Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)

Chapter Three, Part I

The Forbidden Singer

The first memory I have of operatic singing was my mother quietly chanting “Che gelida manina” (“What tiny, cold hands”) as she stretched a pair of mittens over the ends of my fingers. My father was in the kitchen drinking coffee, and could not hear.

From what I am able to remember, my mother’s voice was even stronger than my grandmother’s, endowed with the same delicate agility but possessing also an emanating butterscotch warmth, something I would hear years later in Tebaldi and identify by the enigmatic Italian term “spinto.” (Crudely put, “spinto” is the ability to stuff a hall up to the rafters with sound, seemingly without the intention to do so.)

My mother would only sing when my father was away on one of his long sales trips. A week after he left, my mother would begin to hum; a week later she would graduate to trills, and melodies sung on nonsense syllables. A few days later she would be pouring Italian arias over my pancakes like maple syrup, and by the end of the week she was performing the final act of “Rigoletto,” singing mostly Gilda but also the intervening parts of Maddalena, Rigoletto, Sparafucile, the Duke of Mantua, and even the men’s chorus, ghosting away offstage with their thunderstorm chromatics.

Two nights later, she was entertaining me and my infant brother Bobby with the mad scene from “Lucia di Lammermoor,” kitchen knife held up in her hands, splotches of ketchup spilled on her apron to pass for the blood of her freshly murdered husband – when my father walked in, home a week early. My mother shrieked a high D across the living room, then stood there shrinking under my father’s quiet stare, her spine jacking down like some sort of hydraulic lift. She set the knife on the couch and crept upstairs to their bedroom, where she stayed for the next three days, pleading illness. The following day, my father went to work and asked for a demotion back to the home office. It was six months later, after family finances forced my father back to the road, before my mother worked her way back to a trill, released into the air like a renegade hummingbird as she hung laundry on the clothesline.

Next: Gabriella’s Diva Cafe

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

Image: Rochelle Bard in Opera San Jose’s 2007 Lucia di Lammermoor. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)

Chapter Two, Part III

Diva on a Ferry

Standing on the top deck, I was pleased to find that Gabriella shared my maritime tendencies. I joined her at the railing, where she stood with her face toward Seattle, her eyes narrowed pleasurably against the stiff Puget breeze.

“You look like the Flying Dutchwoman.”

“Der Fliegende Hollandfrau. I lo-ove this wind. Maestro tells me to ride down below and protect my throat, but how can I when it feels like... this?”

“Well put,” I said with a smile.

Gabriella turned away from the wind to study me, blinking her eyes in some sort of self-generated brain teaser, then just as suddenly reached out to jab a finger into my chest.

“You! It’s you!”

“Me? What?” And tried not to think, “The woman who sang Rosina two nights ago is jabbing her finger into my chest.”

“That thousand-dollar check they found in the fishbowl this weekend. That was you!”

I was determined to steer clear of this particular subject. I fixed her with an even stare and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gabriella wasn’t buying it. “Oh, Bill Harness, you are a piece of work, aren’t you? The nobleman parades amongst the commoners disguised as a poor student. ‘Bongiorno, signorina. My name is Lindoro. My name is Gualtier Maldè. How’s it hangin’?’ And the question I have to ask now is, are you in fact the good and sweet Count Almaviva, or are you perhaps the evil, two-timing, well-dressed Duke of Mantua?”

I held up my hands, collecting the wind. “Neither. I swear. I’m a baritone, Rosina, maybe I am Figaro, Largo al factotum, and I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you more than that.”

She gave me yet one more well-aimed squint, then turned without a word to the emptiest portion of the horizon, where the sound crooks a northwest finger past Port Townsend toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“It’s so dark out there,” she said, speaking not necessarily to me but to the water. “I want to gather up all that darkness, swallow it down piece by piece, and then sing it.”

I was content to let the moment settle, but Gabriella was not. She gave a linebacker’s slap to my shoulder and said, “Come on, let’s go up front and watch the skyscrapers sprout.”

I followed Gabriella into the wind, and the blossoming aurora over the steering house, but not before I stole a starboard glance at her singable darkness. I was either in heaven or in hell, but I felt remarkably alive.

Next: The Forbidden Singer

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

Photo: Opera San Jose’s 2005 production of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Gabriella's Voice (The Serial Novel)

Chapter Two, Part II

Puccini's Granddaughter

The day felt extraordinary, so I sought to make it more so. After donning my tidiest leisure clothes, I took the ferry to Winslow and, heading straight for the docks, found a nice seafood place called the Madrona. I sat beneath a royal blue umbrella on the back deck, ordered a martini straight up (two olives), a bowl of cream-of-mushroom soup, and a plate of steamed mussels. I directed my gaze out over the silver-plated water.

One directionless hour later, I migrated the few yards next door to the Pegasus, a comfortable-looking brick building with a side patio bordering on a construction site. Not exactly picturesque, but I needed that shorefront breeze to keep me cool.

