but instead the word took on concert wings and flew from her larynx on a bright A-sharp, fluttering around the room and alarming the customers before it escaped out the front door. Its owner flashed me an embarrassed grin.

“Whuh-oops! Don’t you hate it when that happens?”

“Never happens to me.”

“Didn’t think so. Look. I’m convinced. You are really into this shit. Tell you what. I’ve got a meeting with the music director this afternoon on Bainbridge. There’s a coffeehouse called
Pegasus, on the waterfront, two blocks down from the theater. Meet me there at six, and we’ll talk about my voice.” She aimed a finger at my nose. “Just don’t turn into a creep, okay?”

“Wouldn’t think of it.”

“Good. Now get outta here, wouldja? I’m liable to let out another note and scare all these fine folks away.”

I was already on my heels, turning for the door. “Addio, Gabriella,” I said, and made my way to Broadway for a sandwich.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part VIII


Critics Gone Wild!

The humor and absurdity of opera that I explored in my SFO reviews found its way into my novel, Gabriella's Voice, but also drifted into my reviews for Metro - which was, after all, an alternative newspaper, affording the perfect venue for a little attitude. Once, when the female leads lacked the power to penetrate either the orchestra or the the abysmally sound-sucking Montgomery Theater, I referred to it as "a new Anthony Hopkins/James Gandolfini production, 'The Silence of the Sopranos.'" Later, fed up with the preposterous Masonic plotlines of The Magic Flute, I wrote, "if master dramatists Verdi and Puccini were transported back in time to witness this thing, they would probably feel obliged to kick Mozart's ass." (And yes, even though the music is divine, I still feel that way). My favorite, however, was when an OSJ mezzo found a new, innovative way to play Carmen, one of the most often-overacted characters in opera. It read simply, "That Layna Chianakas is such a slut." The story inspired a phone call from Layna herself, who told me that my review had everyone backstage laughing hysterically.


Photo: Thomas Truhitte and that slutty Layna Chianakas from Opera San Jose's 2000 production of Carmen. Photo by Daniel Herron.


See original Carmen review:

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part VII


The Case of the Missing Musetta

One Sunday, I was walking around Capitola after working on a chapter of Gabriella's Voice, when I spotted a big crowd outside the Bayshore Lyric Opera Theater. I ran into one of Jennifer's sisters, who told me that the San Francisco-based soprano playing Musetta in their La Boheme had gone missing, and that they were trying to figure out how to present the cafe scene without her. I asked if I could spy on the attempt, and found a nice place to stand in the back of the theater. What I witnessed was a little crazy, rather astounding and undoubtedly courageous.

Liliane Cromer, the company's principal mezzo, walked her way through the scene, score in hand, pantomiming Musetta's actions and even managing to get through Musetta's famed Waltz in reasonable form (she had never performed it, but like any singer had heard it dozens of times). Soon afterwards, as her character went comically back and forth between her sugar daddy and the jealous painter Marcello, she wasn't actually singing her lines, just acting out her motions - but a soprano voice was coming from somewhere to fill in her parts. It was then that I spotted my soprano friend Jenny, playing Mimi, sitting at a table with her Rodolfo. She was hiding her face in a menu as she filled in Musetta's parts (from memory) then popping back up whenever Mimi needed to provide a comment. The cast got through the scene relatively unscathed, received an uproarious ovation from the audience (opera audiences love this kind of thing), and then finished the opera with their actual Musetta (who, poor thing, had forgotten that the Sunday show was a matinee, and probably broke soprano speed records driving there). But those who were there that day had much better than an opera, they had a story to tell their friends - and I had another bit of testimony as to the musical prowess of my friend Jenny, who, in fact, could sing two roles at once.

Next: Opera reviews for the alternative lifestyle
Photo: The courageous Liliane Cromer.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part VI


Visions of SFO

Along with the Academy of Jennifer, I felt I needed some "big-picture" background for my opera novel, which in my neck of the woods means the San Francisco Opera. Only (common writer problem) no money for tickets. Fortunately, my opportunity arrived as if I had placed a psychic order. An old colleague of mine had just started as an editor with a small paper in Santa Clara, California - the Vision, and she wanted me to write for her. Anything.

"I can only pay you twenty bucks a story," she said. "But you can write whatever you want."

"How about the San Francisco Opera?" I asked.

"Um. Sure?"

So that's how I snuck into the big leagues. Despite the smallness of the paper, I had twelve years' experience of brazenly requesting comp tickets, so the blessed folks at SFO bought my act and granted me a whole season's worth of world-class opera, with some of the world's best singers: Ruth Ann Swenson in Rigoletto, James Morris and Carol Vaness in Tosca, Patricia Racette in Guglielmo Tell, Frederica von Stade in Pelleas et Melisande, Richard Margison in Turandot, Renee Fleming in Streetcar Named Desire. I also arrived just in time for the re-opening of the War Memorial Opera House, finally repaired and retrofitted from the '89 earthquake - along with the accompanying gala, for which I received a single ticket, face value $500. Yikes! The night featured speeches from Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, and performances from Deborah Voight and Placido Domingo.

