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?”


“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 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?”


“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.

Photo by MJV.

Next: Divas on Ferries

Find Gabriella's Voice at:

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

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:

Next: A Child of the Soprano Voice

Copyright 2008 by Michael J. Vaughn