Gabriella arrived an hour later, giving off charged ions from her meeting. Our conversation began something like Carmen feeling for the sore spots in Don José, only what she seemed to be looking for in me was not blind devotion but a certain set of opera aesthetics. For an even half an hour we discussed the major sopranos of the 20th century, and I learned to watch for the pointed dagger of her opinions. After having a couple of my favored singers labeled “shouters and screamers,” I opted for a more passive approach, sitting back while Gabriella gave her opinions first, then wedging mine in alongside, wherever they might fit. (After all, I might have my paltry opinions and my well-trained ear, but I didn’t have her voice.)

After dispensing with the prima donnas (a mere ten percent of whom met Gabriella’s standards), we ran through a long menu of operatic debates: musicality versus theatricality, verismo versus bel canto, German versus Italian (she fell strongly in the Italian camp), the viability of placing classic operas in modernized settings (a practice she was strongly against), and the eternal struggle between conductors and singers. An hour later, I finally got to my point.

“So, no offense to the State Ferry Opera Company, Gabriella, but what are you doing here?”

Gabriella gave me that squinty-eyed stare again (this was obviously her trademark gesture); after an hour and a half of carefully paced confiding I had nevertheless managed to trip a switch. She broke off a chunk of raspberry scone and placed it in her mouth, chewing it slowly while she added up my motives.

“Why would you ask me that?”

I ran a finger across my sunglasses on the table. “Because your voice... and I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say this without gushing, and I swear I am not a man who gushes. Your voice is an immaculate instrument, divinely played. You do things on a stage I’ve never seen or heard before. Your performance contains all the adrenaline and vigor of your youth, and yet you seem to approach the score with all the craft and forethought of a singer ten, fifteen years older. Talent like that appears out of place at the State Ferry Opera Company, no matter how noble their ambitions.”

“Well,” she said. “I will tell you. But it’s not a simple answer.” She crossed her legs and leaned back in her chair, eyeing a French cabaret poster above my head. “Reason One: sheer numbers. Sopranos are a lira a dozen in this bidness, and Lord knows you’d better get used to the burn of the branding iron before you throw yourself into the herd. Reason Two: politics. In case you hadn’t noticed, I use some old-fashioned coloratura techniques that don’t always fly these days.”

“Yes. I wondered about that. Where did that come from?”



“Giuseppe Umbra, my teacher. We call him Maestro. He is ninety-three years old going on twenty-four, and he used to work with Puccini.”

I thought I had missed something there. My eyes began to blink without my permission. “You mean... he specializes in Puccini.”

“No,” she said. “He worked as an assistant to Puccini during his last years at his summer home in Torre del Lago. Puccini was working on ‘Turandot’ at the time – and dying of lung cancer. Isn’t that hideous? It was cigars that did it. I have nightmares about that.”

“No doubt.”

“Yes. And singers were flocking there from all over to learn Puccini’s vocal methods. He could no longer demonstrate his vocal lines for his students, so he used Maestro’s voice instead.”

I ran a hand through my hair. “So let me get this straight. Your training basically comes directly from Puccini, and yet the folks at the operas don’t like the way you sing.”

Gabriella put a hand flat to the table and fixed on me with wide eyes. “I have scores that I work with, that have notations written in the margins by Puccini himself. And nobody likes my voice.”

“Well I certainly do.”

“Grazie. But the big companies, they want belters. And shouters. They want rock stars, they want big jumbo-jet sopranos who can stop traffic, cause sonic booms and fill up stadiums.”

“That’s stupid.”

“Yes. And that’s why I’m here. Maestro has his studio here on Bainbridge, and he’s the artistic director of the company. I’m here to learn roles, and get better and better, and maybe return a little bel canto to the big opera houses.”

“Excuse me a minute,” I said. “I’ve been here for three hours and four drinks, and I need to.…”

“See a man about a horse?”

“Yeah, that’s right,” I said with a broad smile.

When I returned, Gabriella was scanning a book I’d picked up about Pacific Northwest history. Without looking up from the page she asked, “So what are you doing here?”

I had neglected to think of an answer ahead of time, so the one I gave sounded very hollow and left a gummy film on my teeth. “I’m visiting some friends in town.”

“And where are you visiting from?”

“Back east.”

“Where? Korea?”

I watched her until she set down the book and granted me her eyes. “Can we go back to opera trivia?” I asked.

“Well that’s a hell of an attitude. Here I am pouring out my little coloratura heart for you, and you can’t name me a state of origin?”

“Try something else.”

“Okay.” She held an arm up by the elbow and tapped a finger against her cheek. “What do... or did, you do for a living?”

“I’m an umpire.”


“An umpire. Baseball? Balls and strikes?”

“Yeah, right. And I’m Sam Ramey.”

“Care to try another?”

Gabriella turned to look inside at the clock above the kitchen, hiding her face behind a letter-size sheet of red hair. “Actually, I have to get going. The next ferry leaves in fifteen minutes.”

“Can I come with you?”

“I don’t know. Are you becoming a creep yet?”

I ran a hand over my mouth and jawline. “I don’t seem to be sprouting fangs. And my facial hair appears to be growing at a normal rate.”

“Are you a tenor?”

“I am but a weak baritone.”

“Okay. A baritone I can trust. And an umpire, to boot.” Gabriella let out a “Die Fledermaus” stage laugh and headed into the cafe, leaving me trailing in her wake.

Find Gabriella’s Voice at:

Photo: Giacomo Puccini

Next: Divas on Ferries