Reviewing a world-class company, I had the luxury of taking the gloves off, because rather too often there arrived what I call Emperor's-New-Clothes moments. I refer to the "barking dog of a tenor" in Guglielmo Tell and the wobbly-voiced, needed-to-retire soprano playing the teenage ice princess in Turandot. I was not nice at all - but I was right.

Granted much freedom by my paper's tininess (imagine my opera reviews next to city council minutes and sheriff's reports), I began to apply some of the tools of fiction to my columns, creating fanciful nicknames for my companions and giving them little chances to express their opinions. My sister, whose married name is Carla Vaughn Breunling, went by The Baroness. I found it interesting that, at her very first opera, her appraisal of the tenor was dead-on (I find that laypeople, in general, can tell a good voice from a bad, even when they can't tell you why). I also had fun with little sis Linda, whose very first opera, the David Hockney production of Turandot, featured a total of 500 people onstage in the very first scene. I leaned over to whisper, "It's like this every night."

I also encountered the dangers of the Soprano Opinion. Quick! How many sopranos does it take to screw in a light bulb? Three. One to screw it in, one to say, "I could have done it better," and a third to kick out the chair. Jennifer was merciless, raking on Carol Vaness's breathing techniques and vocal style so ruthlessly that I included it as a rather comic scene in my novel. I told her that a critic can't go so deep as to go around reviewing breathing techniques, that he had to focus on results (besides, I thought Vaness was fine). Regardless, Jennifer was my mentor, the whetstone for my critical faculties, so I respected her opinion.

Next: The Case of the Missing Musetta
Photo: War Memorial Opera House. Photo by MJV.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part V


The Academy of Jennifer, Part Two

My real opera education began when I invited Jennifer der Torossian to a Mexican restaurant, parked a tape recorder in front of her, and peppered her with questions as we ate. Jennifer is anything but a shrinking violet, so my part of the job was easy. She began by telling me about her childhood, how she was so fond of recreational screaming that the neighbors reported her parents to the police, assuming that somebody must be abusing that poor child. (And there was the opening of my novel.)

I also learned that her voice teacher, Maestro Salvatore d'Aura, used to work for Puccini. Maestro was a teenage tenor, singing "Che gelida manina" at the Santa Cecilia Festival in Rome, when the composer himself came up, tears in his eyes, and asked, "How did you learn to sing my music so beautifully?" Puccini was dying of throat cancer - a result of his fondness for cigars - and could no longer demonstrate his vocal lines to singers, so he hired the young tenor to do it for him.

Jenny gave me that big-eyed stare, the one that I would learn as one of her trademarks - a signal that she was about to say something impressive. "I have scores," she said, "with Puccini's handwritten notes in the margins!"

Maestro thus became my novel's most implausible character: Maestro Giuseppe Umbra, 93-year-old voice teacher and raconteur. I didn't realize until much later that I had offered up an Italian pun: "aura" meaning light, "umbra" meaning dark.

Jennifer's father, Papken, was a big-time Silicon Valley developer who owned a seaside filmhouse in Capitola. The family decided to turn the theater into an opera house, with mother Claire acting as producer and Jennifer as prima donna. I attended the first production, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and was simply astounded at the voice that emanated from the balcony at Jenny's first entrance. I soon came to understand that this was the result of bel canto training, a Jedi-like discipline with breathing techniques and phrasing that produced an effervescent tone seemingly freed from the physical body of its owner. This became the central theme of my novel, Gabriella's Voice - the idea that someone could fall in love with a voice separate from its creator.

I also took great delight in the quirks of the Bay Shore Lyric Opera - the way the water in the Seville fountain would rise and fall depending on the flushing of toilets in the restrooms, the way the cafe wall in a production of La Boheme collapsed one night, nearly taking out Rodolfo. With Jennifer's permission, I set up an unofficial residency and began taking mental notes.

The company's breakout production was The Marriage of Figaro. The opera is much too challenging for most companies, but with Maestro's ear, BSLO managed to assemble a divinely inspired combination of voices, including a Susanna and Cherubino flown in from New York (with Jenny playing the Contessa). Through my spywork at auditions, rehearsals, performances and cast parties, I learned more about that opera than any I had seen, and assembled a richly complex and humorous supporting cast for my novel.

One day, Jenny mentioned someone named Tebaldi. My plea of ignorance inspired another of her wide-eyed stares. "You haven't heard Tebaldi?" She immediately put on a CD, and my ears were met with the most perfect soprano voice I would ever hear: a broad tone, smooth as butter but alarmingly agile, like an aircraft carrier that navigates like a speedboat. My adoration of Tebaldi would grow so much over the years that I became an evangelist, and upon her death in 2004 received more than a half-dozen notes of condolence. You would have thought that I had lost a close relative.

Next: SF Opera and the big picture
Photo: Maestro Salvatore d'Aura with Met great Licia Albanese. Photo by Robert Sheaffer.