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 CaballĂ© 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,” “lĂ , 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.

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