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 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

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?”


“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?”


“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?”


“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.”


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...”


Slam! This time, a poppyseed.

“The original name of Rigoletto was...”


Slam! Oat bran.

“Cast me in a major role.”

“Lucia di Lammermoor.”


“Susanna in ‘Figaro.’ Maybe Gilda.”

“How about Cio-cio-san?”

“You’re not ready.”

Slam! French onion.

“The trouser role in ‘Der Rosenkavalier.’”



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



“Pronounce ‘Eugene Onegin’ in Russian.”

“Yev-GHEN-nee Oh-NYAY-ghin.”


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...”


“Which are?”

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


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



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.

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